Employees evacuate W. R. Grace

April 28, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

A chemical used in making glue caught fire at W. R. Grace & Co. in Columbia yesterday, forcing fire and safety officials to evacuate the company's 500 employees for two hours and to close a portion of Route 32 to accommodate fire equipment.

No one was reported injured in the small fire that started at about 11 a.m. in a drying machine in Building 16, one of six facilities at Grace's Washington Research Center off Guilford Road. The center researches and develops chemicals used to make fireproofing and packaging materials.

A sprinkler system extinguished the fire, which was contained in a 40- by 50-foot multipurpose room. But fire companies from as far away as Bethesda and Burtonsville were called to the scene because of fear that flammable liquid stored in nearby tanks might ignite.

Route 32 was closed to make room for the more than 20 pieces of fire equipment on hand, not because of fear that hazardous material would escape, said Battalion Chief Donald Howell of the Howard County Fire and Rescue Services.

Lab technician Michael Salvatore discovered the fire in a container underneath a dryer as he was shutting off the machine, which was drying the chemical hexene, used in developing glue.

"It was very small -- a two-foot area," said Mr. Salvatore, who does the drying routine three times a week. His first thought was "to evacuate the building for everybody else's safety," he said.

Company officials, who had no damage estimate yesterday, said they did not know what started the fire.

They said the process being used to dry the chemical was not out of the ordinary.

"It was a process we tried out before," said Joseph Raksis, vice president. "For reasons we don't understand at this time, the fire developed . . . We're pleased nobody was hurt."

Company officials have hired Silver Spring-based Remac, a company that deals with hazardous substances, to clean up the water from the sprinkler system, Mr. Raksis said. "It could have been bad, but everything is fine," he said.

Shortly after the blaze, employees sprawled across W. R. Grace's lawn, waiting for the word to re-enter.

Aside from the research center, the Boca Raton, Fla.-based company's local operations include the Grace Davison Chemical Division in downtown Baltimore and a silica plant in Curtis Bay.

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