People forced from their homes by a chemical plant explosion and fire in Rockton on Monday still cannot return Tuesday as the blaze continues to burn.
The Chemtool lubricant production plant, located at 1165 Prairie Hill Road in Rockton in Winnebago County, caught fire at around 7 a.m. Monday morning. Nearly 24 hours later, a cloud of smoke is still pouring from the building as a fire continues to burn.
About 70 Chemtool employees on site evacuated the building before firefighters arrived, Rockton Fire Protection District Chief Kirk Wilson said at a news conference, with no injuries reported among the employees. Wilson said one firefighter sustained what seemed to be minor injuries but was able to walk to an ambulance and was taken to an area hospital for treatment.
The fire forced an evacuation of the area, with a one-mile radius evacuation zone from the plant.
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On Tuesday morning, residents still within that area remain under under the mandatory evacuation order, and with residents within a three-mile radius asked to wear masks, as authorities warn the blaze could continue for days.
Wilson said crews had stopped using water to suppress the flames to prevent an "environmental nightmare" of product runoff into the nearby Rock River - meaning the fire could continue to burn for days.
"At this point in time the building is pretty much consumed, we're thinking that this is going to be a several-day event to have all this product burned off," Wilson said. "And that's the best thing that we can do right now."
"The main thing is that we don't want an environmental nightmare to occur and, and the reason we can, that we would cause that, is by the use of water streams," he continued. "So we stopped water operations at this point, we stopped suppression, we felt it was in our best interest to let this product burn off."
"The Rock River, which is a very large waterway, is about 300 meters to the west of this location. So that's one thing that we're definitely concerned about is product runoff into the river, so we don't want that to happen. So at this point in time it's best that we just let this product burn," Wilson added.
The plant, which produces more industrial grease than any other plant in the country, houses dozens of chemicals, with some, including lead and sulfuric acid, potentially posing hazards to nearby areas.
The smoke, billowing from the plant since the explosion occurred, could be forced downward due to temperature inversion, and some residents are concerned that there could be adverse health impacts from the particulates.
Jilly Graciana lives just one quarter of a mile from the plant. She heard an explosion at around 7 a.m. Monday.
“With the explosions and whatnot, you would have embers falling from the sky that were still on fire,” she said. “Since we’re going through a drought right now, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t landing on the building and it wasn’t landing on the grass.”
“You can kind of taste some of the chemicals too if you don’t have a mask on,” Graciana said. “That’s how it was earlier.”
The mom of four dropped her children off at her in-laws’ home, then helped evacuate elderly neighbors to the Red Cross shelter, which has been set up at Roscoe Middle School.
The Red Cross, along with the Salvation Army, the Illinois National Guard, and a slew of state and federal agencies and departments, immediately mobilized after the fire broke out.
“When we first got the dispatch call for it, I was thinking ‘this is going to be pretty big,’” Leslie Luther, who is in charge of the site, said.
The Red Cross set up more than 100 cots if residents needed to stay the night. Approximately 30 have taken them up on their offer, and while Luther is happy with how quickly help was mobilized, she still says she’s shocked, as she’s never seen anything like the fire.
“There are so many uncertainties when you get this call,” she said. “You’re not sure.”
It remains unclear on when area residents will be allowed to return to their homes. The Illinois EPA is installing air quality monitors around the community to check for harmful pollutants, but as long as the fire continues to burn, officials are hesitant to allow people to go back home.
“I understand that many people have questions on when they’re going to be able to go home. Right now, we don’t have that answer,” Wilson said.