As the fire raged on, smoke billowed across the Hudson River to New York City, and weather radar indicated that smoke could be detected more than 50 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
Lora urged residents near the area to evacuate, and those who lived in surrounding areas were put on alert to keep windows closed and to watch for embers.
“Because this is a chemical fire, we are extremely concerned for the health and safety of those in the area,” Lora said.
Goaded by the fear of a chemical explosion at the main building, firefighters desperately fought soaring flames, enduring frigid temperatures with freezing equipment and hydrants with reduced water pressure.
In the end, the fire took out about 100,000 pounds of chlorine in one building, and officials estimated damages of $15 million. However, firefighters were able to prevent what some said could have been a total catastrophe.
Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost said that the fire crews were well equipped and well trained to handle the emergency.
“We kept the main building safe,” Trentacost said. “It didn’t get impacted. It could have been one of the biggest disasters in the country. I can’t tell you how proud I am of my firefighters. They dug in deep with ice on their gloves. We took a stand, and we won.”
With wind gusts of 20 miles an hour, fire crews anticipated additional fires in nearby towns from embers landing on people’s properties.
“We dispatched crews to every surrounding town to do ember patrol,” Trentacost said. “We had companies standing by across the river going into people’s yards putting out embers. We had that under control early on in the fire.”
Mayor Lora said that the firefighters’ quick and impressive response prevented a deadly situation. “They worked non-stop and were completely focused on preventing it from spreading,” he said. “I was in complete awe watching them work against the frigid temperatures and challenges with the water pressure and apparatus. They were able to contain the fire and prevent a much more dangerous situation. I believe they preserved many lives and protected the lungs of our residents as well.”
Trentacost said he was grateful for the aid from the surrounding communities, especially because 15% of his firefighters were out sick with COVID-19. They could have been even shorter staffed.
Earlier in January, Trentacost told a local news channel that nearly half of his 106 firefighters were out sick with COVID-19 and that he had spent Christmas quarantined in his basement following his own diagnosis.
“We got hit hard by COVID,” he said. “One hundred towns plus sent representation to cover the firehouse. The mayor was on scene for over 24 hours, making sure they were fed. The police chief was there the whole time. I’m the fire chief for 18 years. I couldn’t ask for anything more organized.” Investigators are still trying to determine how the fire started, Trentacost said. “We are focusing on the upper floors and the rear of the building.”
However, according to Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College, because of the amount of destruction at this fire scene, it’s possible that investigators will never learn the exact cause of the blaze.
“Unless they can find video footage from inside the building or eyewitness accounts, they may not ever know what caused it,” Corbett said.
Injuries to the firefighters who battled the chemical fire were minimal, and most were from slips and falls on the treacherous ice.
“One firefighter was sent to the hospital with a laceration to the face,” Trentacost said. “He was treated and released. We had about 14 to 16 firefighters slip and fall with bruises, twisted ankles — all minor.”
Interestingly, the Passaic Fire Department had used the Qualco facility in the 1990s as a training ground for dealing with large-scale chemical fires and spills.
Remains of Qualco chemical plant in Passaic, New Jersey. Photo credit: Fox News 5 @Teampassaic.