07. September 2010 · Comments Off on My Blog Before the Blog: Some Memories of the Apex Chlorine Fire… · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags:

Today I was uploading recipes to the Pioneer Woman’s public cooking website: Tasty Kitchen. A pretty neat website — like a Facebook for amateur cooks. Or Ravelry.com, which is a community for yarn craftsmen.

Anyway, one of the recipes I had uploaded was the Linguini Salad that I make for pot lucks and picnic. I wanted to add a picture, so I was scouring this blog, my picture libraries and old Facebook posts for one of the beautiful close-up pictures I’ve taken of that salad, which is very handsome with all the colors.

So far, no luck, but one of the things I ventured across were my old My Space Blog Posts, still out there for the world to see! My first post was in July of 2006, and discussed my boys fighting and arguing all the time. Lovely.

But of note, I am going to cut and paste the narrative I wrote about our Apex Chlorine Fire evacuation experience. That was fun to read, and I’m glad I recorded the event and it’s still available for me to share with you on this particular blog.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Dave and I have oftentimes joked that there’s some sort of weather disaster that’s happened in every place we’ve lived since we’ve been married.  Ice storms, tornadoes, 100-year monsoon flooding events, and (most recently for us) 4 hurricanes to strike FL in one season.  Granted, a toxic chemical fire forcing mass evacuation isn’t a weather disaster, but we’re thinking we need to add it to the list of wackiness that seems to plague the Vollmers at least once during each PCS/military move.

If you’ve been living in a bubble, there was a large explosion at a hazardous waste treatment facility in an industrial park near the center of Apex, NC.  That explosion led to numerous fires and subsequent explosions as the fires spread to other hazardous material storage units.  The fire started around 10:30pm Thursday and was fully extinguished overnight Friday night/Saturday morning.

First and foremost, know that we’re all okay…we were given permission to return to our homes at 9am this morning and we were among the first to go through the entrance to our development at 9am on the nose.

Our house is about 2/3 mile from the building pictured above.  We could easily see the smoke from our front porch.

We heard several of the explosions while Dave and I were watching ER on TV Thursday night, and we also heard wave after wave of fire and police sirens…but it wasn’t till the 11pm news that we learned that there was a potential chlorine gas cloud floating around over Apex.

Dave and I had to act quickly…rumors were rampant, and Dave and I did some quick checks of wind conditions around Apex to see if we were in more or less danger.  That was hard to do because at the time there was a cold front just to the north of the area and winds were quite erratic throughout just ahead of the front.

By 11:30, Dave and I decided to leave.  By this time, they deemed everyone in a 1 mile radius should leave their homes.  As the crow flies, our house is well within 1 mile.  So I called every phone number I know in the neighborhood, alerting them to turn on their TVs and decide whether they were going to leave.  Most of those families I had called were actually outside the 1 mile radius…so for them (at the time) it would have been more precautionary.

Dave and I threw some snacks, coloring supplies, diapers/wipes and empty sippy cups in a laundry basket with a couple of blankets.  We quickly loaded up the kids, dog, Pack n’ Play, jackets, dog food and hopped into the family van.  At the last second I quickly grabbed the NC State parking pass from Dave’s car and put it in the van’s window.  Good thing we did.

So we drove over to Dave’s office.  He had a key to the building and his office so we got everyone inside and put the kids back to sleep.  We put Jake on some blankets on the floor of the office, and for Timmy we planned to just let him sleep in his stroller.  Jake was taking the whole thing very well, doing what we were asking him to do without argument (lately that’s been rare).  He was really tired, though, and I’m sure that was a factor.

Dave wasn’t too keen on our going to his office because there was no TV anywhere that he could access.  But he quickly found that WRAL, the CBS affiliate, was maintaining live webcast of the news coverage, which was constant without commercials until at least 4am.  At one point the chief meteorologist, Greg Fishel, came on and was giving a forecast of how winds were acting around this cold front passing through overnight and mentioned that he didn’t have “air quality” experience so he couldn’t speak to the characteristics of the chlorine gas cloud and how it would act under the existing wind conditions.

I recommended that Dave call up WRAL and ask Greg Fishel is he could use some help from someone with experience in chemical downwind forecasting.  Dave and Greg know each other through our alumni association, and the two have played in a little band our chapter has.  So Dave called up the switchboard and offered up his services.  They spoke extensively on the phone, then Dave offered to come by the station (next door to NC State…about a 5 minute drive).

Dave was at WRAL from about 1-3am Thursday morning.  He didn’t go on the air and he made the point of calling himself a grad student with Air Force experience.  He didn’t want the media to think he was some sort of official Air Force forecaster for this matter.  Good call.  Greg Fishel mentioned that he had an “air quality” expert on hand to help him.  Even though he wasn’t really air quality, at least he wasn’t dragged in front of the camera!

Not long after we arrived, we quickly hopped onto Marriott.com and made a hotel reservation for Friday and Saturday night, just in case.  If things were bad beyond Saturday, I knew we could all go up to my Mom’s house, about 3 ½ hours from here.

Right after Dave left for the station, Timmy woke up.  And was like a tornado through Dave’s office!  He shares the office with many other grad students and Timmy was wanting to climb up into chairs and play with the computers.  NO Timmy!  NO Timmy!  NO Timmy!  So for 2 hours I was trying to keep Timmy off the computers while at the same time convince him to go back to sleep.

When Dave returned I strapped Timmy right back into the van and drove around a bit—at about 3:15 he fell back to sleep.

So I got back to the office, put Timmy on the floor next to Jake, and tried to sleep on the floor with the boys.  We didn’t bring many blankets and I ended up using them on all the kids, so I was just trying to sleep in jeans, a t-shirt and a short jacket…the clothes I was wearing all day Thursday.  Couldn’t do it.  I was SO COLD!  So after about ½ hour, I went out to the van and tried to sleep on the bench seat at the back of the van.  It wasn’t as cold but it was far less comfortable.  I was able to sleep from 4am – 6:45.  Dave came out to the van to tell me the kids were stirring and we’d have to get a move on quickly.  Just as Dave was walking out, my cell phone was ringing.


It was Lisa Coleman, an Air Force friend who teaches AFROTC on campus.  She offered us the use of one of her classrooms if we needed the space.  It turned out I didn’t have anywhere to go while Jake was at preschool.  So that was a very gracious offer!

Dave, by the way, didn’t sleep a wink that night…he had to even give his jacket to the boys while they slept, he was too cold to try to sleep.  He stayed up all night surfing the web and even set up a Facebook page.

So the family went to Chick-fil-a for breakfast, then I dropped off Jake at preschool, then Dave back at his office on campus.  After that it was a short little jog to main campus.  This is where the last-minute parking pass came in handy…I could park right across the street from the AFROTC detachment and zip right in.  Lisa met me at the parking garage and we were quite the sight on campus – not many people walking around with dogs and toddlers in a stroller.

Lisa put us in the classroom with a DVD player and I watched a program about the rise of China’s middle class while Timmy played with a pen and a stack of recycled paper.  Howie (the dog) was with us, too.  We stayed over there about 2 hours and Timmy was pretty well behaved the whole time.  When he ran out of paper to draw on he helped himself to drawing on the tabletop…

While we were in the classroom, another one of the instructors, named Capt. Don Land, stopped by to invite the family to use his apartment in Cary while he and his wife were out of town for the weekend.  What a wonderful invitation!  We made some arrangements, and it was nice to have plans for a roof over our heads through Monday, if necessary.

After I left the AFROTC detachment, I was able to go back to pick up Jake and then make a trip to Walmart.

Earlier Friday morning, Dave and I had to make a small shopping list of provisions we HAD to have to endure another day with just the clothes on our backs.  Luckily, I had thrown my travel toiletry kit in the van, and I always keep activities for the boys in the van in case we end up at the emergency room or something.  The toiletry was pretty good, but I realized Friday morning that some items were missing, like deodorant.

Anyway, one of the things we were going to have to come up with underwear for everyone.  Sigh…we also picked up diapers for Timmy, fleece PJs for the boys (it was in the 60s Thursday night, the low 50s Friday night), a brush, comb, toothbrush for Jake, water, caffineated soda and some coloring stuff for the kids.  It wasn’t too bad, I guess.  I noticed that the choices in men’s underwear was pretty slim.

By this time, the press conferences we were seeing on the news weren’t offering us much hope.  I figured with what we had we could last till we got to my Mom’s house…except for more changes of clothes.  My Mom had been calling several times making sure everyone was okay, and in one of the conversations she offered that my sister Margaret would have some clothes that would fit my boys.  Two of her sons are 2 ½ and 5, so they’re each one year older than my two kids.  Meaning their clothes would be a bit big, but certainly tolerable in public.

So it’s now about 2pm Friday, the media is telling us things like “residents need to be prepared to spend 2-3 days away”.  I had a phone number for the County Emergency Management that I could call at anytime and check the status of returning home.  I probably called them about every 3 hours checking.  And I’m with the boys and dog, still looking for something to do.  Most of my local friends are scattered to the winds, and obviously we can’t just go to someone’s house…most of Jake’s friends also live in the parts of Apex that had to evacuate.  So I went to the local mall for a walk.  My sister works at the mall, so it was convenient that I could talk to her and ask about clothes for the boys.

So we went to Crabtree Valley Mall in northern Raleigh.  My sister works at a “Calendar Club” franchise so I went to say HI to her and we chatted for a bit.  Timmy was fast asleep in his stroller, and Jake enjoyed looking at calendars…particularly the dog calendars.  Margaret pointed out how many other people were wandering through the mall – zombie-like – wearing clothes that resembled pajamas.  So many families were unearthed later than we were – many at 2-3am!

After visiting with my sister, we left the mall, picked up Dave at school and decided to have an early dinner, which was really an attempt to buy a bit more time for the authorities to decide to let us back into our homes.  In the back of my head I figured someone might foot the bill for this inconvenience, so I asked if we could go somewhere nice, even though the family was gross and stinky from not having showered yet since Thursday morning.  We headed to Macaroni Grill in Cary…we went early enough that (for once) there was no wait and we made it through there in minimal time.

Afterwards we headed over to Don and Lindsay Land’s apartment for a brief tour, and to pick up a key.  We agreed that we’d use their apartment starting Saturday morning, if the authorities still weren’t letting us come home.

And after ALL THAT…we placed another call to the County Emergency Management and we were once again told – no, we can’t go home yet.

So we checked into the Residence Inn in North Raleigh, got the kids much-needed baths, enjoyed nice hot showers and immediately went to bed!

As soon as Timmy’s howling woke us up at 7:40am Saturday, I called the County Emergency Management number and got great news: our neighborhood would reopen at 9am Saturday!  Whoo hoo!

Let me tell you…the family wasted NO time eating breakfast, throwing everything willy-nilly into the car and speeding back to Apex.  We rolled through the entrance to our neighborhood at 9am on the nose…many other cars were returning as quickly as possible, too.

It was great to be home, but it was a short trip home – at 10:30am I had to leave with the boys for not one, but two birthday parties.  We were gone till 8pm…and we returned a little early because Timmy got 2nd degree burns on the palms of both his hands and we needed a trip to the emergency room.  But that’s another story….

In closing, we have phone numbers to call for EQ Industries if we’re interested in getting reimbursed for our “inconvenience”.  I think we could get back about $200 in the hotel and meals, and perhaps even that new underwear!

Thanks to Lisa Coleman, John and Bethany Hong, Don and Lindsay Land and the Baba Family for their gracious offers for us to stay at their homes.  I’m glad we didn’t have to impose – we can be quite the zoo!  Also, thanks to the dozens of people who e-mailed us upon realizing, “Hey, I know someone in Apex!  Oh yeah, the Vollmers!”

Finally, we would like to thank Hurricane Frances, the source of our September 2004 evacuation that provided us the experience we needed to remain calm and organized during this recent adventure.