Phoenix Industrial Fire Causes Explosions, Shuts Down Freeways

By  KJZZ News
February 20, 2014

(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
The explosion caused huge clouds of smoke in the air.
(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
Police near the fire after the explosion.
(Photo courtesy of Steve Olgin)
The Glendale Fire Department responds to the fire.

A massive fire at an industrial complex destroyed three buildings and snarled traffic in downtown Phoenix on Thursday. The blaze started during the lunch hour and forced the evacuation of some nearby businesses.

The two-alarm industrial fire kept skies over central Phoenix covered with smoke during the lunch hour on Thursday. Billowing, black smoke from the blaze was visible as far away as Tempe. Fire crews used ladder trucks to shoot streams of water into the heart of the fire.

“This is called Breecher Sales.  It is at 1321 21st Avenue. It is a large site," said fire spokesman Jonathan Jacobs. "What we know and what we have is that there were some welding activities that were taking place that may have started this blaze."

Breecher is a distributor for the plumbing, air conditioning and electrical industry. Jacobs said fire investigators are not sure whether the welders may have accidentally sparked the fire but an investigation is underway.

“What we know is that there were two workers together and both of them escaped from that area, and right now they are working with fire investigators to kind of pinpoint what happened and we have transported one of them to county burn center with some minor burns," said Jacobs.

The Phoenix Fire Department said explosive materials are stored on the site near McDowell Road and 21st Avenue. A fire spokesman said the burning business stores compressed gasses and flammable metals.

Jacobs said the fire started around noon. He said the fire is contained and said there were a series of explosions shortly after the fire was spotted. Jacobs said the explosions happened when tanks full of natural gas and other flammable materials ignited.

“They were very large and they threw lots of pieces of metal and compressed pieces of debris around into firefighters, and what we believe some of these explosions are, we know for a fact that they were propane tanks, natural gas tanks were rupturing," said Jacobs.

Jacobs said one worker at the business was burned and was taken to the hospital. He said none of the more than 50 firefighters from Phoenix, Glendale and Avondale who worked the blaze were injured at this business that is surrounded by chain link fencing and razor wire.

There were some evacuations of nearby businesses. Phoenix police Spokesman Trent Crump said employees at nearby businesses were evacuated as a safety measure.

“We are trying to keep vehicle and foot traffic away from this. It is primarily for safety. It is for concern for what is in the smoke, for what it is that might be burning at that location," said Crump.

Hazmat teams were at the scene monitoring air quality. Fire officials said the blaze is fully contained, but three buildings consumed by the flames are still smoldering.

The blaze closed the ramps on I-10 west bound to northbound and southbound I-17. The 19th Avenue ramps were also closed.

Mike Sheptow is a manager at Liberty Iron and Metal, a company about a quarter block from the fire.

"They’ve got McDowell shut off, they’ve got two or three engines here and two or three on the corner," Sheptow said.

Just after this interview was recorded, employees at Liberty Iron and Metal heard an explosion. The power went out.

Anthony Sigler of Phoenix was leaving an appointment at the nearby veteran’s center when the plume caught his eye.

“Right now I’m looking at the smoke to see if I can see anything that’s going on," Sigler said as a siren and sound of a fire truck racing by could be heard. “Here they come."

Just then more fire trucks whizzed by as Sigler videotaped the scene on his cell phone. At another business about a block away Martin Gutierrez watched fire crews at work. He said he was inside a warehouse when he noticed something was not right.

“What caught my eye was there was a little black smoke and it escalated so quick, so quick, and then six explosions. Big explosions…you could actually see them go up in the air," said Gutierrez.

Jacobs said the fire was contained about an hour and a half after it started. It led to traffic jams in the area after some roads and off ramps of Interstate 17 were shut down for awhile Thursday afternoon.

Maricopa County Air Quality was on the scene monitoring whether the smoke posed a health hazard. 

KJZZ's Peter O'Dowd, Alexandra Olgin, Steve Shadley and Stina Sieg contributed to this report.

Updated 2/20/2014 at 6:07 p.m.

The story has been changed to reflect the correct spelling of Breecher Sales.