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Police and fire

Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Black smoke billows Saturday on the city’s east side. The defunct plant had been undergoing an environmental cleanup.

Plant fire shrouds sky

No injuries at closed, toxic metal factory

Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Firefighters called to a blaze at the old Wayne Metal Protection plant on Wabash Avenue look on Saturday. No homes were evacuated on the city’s east side.

A large blaze at a former metal plating plant east of downtown created a column of black and gray smoke Saturday afternoon that could be seen miles away, prompting a response from about two dozen firefighters.

About 4:30 p.m., the Fort Wayne Fire Department was dispatched to what was once the Wayne Metal Protection Co. at 1511 Wabash Ave. near Memorial Park.

The defunct plant has been undergoing a costly cleanup of contaminated soil and groundwater. Plans, which were approved in 2010 after a more than four-year process, called for the removal of contaminated soil from seven areas on the plant property. Also, wells were to be dug to draw out and treat the groundwater, and to draw vapors from the soil.

Despite this history of environmental problems and the plant’s past use of hazardous chemicals, city fire marshal Jim Murua said evacuations of nearby homes were not necessary.

A hazardous materials crew was monitoring air quality downwind of the fire, and the city water department tested the runoff created by the fire department’s hoses, Murua said.

“Everything is negative,” he said. “We don’t have any real issues with that.”

Firefighters on the ground and on extended ladders initially sprayed water on the flames that were shooting above the collapsing two-story building. But they stopped using water about 5:30 p.m. And the building was allowed to burn until more was learned about the materials inside, Murua said.

“We don’t want to create any runoff until we verify what’s in the building and what may be around,” he said.

The fire was said to be under control just before 7 p.m. Shortly after 7 p.m., Murua said that the fire department planned to resume hosing down the fire because the air and water tests had come back negative for dangerous chemicals.

Murua said he was not aware of what hazardous materials, if any, were in the building, which has been vacant for some time. Attempts to reach the owner of the building by phone were unsuccessful.

Leslie Flott said he was an environmental manager for Wayne Metal Protection Co. for about 30 years. He retired in about 2003 but stayed on as a consultant for several more years.

Flott said he called fire officials Saturday because he was worried about what firefighters might encounter in the building.

“I was just concerned that the firemen might go in there without any idea of what they where dealing with and might get themselves hurt,” he said.

Flott did not know whether the plant still contained any hazardous materials. He said the plant once held dangerous chemicals such as cyanide, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid.

The fire department said the blaze started in office and storage areas. The cause was not immediately known. No injuries were reported.

Authorities cordoned off the site with yellow tape and closed side streets in the area. Crowds of onlookers gathered to watch the fire as the wind blew smoke and ash to the north and east.

Murua said the fire department cut off power to the plant, which, in turn, caused about a dozen neighboring homes to lose electricity as well. The fire department did not know when power would be restored.

Railroad tracks that run alongside the plant were closed Saturday afternoon and later reopened.