Kan. firefighters try to secure special foam to fight chemical blaze

By Ron Sylvester, Stan Finger, Tim Potter and Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor
The Wichita Eagle
Copyright 2007 The Wichita Eagle
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News

VALLEY CENTER, Kan. — Officials were trying to secure a special foam to fight a fire that has been raging since this morning at Barton Solvents near downtown Valley Center.

The blaze was accompanied by a series of explosions that shook homes and businesses in Valley Center, northwest of Wichita. Authorities evacuated much of the town, which was covered by a cloud of black smoke from the blaze.

Sedgwick County Deputy Fire Chief Rick Brazill said potentially 650,000 gallons of an "array of chemicals" were on fire. Crews from Boeing Wichita and McConnell Air Force Base brought a foam to fight the blaze, but it was the wrong kind of foam. Officials were hoping to secure a different foam from a company in El Dorado.

Barton Solvents makes and stores a variety of industrial solvents and chemicals, including hydrocarbon solvents, alcohols, ketones and oils. The company sells mainly to printers and paint manufacturers.

Officials cleared out homes within a mile downwind of the plant at 201 S. Cedar, and within half a mile otherwise, but were advising other residents of Valley Center to "shelter in place" — to remain in their homes with all windows and doors tightly closed.

Evacuees were being sent to the Kansas Coliseum, two miles east of town.

Valley Center Police Chief Mark Hephner said authorities knew of no injuries from the explosion.

Multiple storage tanks were on fire at the plant, sending flames 100 to 150 feet into the air.

Secondary explosions could be heard. Firefighters were unable to get close to the plant, instead concentrating on defending nearby buildings.

Fire crews from Valley Center, Wichita and Sedgwick County were on the scene, as were police from those cities and others, plus the Kansas Highway Patrol. Emergency crews from Boeing Wichita and McConnell were on site.

Looking at the fire just south of the site, firefighters were pouring streams of water from different directions onto a building near the tanks. The flames were still at least 50 feet high as of 12:30 p.m. Smoke was still billowing to the east from the site.

McConnell personnel were seen in protective suits.

Valley Center City Administrator I.D. Creech urged people to stay away from downtown Valley Center and off the main streets, to avoid getting in emergency crews' way.

He said EPA monitoring equipment within the plant indicated that the air quality was "looking good," considering the situation. But, he said, "that could change at any time with wind direction or humidity. So we're asking people to stay out of the area."

Dark smoke billowed into the sky and was easily visible from Wichita.

A cloud of smoke could be seen drifting over I-135 in north Wichita and extending all the way to Bel Aire.

"To our knowledge, everyone evacuated safely," said Barton Solvents president David Casten, at the company's headquarters in Des Moines. "Our contingency plan worked as it should."

Casten said he was not sure what caused the fire. He described it as a fire rather than an explosion. He said he got a call from a branch manager around 9 a.m. saying that the tank farm was on fire and that workers were evacuating. The tank farm stores solvents and oils and includes 36 tanks.

About 10 to 12 people might have been working there at the time, he said. A total of about 24 people work there.

Aaron Sullivan was one of the Valley Center residents evacuated from his home to the community center on North Clay Street. He lives across the street from Barton Solvents.

He said he woke up and noticed that his room was getting dark. He then heard a blast, followed by at least four or five blasts. He then saw what appeared to be a large propane tank explode and shoot 50 feet into the air.

Danny King was working on the pool at the Sullivan home and also saw the propane tank fly into the air.

He saw workers streaming from the plant, but said there didn't appear to be any ambulances or anyone injured.

Tammy Travis, manager of New Hope Services, an assisted living center for the developmentally disabled in Valley Center, said they evacuated 52 residents in a half-hour.

"I'm really proud of the staff and the job that they did. Our consumers were really great and they did what they were told."

The residents were fed lunch. Pam Stubby, who works at the Wichita Clinic in Newton and whose daughter is at the center, said she was glad for the quick action.

Alan and Dawn Pilcher and their daughters were at the Kansas Coliseum with their rabbits that they show at county fairs. The family lives three-quarters of a mile from the explosion site. They were concerned about the smoke affecting the rabbits.

Richard Houghton lives about a mile southeast of the plant. He is moving into a home there from Americus, Kan. "It made quite a racket," he said. "Sounded like rockets going off ... whistling like a Fourth of July rocket."

Just down the street about noon, Sherridyn Myers, a 10-year Valley Center resident, said she was going to shout to her new neighbor, "Welcome to Valley Center ...What a day."

"It shook my house and the windows."

At the nearby Intrust Bank branch, retail banking officer Trisha Schmidt heard the explosion.

"This is really scary," she said. "This sounds trite, but you never think of something happening like this in your hometown."

The explosion rocked the bank building, she said, and employees initially thought the building had been hit by a truck.

Barton Solvents sits on a 10- to 12-acre site. Barton bought the facility in 1979.

Casten, the company president, said there has been no significant fire there before.

He said he was on his way to the site.

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