Wake Forest University students on fertilizer plant fire

Linda Rider

By Mariama Jallow  

On the evening of Jan. 31, a fertilizer plant with 600 tons of ammonium nitrate inside caught on fire on Cherry Street in Winston-Salem, displacing 6,500 residents while emergency officials waited to see if the combustible materials would cause explosions.

The Winston Weaver Company Fertilizer site is not too far from Wake Forest University, a campus with nearly 7,600 students who will return to class this week with many questions after a chaotic several days. Many are wondering about the long-term effects of being in close proximity to such a huge fire.

Environment North Carolina advocate Krista Early issued a statement commending the Winston-Salem fire department for its abundance of caution while also encouraging a longer-term discussion about how to better protect communities near such facilities.

“This hazardous chemical poses an immediate threat to life in addition to unnecessary long-term environmental health risks,” Early said. “Hopefully, none of our fellow North Carolinians gets hurt here. And when this crisis is over, we need to have a serious conversation about stockpiling dangerous chemicals.”

Wake is 1.7 miles from the fertilizer plant, only slightly outside the evacuation zone established by the fire department. Deacon Place, off-campus apartments owned by the university, are closer and the students living there and in other housing within a mile from the plant were encouraged to find alternate housing this past week.

In an email sent on Jan. 31, Wake Forest administrators told students that the ZSR Library, the Wellbeing Center, and Benson — home to the food court, mailing services, and meeting rooms — were open for those forced to leave their homes. 

“You may wish to bring a sleeping bag, pillow, and/or blanket to be comfortable if the evacuation lasts more than a short time,” the email said. 

At 10:03 p.m., the burning building collapsed and firefighters abandoned the blaze because they did not have enough water to contain the fire amid the persistent risk of an explosion.

It’s unclear what caused the fire. The Winston-Salem Journal reported on Saturday that firefighters had responded to a complaint the day after Christmas from neighbors who reported seeing smog around the plant and smelling a pungent odor. Firefighters found fertilizer material smoldering then, according to the Journal, and flooded it with water, concluding at the time there was no risk of explosion.

Then five weeks later, thousands of lives were disrupted by a blaze so large and so dangerous that firefighters had to back away for their own safety.

A threat to marginalized neighbors

Kristen Minor, health manager at CleanAireNC, a nonprofit based in North Carolina that advocates for the health of all the state’s residents by focusing on air pollution and climate change, says policies need to be created to better protect neighborhoods surrounding plants with hazardous materials.

Often these facilities, such as the Winston-Salem plant, are in low-income and marginalized communities, underscoring the environmental hazards and long-standing disparities caused by redlining. The Winston-Salem plant is in a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood surrounded by small businesses.

“Redlining, it’s a systemic process in which communities of color were prevented from accessing housing, particularly loans, which led to black communities and other communities of color over time being concentrated in areas where they had more exposure to environmentally polluting industries,” Minor said. “So it isn’t a story that happened overnight. This is a systemic issue that has been taking place over decades.”

The potentially combustible chemical inside the fertilizer plant, ammonium nitrate, was the source of the Beirut explosion in 2020 which killed 135 people and injured more than 5,000. Although there were 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in that plant compared to 600 in the Winston-Salem facility, fire officials have said that an explosion would destroy surrounding homes and small businesses owned by marginalized communities.   

A state of panic

By late evening on Jan. 31, many Wake students were panicking. Those living on and off-campus started to flee the area. Some stayed with friends further from the site, others booked hotels around Winston-Salem or in neighboring towns. A few returned to their homes out of state.

Wake Forest announced the cancellation of class the next day just one minute after midnight.

Sukaina Maadir, a senior at Wake Forest, fled to Clemmons the night of the fire and booked a hotel there with friends. She recalled being on University Parkway, a major thoroughfare near Wake Forest, heading back to her apartment at Deacon Place, when she saw the billowing smoke and fire trucks lined up. That was about 8:20 p.m.

“An hour had passed and I didn’t hear anything and suddenly all the alerts from Wake started coming in,” Maadir said.

Initially, Maadir downplayed what she had seen, going about her night as usual. The biggest thing on her mind was what to make for dinner.

“I didn’t know what to do because the evacuation was voluntary, so my roommates and I started doing some research on past plant explosions and ammonium nitrate,” she said. “We realized that if that does explode, like the gasses and stuff that would come out of it could potentially be harmful so we decided to evacuate and go to campus.”

Wake Forest Campus covered in smoke from the fire. Photo credit: Kenzey Tracy

“I took my contacts out because my eyes were irritated, I double-masked and at this point, I was in a stage of panic,” Maadir recalled. “I started grabbing things in my room and shoving it in my backpack.”

Her eyes became itchy and watery. She worried about her health.

In her fevered trepidation, though, she hadn’t packed as systematically as she might have.

Smoke had reached parts of the Wake campus already, Maadir said, leaving her with such an unsettling feeling that she decided it wouldn’t be safe to spend the night there.

Others decided to stay, at least for a while. Edna Ulysse, a senior at Wake Forest and resident advisor living on campus, was one of those students.

Late that Monday night, after the fire had been burning for a couple of hours, Ulysse’s entire room was saturated with the smell of the smoke. She described the odor as a mix between toxic chemicals and burning grass.

“I had to put my mask on when I went to sleep because my nose started getting a little irritated,” Ulysse said.

Ulysse lives on the fourth floor in a North Campus building where she typically has a view of Wait Chapel, a large parking lot and some surrounding buildings. When she opened her blinds in the morning, she was taken aback. The smoke was so thick, she couldn’t even make out the usual landmarks.

“That was when I realized I should have evacuated,” she said. “My friends were offering for me to stay with them. At first, I wanted to wait and see how bad it would get, but that morning I was too scared to drive in the fog,” said Ulysse.

“It wasn’t until I got to the hotel that I realized I packed my computer and a bag of Doritos,” Maadir said, lamenting essentials she had forgotten to grab.

The invisible threat

Minor of CleanAire said that while many were focused on the immediate possibility of explosion after the fire, she wanted to remind people of the threat that particulate matter poses. 

“Particulate matter is very fine particles, not visible to the naked eye, it’s smaller than a hair particle,” Minor said. “There is no safe level of exposure to particulate matter. For short-term exposure, individuals at more risk include pregnant women, children and seniors, as well as individuals with underlying conditions such as any respiratory condition that need to remain indoors.”

In such situations, people should close all windows and doors if they are indoors, Minor said. Outdoor activities should be minimized, she suggested.

“Even for individuals who are otherwise healthy and may not have an underlying condition, exposure to particulate matter is a health hazard for everyone,” Minor said. “Short-term exposure could be a cough, sore throat, shortness of breath. But long-term exposure can impact one’s overall health. That could be an increased risk for reproductive health, increased risk for low birth weight preterm delivery, for seniors, increased risk of heart attack or stroke, or any cardiovascular events.”

Wake Forest Campus covered in orange colored smoke from the fire. Photo credit: Kenzey Tracy

Minor said that children are a very vulnerable population because their bodies are still developing and since they breathe in air twice as fast as adults, they are exposed to more pollutants in the air. 

The smoke and particulate matter can be spread farther than initial perimeters, Minor added, by winds and other climate forces. Air Now displays air quality in local areas while also showing what is happening across the state, country and around the world.  

How much particulate matter enters people’s homes, Minor said, depends on the condition of one’s home and the quality of the air filtration systems that can provide a barricade.

“One thing you want to regularly do is make sure your air filter is clean,” Minor said. “Some apartment complexes may actually have a maintenance team who regularly checks your air filter. If you do live in an apartment or home where the air filtration system is not in place, we do recommend individuals consider purchasing a healthy air filter and HEPA air filter.”

Students, parents question the university’s response

At a press conference on Feb. 2, Winston-Salem fire chief William Mayo said that if the plant exploded, it could be one of the worst explosions caused by a fire in U.S. history.

Knowing that, some Wake Forest students wonder now whether the university should have been more concerned about the short- and long-term health impacts.

Eman Maadir, a cousin of Sukaina Maadir’s and a junior at Wake Forest, recalled the initial confusion, the subsequent panic and the current questioning of whether administrators gave the best guidance.

Immediately after the fire broke out, Maadir was going about her night as she typically would. Then the smell of acid made her go to the window. 

“When I looked outside the sky was a bleak shade of orange,” she recalled. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh the firefighters will control the fire.’”

She hopped in the shower. By the time she got out, though, the smell in her room was even worse. She found her roommate having a breathing attack in the living room.

Resident advisors, who are in dorms to give students guidance when they need it, usually sit in the “RA box” on the first floor of residence halls to be accessible to students. Maadir went downstairs to seek advice, but the RA on duty had already evacuated, she said. 

Later, she recalled that even then she had a scratchy throat and a slight tingling in her nose.

“All I saw were swarms of people with overnight bags leaving the building,” Maadir said. “Some people were carrying loose pieces of clothing and running out of the building. I heard some girls screaming and talking about booking a hotel and that is when I realized that I may have to evacuate.”

It was then Maadir decided to get a hotel room, too. She and five of her other friends crammed into a room with two beds. She didn’t immediately tell her parents because she didn’t want to scare them. 

“When I woke up I saw the fire being reported by most major news organizations and knew my friends and I would be staying another night,” she said. “Throughout this whole time, Wake Forest was telling us it was safe to stay on campus, but it was not. I also do not think they were very helpful in finding students places to stay, especially students who had to evacuate Deacon Place apartments.” 

On the Wednesday after the fire broke out, Wake Forest informed students that classes would resume on Thursday. There was an immediate outcry from students and parents. Many turned to their social media accounts to call for the cancellation of classes. A petition gained more than 5,000 signatures on a campus where the undergraduate and graduate student population is about 7,500.

Wake Forest quickly reversed course and agreed to cancel classes Thursday and Friday, too.

In an email sent to all students, the university said “we received additional information from students and families regarding the scope and degree of challenges faced by those displaced. This understanding has informed a decision by academic leadership to cancel classes on the Reynolda Campus, Wake Downtown and Brookstown for the remainder of the week Thursday, Feb. 3, and Friday, Feb. 4.”

University officials tried to soothe concerns about any environmental threats.“In addition, EPA air-quality readings on and near campus continue to indicate that the air currently poses no threat to individual health and is safe to breathe,” the email stated.

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