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.
"The city dumps everything down here," says south Phoenix resident Flora Bell Muldrow. "Our neighborhood is just one big trash can for everything nobody else wants."
Flora Muldrow and her husband, Samuel, moved to south Phoenix in 1963. Back then cotton fields and dairy farms surrounded her neighborhood.
"You could walk your dogs and they could chase the rabbits," Muldrow says. "But all that has changed."
Each year, it seemed, a new warehouse went up in her neighborhood. And residents, she says, were never asked if they wanted the buildings in their neighborhood, nor were they ever informed what would be stored in the buildings.
"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.
Moments later, a resident of the neighborhood ran to the firehouse of Engine 23. Within 20 minutes, 137 firefighters had arrived at the warehouse to battle the blaze.
None of them knew exactly what they were getting themselves into.
"It definitely is scary not knowing what's out there," says Bob Khan, Phoenix's assistant fire chief. "I stood in the water from that fire for 23 hours. I still don't know exactly what I was standing in."
Everyone Eliza Ranger loves lives within two blocks of her in the Villas East apartment complex.
Eliza's daughter, Diana, lives to the south of her. Granddaughter Tamica and grandson Kevin live to the north.
All have suffered because of the black cloud that rolled over their homes two years ago.
That evening, as Eliza's heart continued to sputter, Diana returned to the apartment complex from work. At the front gate her neighbors were filing into a bus. They were being evacuated.
But her mother wasn't there.
At first, police tried to stop Diana from entering the complex. She used a different entrance and finally reached her mother's apartment.
"She tells me, We've got to get out of here, they're evacuating everyone,'" Eliza says. "Nobody told me that. Nobody came to my door and did anything to tell me to clear out of here."
Emergency personnel missed numerous apartments as they went door to door telling people to leave.
That evening, Eliza's heart settled down. But the next morning, it was racing again.
She went to an emergency room in Tempe. Doctors said she was not having a heart attack. They said they weren't sure what was wrong with her.
She then went to Good Samaritan Hospital. Doctors there also were no help.
Finally, after exploratory surgery, a heart specialist placed her on nitroglycerin. Over time, her heart problems began to fade.
Her grandson, Kevin, suffered asthma attacks from breathing in the toxic vapors. Her great-granddaughter, Keosha, who also has asthma, now needs a respirator to help her breathe.
The Rangers are just a few of hundreds of people whose lives were changed for the worse that day.
Flora Bell Muldrow also wasn't evacuated. She slept through the night amid the toxins.
"When I woke up, my eyes were stuck together with gunk," she says. "It was like pink eye. And my throat was terribly sore and I had an awful headache."
As the days passed, Muldrow's vision deteriorated. She thought she was going blind. Doctors were of little help. She stopped driving because she couldn't see.
Like Eliza Ranger, Muldrow finally found a medical specialist who could help. Her problem, the doctor said, was that chemicals from the smoke had gotten trapped in her eyelid. Her vision returned after she had her eyes cleaned of the toxins.
However, her cough continued to get worse.
"It was such a raging cough I'd get to the place where I wanted to vomit," she says. "It was so embarrassing. I stopped going to church because I didn't want to make a scene."
Her cough has improved some, thanks to asthma inhalants.
This list of victims is staggering.
One-year-old Tyvaugn Harry had green ooze coming from her eyes after the fire.
Two-year-old Isaiah Roper was covered from head to toe with a rash.
Three-year-old Alviana Hayes had a runny nose, fever, breathing problems, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, watery eyes and a cough that won't go away.
Jamal Bradley, 7, had blood in his urine after the fire.
Nine-year-old Janice Jones' hair fell out.
Andrea Ybanez, 11, couldn't go to PE anymore because her asthma got so bad.
Even the children who weren't injured had their lives affected. Gabrae Jackson, 12, and Mia Groves, 13, both fear they're doomed to die of cancer.
"I have four generations of my family here in south Phoenix," Flora Muldrow says. "We were all right here inhaling this stuff. They have poisoned my whole family."
Phoenix Fire Department officials called the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality at 5:05 p.m. August 2, 2000, just moments after the Central Garden fire was spotted. It is department protocol to call ADEQ the moment a fire is deemed to involve hazardous materials.
ADEQ, in turn, then dispatched its Hazardous Air Response Team, known as HART, or its Emergency Response Unit.
ADEQ's HART and ERU teams, however, didn't arrive on the scene until 6:17 p.m., more than an hour later.
They began setting up their monitoring equipment. Several times the equipment failed to get a proper reading.
Finally, at 6:25 p.m., ADEQ measurements showed high concentrations of acid in the air. It was time to evacuate the area.
However, the agency's testing equipment was not sophisticated enough to register what types of acids were in the air. The equipment also was incapable of testing for numerous other chemicals now known to have been released in the fire.
ADEQ, Arizona Department of Health Services and Phoenix city personnel began knocking on the doors of some, but not all, of the residents of Villas East. Many residents, like Eliza Ranger, were not evacuated.
Phoenix firemen wore protective masks to fight the fire. But many removed those masks as they retreated to a water station. Firemen began vomiting and having trouble breathing. Five firemen were treated for toxic smoke inhalation.
About four million gallons of contaminated water ran into six wells surrounding Central Garden's warehouse and into a key storm drain for south Phoenix. Those wells serve as drinking water for the people of south Phoenix. City and state officials failed to dam the water as required in chemical fires.
Several animals, including family pets, died after drinking the runoff.
At 10 p.m., the fire broke through into an adjacent pharmaceutical company. Highly toxic chemotherapy drugs ignited in the pharmaceutical warehouse.
The fire burned until 4 the next morning.
ADEQ officials sent air samples from the fire to a laboratory in California for analysis. According to documents obtained by New Times, though, ADEQ officials ordered tests only for hydrocarbons typically released in standard, non-hazardous-materials fires.
Then, on August 7, clearly aware that testing was incomplete, ADEQ officials issued a press release stating there was no "public health concern" from the fire to the residents of south Phoenix.
At the time, ADEQ hadn't even received test results of the runoff water. Those tests weren't evaluated by ADEQ until a month later.
In a September 11, 2000, internal memo obtained by New Times, ADEQ's water-quality division director presented then-ADEQ director Jacqueline Schafer with a much less rosy picture of the Central Garden fire's impact on the neighborhood.
"Sixteen pesticides were detected in either or both samples," wrote water-quality director Chuck Graf in the internal memo. "Of those, seven were found above published levels for drinking water."
The water was also found to contain arsenic at more than 100 times the maximum level allowable for drinking water. Nitrate levels also were extremely high.
South Phoenix residents say they were never told about those test results. They say that Arizona Department of Health Services officials also kept them in the dark about the potential health impacts of the fire.
And as city and state officials told the public there was no health hazard from the fire, city fire officials were ordering firemen involved in fighting the fire to turn in their boots and other gear for fear of contamination. The gear was found to be full of high levels of toxic chemicals including phenol and pyrene. Older leather boots were found to hold the most contaminants. The city issued new gear to the firemen.
However, city or state officials never informed residents of south Phoenix that their clothes or leather shoes may also be toxic.
To those suffering mysterious illnesses, it appeared city and state officials hid critical information from them.
After the fire was extinguished, ADEQ then turned over control of the site to the managers of Central Garden.
That final mistake led to yet another disaster.
Once the fire stopped smoldering, Central Garden officials discovered that much of their chlorine had survived beneath the charred remains of the building.
ADEQ officials told Central Garden owners to get the chlorine removed from the site as quickly as possible.
On August 10, ADEQ officials informed Central Garden that the remaining chlorine was still emitting hazardous amounts of gas. It needed to be taken care of immediately.
Central Garden drafted a protocol for the chlorine's removal that was okayed by ADEQ officials. On August 11, Central Garden employees boxed the waste chlorine in cardboard boxes and placed it in a refrigerated truck trailer next to the burned building.
New Times obtained documents showing that a company supervisor planned to sell the waste chlorine to a local pool company for several thousand dollars.
He didn't get a chance to sell it.
Around midnight, the trailer ignited in flames.
Beginning at 1:30 a.m., south Phoenix residents, including Flora Muldrow, began calling city officials complaining of a heavy chlorine smell in their homes.
The wind that evening carried the smoke toward the northwest.
By 2:30 a.m., residents as far west as 16th Street were calling to complain about the fumes.
This smaller fire was put out by 3:30 a.m.
Still, once again, the damage had been done.
"I woke up at 2:05 a.m. and screamed, Oh my God, the house is on fire!'" Flora Muldrow says. "I couldn't see my hand in front of me, the smoke was so thick. I just wonder what would have happened if I hadn't woke up."
In the two years since the twin fires at Central Garden, Flora and Samuel Muldrow have lost many neighbors. Leslie Nelson, their next-door neighbor, died two months ago of a rare cancer. In the next house down, both the husband and wife died of cancer. "Nine or 10" have died just this year in the neighborhood, she says.
The Muldrows would like to move from their contaminated neighborhood. The problem is: Everybody knows it's a contaminated neighborhood.
"Everybody knows this place is a death trap," Flora says. "Nobody wants to buy a house that's going to kill them."
Bob Khan, assistant fire chief and spokesman for the Phoenix Fire Department, knows there is a problem with how the city and state respond to hazardous-waste emergencies.
He has often walked into fires in which he had no idea what was burning.
"Some companies have used our lack of resources to their advantage," Khan says. "If somebody wants to cheat, it's still virtually impossible for us to stop them."
In 1989, the City of Phoenix stopped doing inspections of the Valley's industries. The Phoenix Fire Department was understaffed.
Despite serious problems in south Phoenix dating back into the 1980s, Arizona legislators have repeatedly passed bills to allow industries to report their own violations rather than submit to government supervision.
Some companies, though, clearly can't be trusted.
In the last year, the Phoenix Fire Department has again begun inspecting Valley industries to ensure they are in compliance with hazardous-materials statutes. The department now has a 14-member team headed by a deputy chief that inspects Valley businesses.
But they are desperately behind in inspecting all of the city's industries. Environmental experts estimate it will take another five years for inspectors to hit all of the city's major hazardous-material sites.
The Phoenix Fire Department is also working on another critical loophole in its ability to fight hazardous-materials fires. The department is "one or two years away," Khan says, from having all the Valley's industries' hazardous-waste inventories documented in electronic files. Such files would allow firemen to instantly access company information, which would tell them what they're up against as they approach a fire.
Of course, that depends on the company telling the truth.
"We still badly need industry to tell us the truth about what they're storing," Khan says. "If they're lying to us, the whole system breaks down."
The state's Department of Environmental Quality also has much work to do to better protect Arizonans. The department's monitoring equipment is badly outdated; its hazardous-materials response team still clearly underfunded and substandard for a population this size.
A May 2001 review of the state's response to the fire, conducted by an outside environmental consultant, found numerous critical mistakes in the department's air-testing methods.
In particular, ADEQ failed to monitor for particulates and pesticides, and didn't monitor for deadly chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and nitric acid until the next day.
"In light of the sampling inadequacies," the report stated, "it is not apparent that [ADEQ officials] followed a standard operating procedure for catastrophic events like fires or massive chemical releases." If they "did adhere to standard procedures, those procedures should be reevaluated."
The report was also critical of health monitoring conducted by the Arizona Department of Health Services.
"It would have been useful for ADHS to survey [health] clinics for potential temporal increases in respiratory complaints and to continue monitoring the local hospitals for several more weeks."
The report continued: "While such follow-up work requires a sizeable investment of time and agency resources, it is, nonetheless, essential to understand the true health impacts of an event such as this warehouse fire."
Within the next year, though, residents of Maricopa County will be notified much more quickly and thoroughly if they are downwind from a chemical fire such as the one at Central Garden and Pet Supply. A new Community Emergency Notification System is currently being installed thanks to state funding won from a recent $2.5 million settlement from the chronic Valley polluter TRW, the subject of an extensive New Times investigation last year.
The automated telephone system will call every resident within the affected area, in both English and Spanish, and inform them to evacuate their homes.
"We believe it's a real step ahead in emergency response," says Patrick Gibbons, the spokesman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
ADEQ also will be providing medical testing to residents of south Phoenix as part of a settlement with residents who were injured by the Central Garden fire.
However, comprehensive chemical fire monitoring may still be years away. ADEQ officials will be asking for state-of-the-art chemical monitoring equipment in the next budget they provide to state legislators. But the equipment is expensive and, considering the current budget crisis, secondary to the department's more pressing goal -- keeping all its inspectors and other personnel, a staff that also is far leaner than for states of comparable size. At best, it will be three years before ADEQ has proper chemical fire monitoring equipment.
"We're looking at budget cuts that would mean people would be laid off," Gibbons says. "It is a very difficult time to be looking for equipment when you're faced with losing critical members of your staff."
As for Central Garden and Pet Supply, like chronic polluters before them, the company has run from the city now that it's done its damage. Scott Hanson, the company's spokesman, said the company is now shipping to the Valley from warehouses in California and other neighboring states.
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"We're not there anymore," he says. "We're trucking everything into Phoenix."
For south Phoenix residents such as Flora Muldrow, the fact that Central Garden and Pet Supply is gone is little solace. For the past 40 years, she has watched a cavalcade of other irresponsible businesses move into her neighborhood. The names are different, but the intentions are the same. Do business as cheaply as possible, and to hell with the neighbors.
"My home is their toilet," she says. "And the city just allows it to happen.
"It's like we're nothing to any of them."