By Clint Confehr
Senior Staff Writer
Lewisburg firefighters Wednesday evening knocked down an industrial park blaze that's remarkable more for its chemistry than the flames.
Firefighting was more dangerous, though, because there were explosions.
"Empty barrels became bombs," Lewisburg Fire Chief Larry Williams said of containers that contained air and residue of a chemical used at the plant. "Several [barrels] were going off and there was shrapnel flying."
Nitrocellulose is an ingredient for what Tennessee Technical Coatings manufactures and it has a low flash point, meaning it will catch fire at a relatively cool temperature, according to Brooks Hodges, the owner of the company.
Thursday, Williams and City Police Detective James Johnson were looking for the cause of the fire. It was undetermined at press time, but Hodge offered a couple of possibilities, emphasizing he was just speculating.
A spark at the wrong time and place is one possibility, Hodge said. Another could be a stray piece of glass, or a bottle, that refracted sunlight on a hot day and focused a beam of light onto the nitrocellulose.
"Now, we're not thinking of this as a criminal act," the fire chief said. "But we have not ruled out anything."
There were no injuries from the fire, Williams said, but 12,000 pounds of nitrocellulose burned, as did a truck and metal drums, all of which is valued at more than $30,000. One firefighter, who arrived on the scene after dousing a car fire on Mooresville Highway, was overcome by heat and exhaustion, but in half an hour he was rested, cooled and rejoined the fire line.
Still, the company's 14 employees were back at work Thursday morning and production had resumed, Williams and Hodge said.
"Preplanning worked again," Williams said of instructions outlined on what employees need to do when fire trucks are coming. Firefighters also have factory floor plans and notes on what's where, so, the chief said, "The guys knew what they were dealing with on the way to the fire."
Four fire engines responded, he said. The ladder truck was parked and staged for use if necessary. Two county ambulances and their crews joined the team at the scene with 25 firefighters, and the county's Emergency Management Agency also responded.
Thursday, Hodges couldn't speak long on the phone because he had to keep the nitrocellulose wet so its flashpoint would be high, he said. He was using alcohol.
"The fire department did a fantastic job," the company owner said.
As a result of the fire, Hodges needs to buy more nitrocellulose. The company produces a coating - effectively, it's a paint - for art pencils manufactured by other companies and marketed worldwide.
Tennessee Technical Coatings' plant is laid out in a way to keep the nitrocellulose some 50 feet away from the building.
"We were able to keep the fire out of the structure," Williams said.
While the cause was still under investigation, the origin was identified, the chief said. It's in the storage yard outside the structure.