Massive Omaha chemical fire raises toxic smoke concerns

Investigation under way to determine what started the fire
The investigation is underway as to what started the massive fire
Published: May. 31, 2022 at 6:27 PM CDT|Updated: May. 31, 2022 at 7:28 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - A 6 News camera shows what is left of a downtown chemical plant: a burned-up shell. Meanwhile, the city has been monitoring both the air and the water full of chemicals running into the sewer.

The investigation is underway as to what started the massive fire.

The first firefighters on the scene will be interviewed and so will the owners to determine what was stored and where. As you can tell, there’s not much left of the chemical plant.

As in previous downtown fires in Omaha, many people stop to watch what’s happening even hours after it started.

Many don’t consider that what they’re breathing in, the toxic smoke, isn’t good for them.

“In that fire, there are a lot of chemicals we are unaware of what they were. So the air quality is what we were concerned about,” said Jennifer Rohda with Nebraska Regional Poison Control.

In fact, 6 News talked with some neighbors who had sore throats, even today, and a cough.

“It gave me a sore throat and kind of made me dizzy,” said Dan Shaffer.

Experts say if you have that or dizziness or a headache, see your doctor right away.

Here’s why: The company, Nox-Crete Manufacturing, has been around since the 1950s. It offers chemical solutions to concrete problems and makes sealers for driveways and cleaners for equipment with hard-to-remove concrete buildup.

The investigation is underway as to what started the massive fire.

According to paperwork filed with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, it reported 89 types of chemicals it keeps on-site, most of them flammable.

That’s why firefighters suggested people stay in their homes or voluntary evacuation for those nearby and downwind. They also couldn’t attack it with all their equipment until the rail lines were shut down.

“The sole focus was the safety and security of the community and the neighbors nearby,” said Kathy Bossman, Assistant Chief of Omaha Fire.

Three families showed up at the Columbus Community Center to get out of the way of the dangerous smoke.

So what were people breathing?

Tuesday morning, the Nebraska Regional Poison Center said, “It’s unknown what chemicals were involved and that its hotline has received two calls from those experiencing symptoms from breathing the smoke.”

“If you are experiencing any of these symptoms: eye, ear, nose, throat, lungs irritation, you need to follow up with your physician,” said Rohda.

Still, investigators report no injuries to firefighters or civilians. 6 News checked and none of the surrounding emergency rooms took in any patients related to the thick, black smoke.

“We did have some challenges to this fire due to the limited access around it. Railroad tracks on both sides, had to get back there to put water on it,” said Omaha Fire Battalion Chief Scott Fitzpatrick.

Now it’s a matter of figuring out what caused it.

“They worked very hard under extreme circumstances for a very challenging fire. It was stubborn. I could not be more proud of what they did,” said Bossman.

The company headquarters is right across the street from the burned-up chemical plant. Firefighters are still on the scene watching for any hot spots.

In the paperwork filed Tuesday with the state, the fire department says the fire involved large quantities of acids, bases, and solvents, impacting the air, land, and water.

Since Mayor Stothert is out of town, City Council President Pete Festersen is acting mayor.

He took these photos tonight as firefighters gave him a tour of the damage.

Festersen said “it’s still really hot” up close to the scene and pointed out the steel beams that were bent in the chemical fire.

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