In 1976, Thomas Benfield bought the old Unagusta Furniture Company property in Hazelwood and created Benfield Industries, a bulk chemical mixing and packaging plant. He also created a time bomb.
On April 21, 1982, the bomb exploded, creating one of the most spectacular and dangerous fires in Haywood County history, forcing the evacuation of almost 2,000 people and destroying the plant. In the smoldering remains another danger lurked, this one not so much an explosive as a time-release poison.
So the Benfield drama that began in Hazelwood in 1976 would go on for almost 40 years: Opening chapters of resident complaints and fears; the drama of a blaze spreading toxic fumes and threatening to level the town; complaints about slow cleanup; discovery of what residents had claimed all along, that chemicals had been dumped in the soil on site; and tedious chapters of bureaucracy tied to a Superfund cleanup site.
If all that were not strange and tragic enough, as the Benfield drama ground to a slow resolution, the company’s founder would meet a tragic end in another country.
If residents, who had complained to Hazelwood officials about the plant, had been inclined to say “I told you so,” it would have been pitiful comfort given their trials the afternoon of Wednesday, April 21, 1982.
The plant’s neighbors had told town officials they feared having a chemical packaging plant in their neighborhood and also said they suspected or witnessed improper handling of those chemicals. Despite their complaints, no follow-up inspection had been done.
Fire broke out about 3:20 p.m. on April 21, believed to have been caused by an electrical short. Within an hour, Hazelwood residents within a half-mile of the plants had been evacuated.
As the smoke roiled and the fire burned power poles and blew transformers, homes near the plant stood dark and silent, some with the doors still open. One or two citizens refused to leave, even as the paint blistered on the sides of their homes.
Meanwhile, firefighters, led by Hazelwood Fire Chief Ed Steinel, were trying to assess what chemicals they faced even as those chemicals started to explode and burn.
The biggest threat came from seven massive storage tanks. The largest contained 10,000 gallons of lacquer. Another held 8,000 gallons of paint thinner; 8,000 gallons of denatured alcohol was in a third. Tank number four held 1,000 gallons of acetone.
Two other tanks held 1,000 gallons of paint solvent each, one containing zylene, the other, tolvene. A seventh contained linseed oil.
On hearing of the acetone, Bill Perrigo, area coordinator for the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, checked his guidelines and found that the acetone alone called for a half-mile evacuation, already underway. But the guidelines also stated that firefighters should be removed from the scene unless lives were in danger. Perrigo relayed the guidelines to the fire chiefs.
But firefighters stayed, compelled by the need to save homes and a desire to keep the tanks hosed down and avoid explosion. At 5:30 p.m., Hazelwood Chief Steinel ordered the firefighters to leave the scene, and since the blaze was in his territory, the order passed on to other departments. Though the firefighters wound up the hoses, they lingered, reluctant to give up and eventually reconnected the hoses and once again focused on keeping the tanks soaked.
Perrigo, the emergency coordinator, would later express mixed feelings about the firefighters’ decision.
“A problem with our small-town volunteer fire departments is, they look to protect property and may take unnecessary risks for what they feel is their duty. Of course you can’t fault them if they get away with it,” he said.
But, “If they had not been there, this building and most of the town wouldn’t be here,” he added.
While most of the firefighters did not have respirators, everyone within a mile of the blaze should have been wearing one, he said.
Firefighters had another peculiar situation to battle. Tom Benfield, owner of the plant, and a few of his employees grabbed a hose to pour water on tanks, telling firefighters they could do it themselves.
Police ordered Benfield and his men back. After backing away, Benfield again grabbed the hose and tried to spray the tanks, at one point trying to take a hose from firefighters.
The wives of the firefighters also held vigil. Some of them left their jobs to gather at the Waynesville fire station and collected food for the men on scene. One wife, when she delivered drinks to firefighters, said she could feel the heat from the fire on the Waynesville Bypass — which was as close as she was allowed to get.
Firefighters battled the blaze through the afternoon and night, though by nightfall it was clear that they had won the effort to keep the seven storage tanks from explosion. It might have seemed the drama was over, but this battle had only been round one.
Still to come would be assessments of Benfield’s role in the danger, of the town’s role in policing the chemical plant, evaluations of emergency response, questions about placing such a facility in a residential area — and the big discovery, that Benfield had been dumping chemicals into the soil rather than disposing of them properly.
Next week: The long, slow cleanup of a Superfund site and the tragic end of the life of Thomas Benfield.