Stonington – A fire in a large lithium-ion battery being tested at Yardney Technical Products in Pawcatuck early Tuesday afternoon forced the evacuation of a 4-square-mile area of the village along with students from nearby Pawcatuck Middle and West Broad Street schools.
There were no injuries caused by the fire, whose flames were extinguished quickly, and residents were allowed back into the area about 3½ hours later.
Firefighters and hazardous-materials teams remained at Yardney through the night as they worked to cool the still-hot battery. By 10:45 p.m., First Selectmen Ed Haberek said there were only two of the battery’s cells left to cool down and that the area around the plant might be secured as early as midnight.
The fire, which began at 1:34 p.m., triggered an automatic sprinkler and a fire-alarm system in the building. Jeff Chandler, an emergency-response supervisor for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the 6-foot-by-8-foot battery contained about 50 liters of liquid.
Chandler said his team, along with firefighters, were most concerned about the release of hydrofluoric acid, a corrosive poison that causes respiratory and skin irritation as well as damage to bones and teeth. He said the burning smell came from the battery’s rubber and cellulose housing as they burned.
Chandler said he could not discuss what the battery is used for. Yardney develops advanced battery technologies used in everything from mini-submarines and aircraft to satellites and even the Mars lander and rovers used by NASA.
Chandler, noting that water absorbs hydrofluoric acid, said a contractor had been called in to clean up the spill. He said there have been battery fires and spills at the plant in the past, but none that required a large evacuation like the one that took place Tuesday.
‘I could hardly breathe’
A thick chemical smell filled the air just after the fire started, and smoke poured from a vent in the roof of the Mechanic Street building. Some residents held T-shirts up to their faces on nearby streets as firefighters wearing air packs began to evacuate the residents across the street.
Yardney employees stood outside the plant in groups, but soon they too were ordered down the street as the wind from the east blew the fumes further west into Pawcatuck.
As he walked up Mechanic Street, Police Chief J. Darren Stewart said he was “emptying both West Broad and Pawcatuck Middle” schools.
”They’re too close. We don’t know what’s in there,” he said. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
The evacuation soon spread to an area bounded by Courtland Street to the west, West Broad Street to the north and Field Street to the south. The areas of Westerly across the Pawcatuck River in the vicinity of the plant were not evacuated.
Police, who called in extra officers, soon expanded the evacuation and put up barricades to stop people from entering the affected streets.
Across town in the school administration building, Superintendent of Schools Michael McKee and his staff activated a system that sends out phone and e-mail alerts to parents. The system can make 10,000 calls in just 10 minutes.
Across the street from the plant, Joy Lussier said she had fallen asleep on her couch when she woke up to the smell of smoke. At first she thought it might be her clothes dryer.
”But it was too strong. I could hardly breathe,” said Lussier, who was worried about her two cats she had to leave behind.
Her neighbor, June Richards, said firefighters knocked on her door and told her, “We have to get you out of here.”
”I said, ‘I’m not even dressed.’ I got dressed and put my leg brace on,” said Richards, who made her way up Mechanic Street in her motorized wheelchair. At one point, a firehose blocked her path and Stewart and one of his officers had to help her over it.
Impromptu field trip
About 535 students from the two affected schools were bused to Stonington High School, where their parents came to pick them up in the gym. Students from West Vine Street School who live in the evacuated area were also brought to the high school, where the Red Cross had set up a shelter.
McKee commended school operations manager Bill King for putting all the updated phone numbers and e-mails into the system in the three weeks since school began.
”He was determined to get it done in case of an emergency, and here it is,” McKee said.
While many of the parents descended on the high school at the same time to pick up their children, things in the parking lot were going smoothly, said Detective John Fiore, who was answering parents’ questions and pointing them in the right direction.
Inside the gym, hundreds of children sat in the bleachers. Below them, their parents stood in lines at tables to sign them out.
Both McKee and First Selectman Ed Haberek were in the gym. At one point when the sound system went out, Haberek climbed on a chair and asked for everyone’s attention so he could give them an update on West Vine Street students.
Students who did not live in the affected area or attend one of the affected schools were bused home as usual.
”It’s going very well. The parents have been very cooperative. They can see their kids up there,” he said, pointing to the bleachers, “so they know they’re safe.”
The school sent out an initial alert and then an update to parents while the town sent out an evacuation notice to residents in the affected area through its reverse-911 system.
Parent Pam Gessner said she was at work in Waterford when she received a call from the school system.
”It worked really well. Everyone was very well organized,” she said. “It was nice to know they took the precaution and evacuated the school.”
While parents had to wait in lines to sign out their children, parent Kenneth McWilliams said he had no problem with it after coming from his job in Groton.
”There’s a certain amount of security you have to have. I didn’t mind waiting to make sure things went right.”
Residents of the Edythe K. Richmond Homes elderly housing complex were also bused to the shelter. One woman at the shelter had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital after experiencing chest pain.
Traffic backed up from the high school past the Pawcatuck Shopping Center as buses brought students to the high school and parents tried to get to there. Despite the traffic, many parents said the alert system worked well and commended town and emergency officials for the way they handled the situation.
‘Our work really paid off’
Numerous firefighters, ambulances and hazardous-materials teams from area towns and the state responded to the scene to aid local police and the Pawcatuck fire departments. Some of them were still there late Tuesday as the cleanup and investigation continued.
In October of 2006, a section of Mechanic Street had to be closed for more than four hours as firefighters responded to a battery fire in a waste barrel. In December of 2005, a lithium battery malfunctioned, igniting a small fire.
Haberek said Tuesday was also the first widespread use of the town’s reverse-911 system. He said the evacuation of the neighborhood was not as large as it might have been because many people were at work in the early afternoon.
Haberek pointed out that police, firefighters, town departments and the schools have all spent a lot of time preparing for how to respond in an emergency.
”Our work really paid off today,” he said.
Day staff writer Chuck Potter contributed to this report.