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Thousands Flee Toxic Cloud

A fireball rises early Friday over the EQ Industrial Services plant in Apex, North Carolina. A fireball rises early Friday over the EQ Industrial Services plant in Apex, North Carolina.

APEX, North Carolina (CNN) -- Half of the 32,000 residents of Apex, North Carolina, have been asked to evacuate Friday after explosions and fire at a hazardous waste plant released noxious gases and flames 150 feet high over the town.

People "are putting themselves in very grave danger by being near or around this smoke. If you see smoke, get away from it." said Bruce Radford, manager of the Raleigh suburban town.

"There are pesticides, oxides, chlorine gases, there are all grades of contaminated material in this fire and in this smoke," he said.

No deaths have been reported from the fire at the plant, called Environmental Quality Industrial Services, but more than 100 people have been hospitalized.

Officials said they didn't know what sparked the blaze, but The Associated Press quoted Mayor Keith Weatherly as saying flames jumped the plant site and appeared to have caused petroleum tanks, belonging to another company, to explode.

Fireballs seen shooting up, blasts heard over and over

John Echols, 28, who lives near the plant, told the News & Observer newspaper the blasts were "like the world's largest bowl of Rice Krispies -- pop, pop, pop! But it was real loud." He said at first, fireballs "would shoot up from time to time -- it was nasty."

A yellow haze lingered over downtown and the air smelled faintly of chlorine as police lined the main street that runs through the town's business district, blocking both ends of the road, according to AP.

"People are going to want to come in and sightsee at this fire scene," Radford told AP. "They will either get terribly sick or they will be arrested. No questions asked."

Practically the entire eastern part of the town of Apex, located about 10 miles southwest of Raleigh, had been evacuated by early Friday, Radford said. The fire shut a large stretch of State Road 55, an important commuter corridor to jobs at Research Triangle Park, the News & Observer reported.

Radford asked residents to close all windows, turn off all air conditioning and be aware if they have "tenderness of the mouth, gagging and nausea, which are typical signs of poisoning."

Although the plant is in an industrial area, neighborhoods are close by.

A hazardous materials team from nearby Raleigh was to assess the damage at daybreak. Radford told the News & Observer that firefighters plan to put on special protective suits and scale 90-foot ladders to better observe the disaster.

Although flames reached 150 feet, officials are letting the fire burn itself out to avoid toxic runoff and the threat to firefighters.

"Water would flood the area with toxic chemicals," Radford said. "It just needs to burn up."

Mayor Weatherly warned an approaching front could change the wind direction by midmorning. "If the weather changes, it could bring more neighbors in danger and they may require evacuations," he said.

Facility fined for safety violations

The Wayne, Michigan-based EQ Industrial Services processes hazardous and nonhazardous waste, according to its Web site. On March 31, the plant was fined for six safety violations, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources Web site.

It was required to pay a fine of $32,000 for failing to "minimize the possibility of a sudden or nonsudden release of hazardous waste constituents to air, soil or surface water which could threaten human health or the environment."

The company was also cited for storing a container of hazardous waste beside an incompatible one and for not clearly marking containers to identify their contents.

It was also cited for failing to immediately carry the procedures outlined in the contingency plan "whenever there is a release of hazardous waste or constituents which threatens or could threaten human health or the environment."

Nursing home patients treated

Hospital officials said at least 106 residents from a nearby nursing home were admitted, in addition to people complaining of severe respiratory distress. The News & Observer reported that about 10 firefighters and a police officer were taken to hospitals with severe respiratory problems.

The downtown is covered in thick black smoke, and Radford said he is concerned about people who have ventured near the fire for a closer look. Residents as far as two miles away could see the plume or smell the chemicals, officials told AP.

Residents have been asked to evacuate from at least six neighborhoods; others have been told to remain in their homes.

"We haven't been outside because they told us not to go outside," Willette Teasley said. "There is a chlorine cloud from what I understand and when I stand at the bathroom window I see an orange tint over the trees."

Authorities are calling this the "biggest emergency we've ever had to deal with," Teasley said.

All area hotels were booked up, according to Radford, and at least 200 residents had gathered at an elementary school that was transformed into an emergency shelter. The shelter manager said Red Cross officials were en route with food, water and sleeping cots.

Radford declared a state of emergency for the town and county and said the business district, town hall and all schools in Apex will be closed Friday.

Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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