Eliza Ranger felt the poison before she smelled it. She was half-dozing while watching the evening news in her living room when her heart started racing and skipping beats. She figured she was having a heart attack.

She looked to her kitchen and noticed black smoke seeping through her windowsills. The creeping smoke smelled of chlorine and plastic. She opened the front door of her tiny apartment and looked west. Instead of sunset, she saw a roiling wall of acrid black smoke tumbling toward her home. It looked to her like the plagues of Exodus, the oil fires of Kuwait. She had no idea what to do.

Less than a mile away, Phoenix firemen of Engine 23 also had no idea what to do. They had no idea what was burning in the Central Garden and Pet Supply building. It smelled different, definitely chemical, heavy with chlorine, clearly dangerous. As they stood pouring water on the building, firemen began to vomit. Days later, paint began peeling off their fire truck.

TV news helicopters descended upon I-10 just downwind from the Central Garden and Pet Supply building fire of August 2, 2000. Thousands of motorists were stopped dead in gridlock as black smoke billowed across the freeway. As they sat trapped in traffic, some drivers opened their doors, leaned over and vomited onto the freeway. Hazy images of commuters kneeling on the freeway puking led the late news.

But soon the smoke cleared and the media went away.

The poisons didn't go away.

Over the past two years, several hundred residents of south Phoenix have documented mysterious ailments that apparently stem from the Central Garden fire of August 2000.

More than 400 of the sick residents are children. There are babies with nosebleeds and sores that won't heal. Stomachaches, earaches, diarrhea, chest pains, vomiting, dizziness, chronic coughs and headaches.

Indeed, as the full scope of the devastation becomes clearer, the Central Garden fire is arguably the most damaging release of hazardous chemicals in the Valley's history.

City, county and state officials still don't know exactly what was in the smoke from the burning warehouse, which was packed with everything from chlorine tablets to some of the world's most lethal pesticides and herbicides.

Nor do government officials know what the long-term effects are for those who inhaled the smoke that blanketed south Phoenix.

The only thing known for sure is this:

A similar chemical fire is bound to happen again in the Valley. And local governments appear to be just as ill-prepared for a new disaster as they were for the Central Garden fire.

The Central Garden fire exposed numerous weaknesses in the Valley's emergency response capabilities:

• City officials had no idea what chemicals were being stored in the company's building. Central Garden and Pet Supply, one of the Valley's largest suppliers of pool and lawn chemicals, had failed to obtain the proper permits that require companies to report the types and amounts of hazardous materials being stored in their building. And city regulators had never inspected the building.

• City and state officials failed to evacuate all the residents of south Phoenix who were engulfed in the smoke.

• As the fire raged, the state's grossly inadequate toxins-monitoring equipment failed. Even when working, the state's equipment is capable of monitoring only a limited number of toxins.

Residents of south Phoenix see more than just incompetence in local government's response to the Central Garden fire.

They claim city and state officials knowingly withheld information that would have helped them understand the full scope of the dangers they faced.

Nor have city officials punished Central Garden for its negligence, negligence that sent more than 50 city police officers and firefighters to the hospital and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight and clean up. Indeed, city attorneys are working hand-in-hand with Central Garden attorneys to fend off claims by south Phoenix residents.

Scott Hanson, spokesman for Central Garden and Pet Supply, said he could not comment about the toxic fire at his company's warehouse because a "judge has issued a protective order on all the documents, on the whole thing."

"We can't comment because there is ongoing litigation," he says.

The Central Garden fire was just one in a series of warehouse fires that have threatened the residents of south Phoenix. Each time, the pattern is the same. Improperly stored chemicals catch fire, a plume of unknown poisons is released and hundreds of residents get sick.

As the months and years go by, neighbors begin dying of rare and inexplicable ailments.

And each time a fire erupts, residents of this traditionally poor, black neighborhood tucked amid sprawling industry become more sure they are the victims of environmental racism.

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Robert Nelson