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Fumes, smoke, explosions rock neighborhood

The feared havoc of an industrial plant fire breaking out in a residential neighborhood became reality on Wednesday and caught residents off guard.

The fire, fumes, black smoke and explosions that originated at Highwood USA and tore through a quiet northeast Hometown section of Rush Township caused worry and confusion by many, including this writer who lives in the neighborhood, not far from the plant.

Some houses in the 1950s development are situated in such close proximity to Tidewood East Industrial Park, which was built in later years, that the distance between the homes and the plants is measured not in miles but yards.

First signs of trouble were noticed when black smoke spewed onto the east side of Hometown starting at 9:30 a.m.

It billowed so high and fast that many unsuspecting residents, enjoying the unusually mild fall weather, were outdoors and took notice right away.

“You couldn’t see the mountain at one point,” said Hilary Kennedy of Holland Street. She captured photos of the heavy haze.

It was apparent the smoke was emanating from Tidewood East, located adjacent to Pine and Cumberland avenues.

Within minutes, residents began complaining of burning eyes, irritation and sore and raspy throats.

When the smoke began to settle to the ground, it presented an even greater threat.

In fact, quick action by a fast-thinking employee at Sky-View Memorial Park may have protected the grounds crew from illness.

Patricia Sherry DeLay was going about her duties at the business office when she detected something wrong.

“I walked out to our mailbox to put a piece of mail in and I could smell the fumes from the plastic.”

DeLay immediately alerted the crew before they left for a day of grounds work.

“I went in the garage and told the men to stay inside at least until the smoke cleared. I didn’t want them outside.”

By 9:40, the first sirens rang out. The smoke grew heavier and higher, continuing to be blown eastward by strong winds.

At 9:45, loud explosions reverberated through the neighborhood. At least two powerful blasts were felt as far away as Ye Olde Hauto Road. Some witnessed shrapnel, some type of fragments, hurtling through the air.

“I saw bits of something black. It almost looked like leaves but it wasn’t,” said resident Florence Paisley of Cumberland Avenue. “It was scary.”

By 9:55, Hometown fire police with an electronic bullhorn drove up and down Cumberland.

“Stay sheltered inside! All residents should stay sheltered inside,” they warned.

Some simply chose to flee to safety.

An air quality threat from approaching thick, black clouds was obvious and the wind - which determined the direction of the flow - was unpredictable.

Some were particularly distraught by explosions rocking the neighborhood, and for good reason. There is an underground Sunoco gas pipeline that runs straight down Cumberland Avenue. It proceeds to Route 309 at the Hometown Hill and into Tamaqua, where it continues beneath the Little Schuylkill River bed.

That pipeline is located just west of the Highwood plant where the explosions were taking place.

Emergency crews from three counties responded quickly, but the stubborn black smoke persisted and firefighters battled the blaze for hours.

Residents were frightened and worried for the duration. Without knowing what was going on and fearing more and bigger explosions, some like myself felt it best to leave our homes out of safety concerns, to seek shelter far away.

Effects were felt in Tamaqua, too, where students at Tamaqua Elementary School weren’t allowed to go outdoors at recess over fears of exposure to chemical fumes.

By the afternoon, skies were clear again and residents breathed a sigh of relief. But a strong smell of chemicals and plastic continues to hang over the neighborhood.

A row of trees and a rail line are the only separation between the backyards of some Hometown homes and a large industrial complex, site of Wednesday's blaze, fumes and explosions. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS