Thousands Flee Toxic Cloud Near Montreal

An explosion and fire at a chemical plant sent up a cloud of toxic smoke outside Montreal on Sunday, prompting thousands of nearby residents to leave their homes.

By morning, all but a few hundred of the estimated 5,000 evacuees were told it was safe to return home.

The blaze erupted in a building believed to contain up to 6,500 gallons of toxic chemicals, including sulfuric and nitric acid, about 16 miles west of Montreal.

Though the blaze raged into this morning, tests detected no serious environmental damage and most residents were told they could return home shortly before 5 a.m.

“Only a few hundred people in one particular neighborhood are being told to stay away,” said Wilfrid Houle, a Vaudreuil-Dorion police official.

No injuries were reported. The Regent Chemical acid-transformation plant was closed when the fire began. The cause of the fire is not yet known.

Battling the Blaze

About 100 firefighters from four neighboring municipalities were battling the blaze, but a lack of water was making the task extremely difficult. “I’m not going to risk my firemen for a building that has nobody in it,” said Harold Harvey, deputy fire chief for Vaudreuil-Dorion.

“We tried our best with the water we had and the equipment we had, but it overpowered us, so we beat a retreat.” Harvey said he did not know how long it would take to put the fire out, but said fires at similar factories in the United States have burned for a day or two.

Authorities began trucking earth and sand to the site to prepare for any spill of acid-contaminated water. They also planned to use truckloads of lime to neutralize any spilled acid.

Toxic Cloud

The thick cloud of smoke floated westward, visible for miles.

“I passed through the smoke and it just attacks your eyes and throat,” said St-Lazare Mayor Bertrand Myre. The bulk of the evacuees were from his community.

Harvey said there was no immediate danger to the public other than symptoms such as irritated eyes or throats.

“Thank God it’s not raining tonight because it would be acid rain,” he said. Instead of burning, acid boils, transmitting vapors into the air. When the vapors mix with rain, acid rain is produced.

“The stench hit us and we got headaches,” said Carole Godin, who left a nearby campground. “We didn’t have time to worry about what to take with us.

“We left in our pyjamas.”

St. Lazare is a bedroom community west of Montreal also know for horse ranches and expensive country homes.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.