By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Nobody tells us anything," she says. "We don't know if those buildings are full of cardboard boxes or nuclear waste. We only find out once they burn."
In the early 1980s, the city rezoned south Phoenix as an industrial area, altering the zoning to allow industries that used, handled or manufactured toxic chemicals to locate there.
By 1989, environmental testing showed that south Phoenix was one of the most toxic industrial areas in the state. Two south Phoenix zip codes have the highest concentration in the state of industries filing Toxic Release Inventory Reports.
A decade later, environmental monitoring showed that one zip code in south Phoenix -- 85040 -- produced nearly 40 percent of all hazardous emissions in the city of Phoenix.
In 1989, a fire erupted at a circuit board manufacturing plant near Muldrow's home. The company, QPC, used various dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acids to etch the circuit boards.
Hundreds of residents suffered respiratory problems from inhaling the smoke. According to city records, the death rate increased considerably in the neighborhood following the fire.
City fire inspectors found that QPC had been negligent in its handling of the toxins.
Despite that fact, the city granted QPC permission to build a larger factory in the same neighborhood. City inspectors even granted QPC an exemption from city requirements that such buildings have overhead sprinklers.
On August 31, 1992, QPC burned again, this time sending an even larger plume of vaporized acids, heavy metals and hydrocarbons into the Muldrows' home. The fired burned for 12 hours and smoldered for more than a week.
Flora's father lived only four blocks from her home at 32nd Street and Mobile. Her father's home was enveloped in the QPC smoke that day.
Within weeks, he began losing weight. Within six months, his weight had dropped from 250 pounds to 129. His arms were covered with blisters.
Doctors couldn't determine what was wrong with him.
A survey taken in 1994 of homeowners who lived near QPC showed an alarming rise in the number of cancer cases in the neighborhood. Residents developed rashes, lung ailments, eye disorders. In many cases, people's hair began falling out.
More than 500 residents documented some sort of ailment following the fire.
In 1994, the City of Phoenix adopted its Uniform Fire Code, which detailed specific rules for transporting, storing, handling and disposing of hazardous chemicals.
The problem: The city didn't have inspectors to enforce the rules.
In 1995, a state environmental task force deemed Muldrow's neighborhood a "High Risk/High Priority" area and made numerous recommendations for protecting the residents of south Phoenix.
But none of the recommendations were implemented.
Two years later, south Phoenix residents were able to secure a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Homes and soil were tested for contamination.
Flora's father's home was tested and was found to have high levels of chloride, lead, copper, zinc and numerous other toxins.
Many of the homes were gutted to rid them of the contamination.
Despite all this, city officials failed to inspect the other warehouses and factories surrounding the Muldrows and their neighbors.
A few blocks away, another time bomb was ticking inside the Central Garden warehouse.
Chemical fires were nothing new for Central Garden and Pet Supply.
In 1992, the same year as the second QPC fire in south Phoenix, a Central Garden warehouse in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also caught fire.
The 1992 blaze began when Central Garden workers dropped several pallets of the pool chemical calcium hypochlorite. As the workers tried to clean up the mess, the chemical began reacting violently. The chlorine tablets finally exploded, sending a cloud of chlorine vapor over Baton Rouge. Police evacuated nearby residents.
Phoenix and Arizona environmental officials didn't know about the 1992 fire until earlier this year.
In fact, they knew next to nothing about Central Garden's activities.
By August 2000, Central Garden's Phoenix warehouse was brimming with deadly poisons. The company's inventory included dozens of chemicals on the federal CERCLA Hazardous Chemicals list and the EPCRA Extremely Hazardous Substances list. Many of the chemicals are the most hazardous used in industry today.
Besides calcium hypochlorite, the warehouse held diazenon, malathion, 2,4-D and Dursban.
Yet Central Garden failed to report to the city the extent of the chemicals it was storing.
Central Garden and Pet Supply officials refused to speak about the August 2000 fire. Central Garden no longer has a warehouse in the Valley, according to the company's spokesman.
On the morning of August 2, 2000, Central Garden employees began smelling a heavy chlorine odor in the warehouse. Workers determined the odor was coming from pallets stacked with five-gallon plastic buckets full of trichloro chlorine tablets. A supervisor ordered workers to move the chlorine tablets outside the warehouse.
Early that afternoon, believing the chemicals had been properly ventilated, they moved the trichloro tablets back into the warehouse.
At 3:50 p.m., the last Central Garden employee left the building. The building still smelled of chlorine, the man told fire investigators. The man set the warehouse alarm and drove home.
Over the next hour, the chemicals apparently began to react violently, much as they had in the 1992 fire in Louisiana.
At 5:02 p.m., alarms sounded and smoke began rolling from the building. The fire quickly overwhelmed the warehouse's sprinkler system.