Firefighters brought a once-raging chemical plant fire under control early Saturday, more than a day after it filled the sky with a noxious yellow haze and chased hundreds of people from their homes.
Officials warned late Friday that the blaze could smolder into Sunday under the protection of twisted metal and unstable walls. But with the aid of heavy machinery, firefighters removed the barrier and attacked the remaining hot spots.
"It's essentially out, but they just want to make sure," Wake County spokeswoman Sharon Brown said. "This fire is very unpredictable."
Firefighters started the deliberate work of trying to extinguish the smoldering remains of the EQ Industrial Services plant by spraying a fire-retardant foam on the heap Friday night. They didn't move in closer earlier because of the dangerous fumes rising from a fire fed by industrial wastes including paints, solvents, pesticides and weed killer.
"The pace at which we are going has more to do with an investigation," said Capt. Keith Wilder of the Raleigh Fire Department, a hazardous materials specialist. "We want to make sure that we fully document everything and we preserve all evidence."
The fire began late Thursday, and officials soon begged people to stay away from the city's downtown. They initially urged about half of Apex's 32,000 residents to evacuate, then expanded the request as a dangerous plume of smoke and chemicals started to move.
"We weren't talking about the town bakery," said Police Chief Jack Lewis.
He said he was nauseated all night and that several of the first police officers to arrive at the fire required medical care for respiratory problems, chest pains and nausea.
Several hundred people took shelter at area schools, but Mayor Keith Weatherly said officials were unsure how many people actually left their homes. About 30 people remained at the last of the shelters Friday night before EQ Industrial officials offered to send them all to hotels.
The fire disrupted the lives of thousands.
The business district of the Raleigh suburb was shut down Friday, schools were closed and nearly all the night's high school football games were canceled.
No serious injuries were reported. Wake County officials said 44 people went to emergency rooms, most complaining of respiratory problems. All were released by Friday afternoon.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately known.
"Because of the many different types of waste that we bring in, it's very difficult to determine the cause of the fire," EQ spokesman Robert Doyle said.