- Associated Press - Monday, June 14, 2021

ROCKTON, Ill. (AP) — An explosion at a chemical plant in northern Illinois sparked massive fires that sent flames and huge plumes of thick black smoke high into the air and debris raining onto the ground Monday morning, prompting evacuations.

Emergency crews rushed to the scene of the 7:30 a.m. fire near Rockton, northwest of Chicago, at Chemtool Inc., a company that manufactures lubricants, grease products and other fluids, and is, according to the company, the largest manufacturer of grease in the Americas.

Rockton Fire Department Chief Kirk Wilson said about 70 employees were at the plant when firefighters arrived and that all of them were evacuated safely. He also said one firefighter suffered a minor injury. 

Following reports that the plumes of smoke were so big they were being picked up on weather radar, the Rockton Police Department at 8:46 a.m., posted an alert, warning that fire officials had ordered a mandatory evacuation near the plant. It told people to evacuate homes and businesses, and to await further instructions.

Wilson said that “at this point and time there is no danger to air quality at ground level,” but that given the enormous plumes of smoke, officials ordered the evacuation as a precautionary measure. 



“We don’t want an environmental nightmare to occur,” he said. 

Trisha Diduch, the planning and development administrator for Rockton, said she estimates about 1,000 people are affected by the evacuation order and the downtown area, which is just about a mile from the plant, is being evacuated. The order is for a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius, she said.

One of those residents was Alyssa King, 29. She said after she walked outside to see black smoke and what appeared to be pieces of cardboard boxes and “small chunks of the building,” falling from the sky she called the police department’s non-emergency line. “You gotta go,” she said she was told. 

There were no immediate reports of injuries, and in a statement Chemtool said: “We have confirmed all on site are safe and accounted for. Our concern right now is for the safety of all our employees and the surrounding community.”

The company said it will share additional details as they’re known.

“We do not yet know what caused this incident, but we will be working with local authorities and with our own risk management team to determine what happened and identify any corrective actions,” it said.

King, who lives in an apartment less than a mile from the site, said she woke up to what sounded like slamming doors.

“It woke me up. It was shaking the whole apartment building,” said King, who was at home with her 8-year-old daughter at the time.

King and her daughter went to her mother’s house about 2 miles (3 kilometers) away. King then returned to the apartment to collect the family’s rabbit, Oreo. As she drove near the plant, King saw smoldering embers along the roadway, and there was “burned material” all over the yard of the apartment building, she said. The air had a chemical smell, she added.

“It was awful,” she said. “I’m terrified I won’t have a home to go back to.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigators from Chicago were headed to the scene and would issue a statement later Monday, spokeswoman Rachel Bassler said. They were coordinating with the Illinois EPA, which also was sending a team, according to spokeswoman Kim Biggs.

Rockton is located in Winnebago County, near the Wisconsin border, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) northwest of Chicago.

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