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Life stopped on May 3 as Lawrenceburg residents looked up in awe, fear and disbelief.
Above them was an enormous cloud of black smoke, towering over their streets and homes, intermittently blocking out the sun and prompting people from as far away as Lexington, Frankfort, Georgetown and Nicholasville to say, nearly in unison, “What in the heck is burning?”
The short answer was a gigantic pile of a vinyl material used to bind automotive glass and prevent it from shattering.
The longer answer was polyvinyl butyral, a relatively benign substance — until it catches fire and releases compounds ranging from chlorine to acids.
A small mountain of vinyl caught fire on a Friday afternoon in early May, producing scorching flames and billowing black smoke that wafted over Lawrenceburg as first responders fought the blaze.
For several hours, 75 firefighters from across the region waged all out war against a towering inferno so hot that it cracked the windshield of a fire truck, and smoke so thick that it literally carried water sprayed toward it back at firefighters, who for a while had no choice but to lay down their hoses and retreat while waiting for reinforcements to arrive.
The fire caused no reported injuries to firefighters or nervous residents who received a Code Red phone call from city officials asking them to conserve water and telling them that, because the smoke was going high enough into the atmosphere, evacuation wasn’t necessary.
Factory workers at the nearby YKK and students and staff at the Phoenix Academy were evacuated as the fire was being put out.
Social media, namely Facebook, blew up with photos from readers of the fire and the menacing-looking smoke it produced; some could see the smoke several counties over in Lexington, Georgetown and Nicholasville.
The cause of the fire at the recycling company is still unknown.
Local firefighters worked quickly to fight the fire on multiple fronts, attacking it at first from the front with ground hoses and the city’s ladder truck, which had little effect as the billowing smoke blew the water back in their faces.
Others attempted to flank the blaze at each end. Firefighters positioned a truck at the YKK end and formed a makeshift handoff line to trudge hoses from the truck to a hydrant nearly a quarter-mile away.
Firefighters at the opposite end of the vinyl pile couldn’t access the blaze until Eddie Carey of nearby Carey’s Towing directed a man driving a front-end loader to move dirt and create a roadway for waiting fire equipment.
The arrival of firefighters and trucks from nearby agencies bolstered the effort, including a ladder truck from Franklin County capable of pumping 2,500 gallons per minute on the blaze.
City Fire Chief Bobby Hume said that and an unexpected hardening of the material on top of the pile is likely what brought the fire under control.
“The raw material burned until it formed a shell like an egg,” Hume was quoted as saying in the May 8 edition of the newspaper.
“That covered the loose material and produced less heat and flames and were actually able to start to extinguish it.”