On May 25, 2004, the then-typically quiet little bedroom community of Conyers, Georgia, located about 25 minutes east of Atlanta, felt an explosion that sent a plume of chlorine gas and smoke hundreds of feet into the air. A chemical factory owned by BioLab Inc. was on fire, and little information was immediately available about what kind of danger area residents might face as the blaze continued.
My boss, longtime executive editor at the Rockdale and Newton Citizen daily newspapers Alice Queen, was on vacation, and so it largely fell to me as the city editor to oversee the coverage of what would end up being arguably the biggest news event to happen to Conyers since 1999, when 15-year-old TJ Solomon injured six students after opening fire with a .22-caliber rifle inside Salem High School, one month to the day after the Columbine High School massacre.
I immediately began making calls on the phone tree we had in place for such an occasion, activating both of our full-time photographers, as well as two freelance photographers, to start capturing the various aspects of the story on camera. Because the explosion and ensuing toxic fumes had shut down Interstate 20, the six-lane artery that feeds into downtown Atlanta, I had a photographer work on hitching a ride aboard a helicopter. Another headed over to the area hospital, while the other two were stationed on opposite sides of the fire to capture the efforts to bring it under control.
Meanwhile, I directed the six available staff reporters to fan out, covering impacts on businesses, traffic, health, and more.
I contacted our website manager and asked him to update our site regularly with news from the reporters, as well as directives from state agencies as they worked to contain the toxic fumes and keep the public safe.
Because our Conyers offices were directly inside the evacuation area, we moved our staff into our sister office at the Newton Citizen in Covington. Our publisher snuck behind police lines back into our building in Conyers to snag hard drives that contained all of our advertising and page builds, and we were off to the races.
By midnight, we had put together a newspaper packed to the gills with information that would serve our readership, covering the fire from virtually every conceivable angle.
It was the most hectic day of my career, and also one of the most rewarding.
Click here for a PDF of the original newspaper coverage.
CONYERS — An early morning explosion at BioLab Inc., a Conyers chemical manufacturer, produced a thick gray plume of toxic smoke half a mile wide running parallel to I-20 into Newton County Tuesday, shutting down the interstate and forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate.
Fire leaves residents scrambling
The chemical fire at BioLab caused frustration and concern for many residents Tuesday morning. At Sigman and Irwin Bridge roads, traffic flowed as best could be expected with the road going into Conyers closed, giving people only one option — get out.
The scene at the two gas stations at the intersection was of onlookers watching the chlorine gas cloud floating east, commuters frustrated at being unable to get to Interstate 20 and concerned residents on cell phones trying to get their family members out.
Fire shuts down Interstate 20
COVINGTON — According to the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT), the massive toxic fire at a BioLab plant in Conyers created a “traffic nightmare” that prompted local officials to ask for people to simply stay at home.
EPD tests area air, water for chlorine
CONYERS — Water. It was the key component in controlling the BioLab fire that firefighters never doubted. DeKalb County Fire Department Public Information Officer Eric Jackson said it best.
“We’re in a totally defensive position, and we’re putting mass quantities of water on the fire,” said Jackson at a morning press conference. “It’s basically BTU (British thermal units) versus GPM (gallons per minute).”
Conyers tackles blaze with help from FEMA, GDOT, EPA
CONYERS — Olde Town Conyers was turned into a ghost town Tuesday when a toxic gas cloud caused by an industrial fire floated over the city.
The smoke plume from the fire at BioLab on Rockdale Industrial Boulevard, which contained a variety of chlorine-based chemicals, drifted east, primarily on the north side of Interstate 20, and ultimately led to authorities ordering an evacuation of a 1-mile radius around the fire.
Businesses forced to close in wake of emergency, expect to reopen today
CONYERS — Many local businesses throughout Conyers and Rockdale County were shut down and all outdoor activities in the Newton County School System (NCSS) were canceled in the wake of the fire which occurred at the BioLab Inc. facility off Rockdale Industrial Blvd. in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
Area medical staffs join forces to treat chemical exposure
CONYERS — Medical staff throughout the east-metro Atlanta area joined forces Tuesday to respond to one of the largest environmental disasters there in more than a decade.
With the mandate of meeting the health needs of the community, area hospitals worked with public health officials, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), the Red Cross and law enforcement, among other groups to treat the thousands of residents exposed to toxic chemicals that were released in a fire at Conyers’ BioLab warehouse.