Many Hoopeston residents had a shocking wake up call as explosions rocked through a factory early Wednesday morning.
Flames engulfed the J&R Used Tire Service factory on Route 9 in Hoopeston and fire crews from throughout the area were on-site throughout the night and would remain on-hand all-day Thursday. Fire crews remain on-scene as of Friday afternoon.
Through their efforts, much of the fire has been extinguished with the heavy black smoke that had so blackened the sky for most of yesterday being significantly diminished and evacuees have been given the all-clear to return to their homes. Crews have started to work on clearing some of the rubble.
Even so, a gray haze of smoke still cut across Main Street and elsewhere in the city and the pungent aroma of burning rubber still permeated a good portion of Hoopeston as winds changed direction and started blowing much of the smoke into the heart of the city Thursday night.
Hoopeston Fire Chief Cliff Crabtree, speaking at a press conference Wednesday morning from the department's command center at the Grant Township Building, said the call came in at approximately 5:30 a.m. and firefighters were on the scene within minutes of the call.
He said the building was fully engulfed when crews arrived.
Crabtree said the fire apparently began in the loading docks of the facility when a spark ignited some dust in the area and the fire quickly spread from there, fueled by the numerous tires that were stored throughout the entire facility.
Police Chief Mark Drollinger said the Illinois State Fire Marshall's office had ruled the cause of the fire to be accidental due to a static electricity discharge.
Due to the nature of the fire, which is mainly being fueled by burning tires, Crabtree said no crews were sent into the building and firefighters focused on defensively containing the fire.
Crabtree said he and a few others did go a short distance into the building, but the rest of the crews at the scene have been kept away and have been fighting the fire from the outside. Foam has been used by firefighters to help douse the flames.
One of the first priorities for the department, upon arriving at the scene, was to evacuate any residents who might be in danger from the fire spreading or from the noxious smoke that was billowing from the factory.
Crabtree said crews, working with the Hoopeston Police Department, evacuated residents who lived near the factory and systematically evacuated residents who lived up to a mile directly west from the factory due to the path of the smoke.
He said emergency personnel on the scene were keenly aware of the air quality issues that could result from so much petroleum-based tires burning and throwing smoke into the air.
Roughly 400-500 homes were evacuated by Hoopeston emergency personnel Wednesday morning due to smoke from the fire. While some were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday night, the official evacuation order wasn't lifted until Thursday morning, so many were required to remain elsewhere, with most staying with family or friends and only one family chose to remain at the overnight shelter the American Red Cross set up at the First Church of God.
A state of emergency was declared, Friday morning, for the southwest area of Hoopeston as a result of the fire.
Mayor Bill Crusinberry and Hoopeston Emergency Mangement Coordinator Scott Strawser released a joint signed statement regarding the declaration. It reads as follows:
"To all residents and persons with the municipality of Hoopeston and to all department of the municipal government of the city of Hoopeston. Whereas, Illinois state statutes authorize the promulgation of such orders, rules and regulations as are necessary to meet the various problems which have or may occur due to such a emergency, as whereas, by reason of the conditions which are imminent due to J&R Tire fire anticipated impact on the City of Hoopeston which may affect the health, safety and welfare of the people of the City of Hoopeston and whereas, it has been determined that these areas of the City of Hoopeston should then be declared disaster areas and further certain measures much be taken in order to insure that the authorities as well as maintaining an orderly flow of traffic, and further in order to protect the persons and property of the residents affected by the conditions and whereas, the following are designated disaster area: Within the Southwest area of the City of Hoopeston. Now, therefore, in accordance with the aforesaid laws, it is promulgated and declared that the regulations to be determined shall be in addition to all other laws of the State of Illinois and the City of Hoopeston."
Crabtree, speaking again at another press conference later in the day, said most of the structure of the building was gone, with only two sections of the building where the roof has not caved in.
Crabtree also addressed water issues that may occur as a result of the heavy water usage during the day.
He said the water might discolored or brown as a result, but he said he had contacted Steve Baker, water department superintendent, and had been told the water was drinkable as of 5:30 p.m. and no boil orders had been issued.
Multiple fire departments from around Vermilion, Iroquois and Champaign counties are on the scene. In addition to these crews, responders from the Hoopeston Ambulance Service, Hoopeston Emergency Management Agency and various other city departments have been on the scene assisting with the response.
Crabtree said they are trying to rotate crews in and out to prevent anyone from getting tired.
He said they plan on sending some of the departments home in order to allow their personnel to rest and then ask them to return later in the night or on Thursday to relieve the crews that remain on scene.
When asked how he and the rest of the fire crews felt, Crabtree admitted to feeling a bit of weariness setting in after more than 12 hours on scene.
"At this point, it's been a long day, but I've got a lot of good help," he said. "The adrenaline is starting to wear off and we're starting to get a little tired, but [we'll keep going]."
Since crews are battling what has essentially become a large tire fire, Crabtree estimates that crews will have to be on the scene for between 24-36 hours, as of 5:30 p.m., before the fire is completely extinguished.
Volunteers from the school district and the local community have set up tables and chairs for firefighters to rest at the Grant Township Building and local residents have been donating food and water and other items for firefighters who will have a long battle ahead of them.
Lance Smith, general manager of the factory, said the factory housed multiple types of tires, including car, semi and tractor tires, that were stored throughout the entire facility.
Smith said the explosions people heard were likely caused by propane tanks on the backs of forklifts exploding. He said one of the larger propane tanks in the other end of the building was shut off before the fire reached it.
He said the factory's owner, Rodney Rogers, is assessing what will be the future of the business. Smith said Rogers hopes to keep the business operational and in Hoopeston.
The more immediate issue Smith said Rogers was looking to handle was to make certain workers were financially stable in the light of losing the facility, since many of the workers rely on their paycheck from week to week.
However, the fire represents a significant loss in terms of equipment and facilities for the business.
Smith estimates just one of the machines in the facility costs approximately $1 million, so losing most of the machines in the factory will likely represent a loss of between $10-$15 million in terms of equipment.
The factory, which employed 38 workers, roughly half of whom were from Hoopeston, was in the process of installing a new paint system that would have expanded it's services, but Smith said that system had even gotten up and running yet.
Smith said they are already looking for ways to get up and running again at some point in the future and they hope to remain in Hoopeston.
Be sure to continue to check The Chronicle's website, www.newsbug.info/hoopeston_chronicle/, and our Facebook page throughout further updates, pictures and videos of the fire.