Everyone safe after fire destroys Affton chemical plant; chief recounts the scene

Building is ‘total devastation,’ but firefighters stayed safe with help of drone technology providing aerial footage of ways to fight fire

A+fire+at+Manor+Chemical+Company+plant%2C+6901+Heege+Road%2C+as+seen+from+the+new+Tower+Tee+facility+currently+under+construction%2C+Thursday%2C+April+29.+The+four-alarm+chemical+fire+forced+evacuations+of+residents+near+the+plant%2C+but+the+fire+was+fully+contained+by+the+end+of+the+day+and+residents+were+able+to+return+to+their+homes+that+evening.+

Photo by Erin Achenbach

A fire at Manor Chemical Company plant, 6901 Heege Road, as seen from the new Tower Tee facility currently under construction, Thursday, April 29. The four-alarm chemical fire forced evacuations of residents near the plant, but the fire was fully contained by the end of the day and residents were able to return to their homes that evening.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

A four-alarm chemical fire that sent mushroom clouds of smoke over Affton and forced evacuations of residents Thursday afternoon was something Affton fire officials had long dreaded, but the blaze was fully contained within hours and residents could return to their houses by Thursday evening.

Although the wooden structure of at least one building of the Manor Chemical Company plant at 6901 Heege Road completely burned to the ground, the only injury from the heavy fire was to a firefighter who was overcome by heat or stress and was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

Affton Fire Protection District Chief Nick Fahs talked to reporters about the fire, which started around 2:30 p.m., at the AFPD’s new firehouse on Valcour about 8:30 p.m. By that time, the injured firefighter was “OK,” all residents were back in their homes, all streets were opened, and the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District cleared the sewer lines. An active investigation was still going on at the mangled Manor site, however.

“I’m just glad that the residents were safe and all these firefighters are home safe,” Fahs said.

The same cannot be said for the chemical plant itself, although firefighters were able to save half the facility with guidance from drones giving overhead views of the fire.

“If you just look at the building there, it’s just total devastation … twisted metal, and basically the wooden part of the structure is gone,” the chief said.

Affton fire officials had been dreading for years the call that came Thursday afternoon around 2:30 p.m.: A fire was raging at the Manor Chemical plant, where hazardous chemicals are stored and used.

The fire was reported by the three employees who were at the site, none of whom were injured. The employees described the 10 chemicals that are used in the factory and said that a tanker truck near the building contained solvent.

The mushroom clouds of heavy, thick, black smoke were unlike anything Fahs said he has ever seen in his long career as a St. Louis area firefighter. He could see it from 400 feet away at that time, and firefighters at the Valcour firehouse a quarter mile away had heard the initial explosion.

“So the first building was totally engulfed, and there were mushroom cloud fires from the barrels of the chemicals in there. And we could hear that tanker venting that it was obviously heat impinging on it — it’s either going to crack open, melt or explode — so when we heard that venting sound in an active fire situation, that certainly put a panic in all of us that we needed to evacuate that neighborhood, and from the chief’s point of view, we didn’t need any firefighters to get close to that,” Fahs said, adding, “We knew that we had a large fire that we were going to have a hard time containing … So at that point we made the decision that life safety was first. So once they were safe, we didn’t want to put our firefighters in harm’s way because we could see explosions that were creating mushroom clouds there. So we immediately started evacuating residents.”

With the help of the St. Louis County Police Department, fire district officials started evacuating residents within a quarter-mile radius of the plant, and then a half mile. Residents were taken to the Affton Elks Lodge on Heege Road, where the Red Cross assisted them.

Overall, 62 fire trucks and companies from 13 mutual-aid fire departments responded to the four-alarm fire, plus the St. Louis County Hazmat team and the St. Louis city Fire Department Foam Unit.

Using drones from the Mehlville Fire Protection District and University City, Affton fire officials were able to see the fire from above. Manor Chemical employees pointed out on the videos what certain containers of chemicals were and whether they were empty or full, and the aerial footage provided a view of a tanker truck filled with chemicals that had initially caught on fire.

The drone purchased by the Mehlville Fire Protection District. Next to it is the inflatable raft it can deploy in case of water rescues. (Photo by Gloria Lloyd)

Without the drones, “we would have never been able to see — the smoke was so black and so thick and so dark that we couldn’t see within 300 feet of the building that was actually burning,” Fahs said.

With the help of the drones, however, the fire officials could pinpoint where the fire had died down enough that firefighters could start going in before it spread to another area. That wasn’t visible at all from the ground.

“We decided to make an attack — it took us about an hour and a half of active firefighting to finally get the fire under control,” Fahs said.

The firefighter who was injured was working on a side street with the St. Louis city Foam Unit, carrying wide-diameter hoses from a truck to the scene 500 feet away, the Affton chief said. Four ambulances were already on the site, and he was immediately taken care of and transported to a hospital within minutes.

The drones were invaluable at showing when the smoke was dying down enough so that an attempt to put out the fire could be targeted to that area — a view that was not visible from the ground, Fahs said.

The fire is still under investigation, but workers from the site reported that it appeared to start with either an electrical short or static electricity in an adhesive-making machine, and Fahs said from what he saw at the scene there’s no reason to doubt that. The company uses chemicals to primarily make adhesive.

Fahs said that without the clues from the employees of the plant, fire officials would have had a hard time identifying what happened from the twisted metal wreckage of the plant.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources was at the scene and blocked off some creeks until more investigation could be done into the damage from the chemicals that were released.

Fahs said fire officials would look at reports of the company’s noncompliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but he said from what he saw fighting the fire, the employees were helpful and he could give them “nothing but praise” for their knowledge about exactly which chemicals were where on the drone footage.

But Fahs was most thankful for the help from the many other fire departments in the St. Louis region that responded.

“This little fire department in Affton, we could never have handled that — if we would not have had those 62 trucks there it would have been catastrophic,” the chief said.

He was also impressed by the drones from Mehlville and University City. Few fire departments in the area have drones, and Mehlville was one of the first to buy one in 2019.

“It was the first time I’ve ever used them, and Affton’s probably going to buy a drone,” Fahs said.