As Macon-Bibb County firefighters tried in vain to contain flames that destroyed a south Bibb County packaging plant Wednesday morning, workers realized their jobs were going up in smoke.
Pactiv Advanced Packaging Solutions makes egg cartons and other materials near the Middle Georgia Regional Airport and has a number of vendors and suppliers.
“It’s going to be hurting a lot of people,” said Margaret Erdman of Byron, who has worked 17 years at the plant. “We’ve had other fires and (firefighters have) always gotten them out.”
Cinders fell like black snow as employees took pictures on their cellphones from a safe haven across the street.
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Men with fire extinguishers stood on a neighboring rooftop to protect their building across from Pactiv’s location at 7670 Airport Road.
Signs hung from the doorways congratulating the company’s Macon team for 2 million hours without a lost-time accident.
What likely began in stacks of warm packages escalated to an inferno unleashing several explosions.
“It was probably the propane tanks on the forklifts” that exploded, said maintenance worker Ken Erdman, an 18-year Pactiv veteran, who works with his wife at the plant.
“I know all the employees got out. I’m more worried about the firefighters,” Margaret Erdman said.
They suspect the fire could thwart company plans for expansion.
“Every cloud has its silver lining,” Ken Erdman said, “and at least we met here.”
The Erdmans and some other workers couldn’t bear to watch the plant burn down and decided to leave.
Fighting the fire
Danger of a building collapse forced firefighters to retreat from inside the building at the airport industrial park.
Several explosions were likely due to the forklift fuel and acetylene cylinders inside the plant, Chief Marvin Riggins said while the blaze was roaring.
Shortly after the 6:07 a.m. fire call, crews arriving from the airport fire station worked to locate the source of the fire, but it quickly spread through the piles of stacked cartons and paper.
“We have been able to contain a lot of the fires out here in this building,” Riggins said. “But this one has penetrated itself throughout the front end.”
Flames that were only shooting through the back corner roof at about 7:30 a.m. devoured the building about an hour later.
The brick front of the building buckled in the intense heat once the blaze breached the sprinkler zone, Riggins said.
Spontaneous combustion of the packages is the probable cause, he said.
“The process itself is very hot and when they’re stacked, they are pretty warm,” Riggins said. “From time to time, they are accustomed to having spontaneous combustion.”
In January 2005, firefighters investigated an explosion that was confined to an oven, but temporarily shut down the plant.
An army of new fire recruits, with their names duct-taped to their helmets, got a trial by fire during the blaze. They arrived by bus as experienced firefighters moved back from the collapse zone.
“Welcome to the fire department,” Riggins said, as the rookies marched up the street.
All firefighters were accounted for after the blasts, and no one was initially injured, Riggins said.
Shortly after 7:30 a.m., shift change brought a fresh batch of men in boots, helmets and heavy fire coats.
Nine American Red Cross volunteers brought snacks and dry socks to the crews fighting the fire.
By lunchtime, Firehouse Subs, Burger King and Chick-fil-A sent meals for firefighters.
Through the morning, smoke blanketed the Middle Georgia Regional Airport like fog.
Three aerial ladders battled the orange flames that rose about 30 feet into the sky during the peak of the fire.
Fiery pockets shot out from the top edge of the building on both sides, as crews hosed down fire trucks to keep them cool.
‘It was on then’
Workers say everyone got out safely and evacuated when the white smoke started filling the building.
Some were treating it as if it were a fire drill and were joking with each other, but once they saw the flames, their mood shifted to somber.
Jack Robinson, of Hamlet, N.C., thought it was only steam rising from the roof when he pulled in with a load of waste paper before the first fire truck arrived.
He was amazed how the flames engulfed the building.
“It was on then. The more they fought it, the more it spread,” Robinson said. “It’s been exploding pretty good and the walls is falling in.”
Although Robinson originally said his load was safe, one of the trailers backed up to the building did eventually catch fire.
Firefighters used a saw to cut through the metal and extinguish its burning cargo.
Because of the amount of cartons and paper inside, fire investigators expected to keep watch on the building for days.
Sgt. Ben Gleaton said he will likely have to rely on witness accounts to pinpoint exactly where the fire started.
Like other fires he’s investigated there, he suspects spontaneous combustion will be the cause.
“The way the warehouse is packed, once it started jumping pallets, it consumed the whole building,” Gleaton said.
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.