WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo calls the Weaver Fertilizer Plant fire his “career fire.”
Just about everyone can point to that one event: the most stressful, challenging, sleep-preventing, on-the-job happening unlike any other.
For me, it was the interview I did with the husband of Sandy Bradshaw about a week after Sept. 11, 2001. Sandy was a flight attendant on United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania.
For Mayo, it was the fertilizer plant fire on Jan. 31, 2022.
Make no mistake, Mayo has worked big fires before.
He’s a third-generation firefighter who began his career in his hometown of Plymouth, North Carolina in the late 1980s. He’d go on to spend 11 years and rise to the rank of captain in the Raleigh Fire Department. He’d serve as deputy chief in Carrboro and chief in Rocky Mount before arriving in Winston-Salem in early 2015.
But none of the earlier fires had the potential to cause as much destruction and death as much as the one at Weaver that night.
AN UNREMARKABLE DAY
Monday, Jan. 31 was a normal, unremarkable day until Mayo’s phone signaled a text message that evening.
“When a building fire is dispatched in the city of Winston-Salem, the fire department’s command staff gets a text notification,” he told me. “The first arriving engine, they called for a second alarm immediately. And typically, when a second alarm gets dispatched, I’m going to head in that direction.”
The fire would quickly grow to three alarms.
“I saw the Weaver Fertilizer Plant, and it was on fire from one end to the other, top to bottom, side to side,” he said. “I mean, the entire building was on fire.”
Mayo and his team started asking questions.
“We’ve known about Weaver Fertilizer for a long time,” he said. “We know what goes on there. We know what they have stored there.”
But they didn’t know how much potentially explosive ammonium nitrate was stored there.
ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTION
The company had reported to the federal government an annual “Tier Two” report that’s mandatory for companies that store hazardous materials. Among other things, it lists specific information on hazardous chemicals present at the facility. Winston-Salem firefighters had access to this electronically.
“It (the Tier Two report) gives you max quantities, average quantities,” Mayo said. “But not what the quantity is right now. Having that information early on and exactly where it was in the building would have been beneficial.”
There were 600 tons in the building that night, and 90 tons in a rail car near the building. Keep in mind Timothy McVeigh used just more than 2 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Mayo said at Weaver, the amount of ammonium nitrate on site can fluctuate throughout the year. With farmers and gardeners heading into planting season, it was reasonable to assume there was a lot of the chemical compound on the property.
Another beneficial piece of information, Mayo says, would have been how the ammonium nitrate was stored. Current code calls for that much chemical to be spread out and stored in multiple bins to reduce its explosive potential.
But the Weaver building was grandfathered into whatever code existed (if at all) when it was built around 1940.
DIFFICULT BUT NECESSARY DECISIONS
Mayo spotted a plant representative walk by within earshot and asked how much of the material he had on site.
“And he did not know the exact quantity, but he said there were two bins in the building, and each of them had a 300-ton capacity,” Mayo told me. “And we (the command staff) kind of huddled in. In about three minutes, we made the decision to evacuate.”
And that meant pulling all the firefighters off-site and urging people who lived and worked within a one-mile radius of the plant to leave.
Then it was a matter of waiting to let the fire burn itself out and seeing if the chemical would blow up.
“This is potentially the largest explosion in U.S. history. I can’t magnify it any more than that,” Mayo said during one of his many media briefings that would take place over the next three days.
By Wed. Feb. 2, after consulting with a nationally-recognized ammonium nitrate expert, Winston-Salem firefighters walked back on-site and started cooling what ammonium nitrate had not burned.
By Thursday night, the decision was made to reduce significantly the one-mile voluntary evacuation zone.
“We had enough information that we felt comfortable letting folks back in their homes,” Mayo said.
He also says looking back, he and his team would make the same decisions again.
“Are we going to do them faster? Yes. Are we going to do them better? Yes. Are we going to be more efficient at it? Yes, having had this experience,” he said. “But again, those major decisions, the things that the public sees, we’re going to do the same things.”
About all Mayo will say about the fire’s cause is that it’s still under investigation.
“I would say it’s 50/50 as to whether we will ever know what the cause of the fire was,” he told me. “We have an area of suspicion, but being able to prove that given the amount of damage is going to be challenging.”
The fire department plans to release an “after-action report” soon summarizing its response. This should help future firefighters respond to similar fires.
As far as potential changes of regulations or codes that could help fight future, similar fires, Mayo says those are policy decisions that may or not be made by others.
He also had a message for the people of Winston-Salem: the city’s big fire threat isn’t old fertilizer plants.
“The (major) fire danger in Winston-Salem is caused by that stove that is in everybody’s house and unattended cooking,” he stressed.
50% to 60% of all working fires in Winston-Salem every year start on stovetops.
Let’s hope a future fire that starts that way (or any other way) doesn’t replace the Weaver fire’s place in Mayo’s career.
That was truly a “career fire.”