Washington Evening Journal
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MARENGO — A blaze at a Marengo biofuel plant late in the morning of Thursday, Dec. 8, left several people injured and caused a portion of the town to be evacuated. The fire was extinguished by approximately 4 a.m. Friday, Dec. 9.
Five people were transported to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, according to a city of Marengo news release. An unknown number of people also were taken by personal vehicles to UIHC and Compass Memorial Healthcare in Marengo.
UIHC said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the hospital “has received multiple patients following today’s explosion in Marengo and anticipates others may be in route.”
The hospital did not comment on the specific conditions of any individual patients.
Iowa County Sheriff Rob Rotter said all 30 persons in the building at the time of the fire were accounted for and there were no confirmed fatalities.
According to Rotter, two late morning explosions ripped through the plant at 810 E. South St. The initial fire call was received at about 11:15 a.m. A second explosion took place about 45 minutes later. Rotter believes the explosions most likely were caused by solvents or fuel, or a combination of the two. He noted there had been a previous fire involving fuel tanks at the same facility earlier this fall.
“This was a much larger version of that,” he said of Thursday’s fire.
Crews from approximately 20 area fire departments poured into Marengo to battle the blaze, according to Iowa County Emergency Management Coordinator Josh Humphrey. Eight or nine ambulance services responded, as well as a HAZMAT team and Emergency Management Agencies from five surrounding counties. Approximately 200 firefighters were on the scene as they fought to keep the flames from reaching a tank located in the central part of the building thought to contain marine-grade diesel fuel and solvents.
“The tanks had a capacity of 120,000 gallons,” Humphrey said. “We didn’t know exactly what was in them or how much they contained but we fought the fire aggressively to keep it from reaching the center of the building. If the fire had reached those tanks, we would have had to evacuate the whole town.”
“We had first responders here from a 50-mile radius,” Rotter said. “I’ve never seen so many emergency vehicles on one scene before. We’ve had businesses donating food and water and calls to offer assistance. I’m proud of the way Eastern Iowa responded.”
As the day went on, fire crews refilled water tanks from the lake at Gateway Park on the north end of Marengo, as well as the sand plant on Highway 6 east of town, to ease the strain on the municipal water supply.
Humphrey noted the town’s water supply had returned to near normal by Friday morning, with no lasting effect.
“We gave it some good exercise,” he added.
Property records show the building is owned by Heartland Crush LLC, which was a soybean facility, but it is operated by C6-Zero, a company that converts asphalt roofing shingles into “high grade fuel, fiberglass and aggregate.” The 153,000-square-foot building is currently listed for sale for a price of $899,000.
Due to heavy smoke and burning chemicals, an evacuation order was issued for a two-block radius surrounding the site. Those evacuating were directed to the American Legion Hall, where food and water was available. The Red Cross and Salvation Army provided assistance to the firefighters and medical personnel at the fire site and planned to aid residents displaced from their homes. While a few people made use of the evacuation site, most went to stay with friends. Marengo residents were urged to stay indoors due to poor air quality. HAZMAT teams monitored air quality during the day and at about 7 p.m. that evening, residents were allowed to return to their homes.
Courtney Carroll and her two youngest children, son Payton, 14, and daughter Lauren, 9, live on Eastern Avenue in Marengo, just a few blocks from the site. The family packed up their two cats and a pet bird and went to the Legion Hall.
Courtney said the blast shook her house. Within 30 minutes of the first explosion, law enforcement knocked on her door to tell her of the evacuation order.
“The pictures on the walls are all crooked,” she said. “I didn’t take time to pack clothes. I just packed up and left.”
Her older children and the family dog went to stay with friends. Courtney connected with her children after school and they planned to stay with family friends that evening.
Payton and Lauren were in class at Iowa Valley Community Schools when the explosion happened.
“No one told us what had happened,” Payton said. “They told us it was going to be OK. It was kind of scary.”