Fire leaves residents scrambling

Capt. Eric Jackson of the DeKalb County Fire Department said firefighters were fighting the chemical blaze at BioLab Tuesday with lots of water, calling it “our best friend.” Four ladder trucks and several other engines, manned by firefighters, who were rotated every hour, pumped thousands of gallons of water on the smoldering chemicals as viewed here from the north side of the complex. Photo by Lee Depkin

Toxic clouds force many out of homes, into makeshift shelters 

By JAY JONES
Staff Reporter
Newton Citizen

CONYERS — 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. 

Natelie Elliott, a Northfolk Southern employee, was coming off her job on the third shift to find that she could not get home to her 16-year-old son, Ervin. Standing in the Citgo station parking lot, she spoke on her cell phone, telling her son to get dressed and leave their Pinedale subdivision home. 

“I’m calling the house and trying to get them out,” Elliott said. “They won’t let me drive up there, so they’ll have to walk down here.” 

Anxious, she called home again. “Are you still there? Get your clothes on, and get out the door, now. What’s so hard about that?” she asked her son. 

Before authorities began an evacuation of the area around 9 a.m., many people walked from the intersection up to their homes along Irwin Bridge Road. Blocked from driving into town, one couple walked their mother from her home on Cooper Circle. Elliott began walking in that direction when her son and a group of boys appeared. A quick hug from his mother greeted Ervin as they headed for their car. 

Elliott’s neighbor, Derrick Smith, was also waiting to get his teenage son to safety. 

“They got them both, thank goodness,” he said. 

Some commuters showed frustration while others took the situation in stride. Rockdale County resident Dale Thomas pulled up to the Chevron station on the north side of the inter- section, realizing his commute had just gotten much more complicated. 

“You got any Mamie’s biscuits?” asked Thomas. His regular morning commute to his job at In Touch Ministries in Atlanta normally takes him through Conyers, and occasionally by Mamie’s Kitchen at Main Street and Rockbridge Road, blocks away from the fire. All joking aside, Thomas paused as he looked at the billowing cloud cutting across the sky. 

“I’ve got a lot of friends who work at BioLab,” he said. “I hope everybody’s all right.” 

At J.H. House Elementary School on Ga. 20, Red Cross workers were setting up one of the emergency shelters in the school’s cafeteria. A few people came in on their own just as school buses to be used for the evacuation pulled out of the parking lot. 

Olde Town Conyers resident Tom Watson said he rode out with his neighbor and her daughter when police drove down his street with loudspeakers telling residents to leave. 

“The power went out in my house, so I got up, walked into the kitchen to reset the clocks,” Watson said. “I didn’t realize what was going on. I looked outside the window and thought, ‘There sure is a lot of fog. It must have rained last night.’ ” 

Pam Offitt drove Watson and her mother, Betty Heatherly, out of Conyers. Offitt said she saw black ashes covering her yard and car when she pulled out. She noted that there seemed to be little coordination among law enforcement officers concerning how to direct people out of town. 

Ninety-year-old Vera Marshall watches the news at the evacuation center set up at Heritage High School Tuesday morning in the wake of the BioLab fire. She was one of the residents evacuated from the Legacy Assisted Living Center around 8 a.m. Photo by Lee Depkin

“We asked two people, ‘Where do we need to go?’ and all they would say was, ‘Go where you have to,’” Offitt said. “I mean, what does that mean? We were driving around, not really knowing where to go and what to do. We heard about the shelters on the radio.” 

Watson noted that he was unaware of the fire until he heard the police loudspeaker and a knock on the door from Offitt. 

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