HUDSON, N.C. -- A chemical plant exploded into a fireball Saturday afternoon, closing down a major highway and forcing evacuations of nearly 750 people from their Caldwell County homes.

A storage area at RPM Wood Finishes Group off U.S. 321 in Hudson caught fire just before 3 p.m., according to witnesses. The plant, home to three companies -- including Chemical Coatings Inc., Mohawk Finishing products, and Guardian Protector products -- makes products like spray paints and furniture coatings. It houses several highly toxic chemicals used to make its products.

Hudson firefighters got the call about the fire at 3:07 p.m., and were on the scene in six minutes, according to Hudson Fire Chief Tommy Courtner. They were eventually joined by at least 14 other agencies, from as far away as Wilkes and Mecklenburg counties. The chemical were their main concern.

Our biggest threat was the nitrocellulose, which is very volatile, said Courtner. It s kind of like gunpowder. Nitrocellulose is also sometimes called flash paper.

Courtner said the chemical, when burned, can cause explosions and release toxins in the air. Those toxins can make eyes burn and make it difficult to breathe.

Firefighters and HazMat crews worried the fire, which started in the storage area on the back of the property, could spread to other parts of the complex containing more potentially explosive chemicals. They closely monitored weather reports to see where winds were carrying the flames and the thick black plume of smoke rising from the property.

When we saw the wind was shifting, we were afraid we were going to get into the main RPM (offices), said Courtner. And if that would have happened and we would have gotten into the tank farm right here behind you, they would have had major problems and that would have escalated into a bigger picture for us.

The plant also contained xylene and acetone, but Courtner said those chemicals were not as big of a concern. Firefighters said they got the fire under control at 6:01 p.m.

The fire destroyed the storage area, but left the rest of the plant untouched. Caldwell County Sheriff s spokesman B.J. Fore said 300-350 people work at the plant, and their jobs will not likely be impacted by the fire. Two nearby furniture upholstery plants, however, were destroyed.

Chief Courtner said barrels sent airborne by the explosions landed on the upholstery plants and set them on fire. The names of the two plants were not immediately available Saturday night.

Melissa Steelmon witnessed saw the barrels flying into the air as she passed by.

We couldn t believe it .. just couldn t believe it happened, said Steelmon. We just hoped nobody got hurt.

U.S. 321 was closed between Granite Falls and Lenoir for more than six hours while emergency crews fought the fire. Law enforcement officers went door-to-door for a mile in every direction around the plant, evacuating homes. They also evacuated more homes up to two miles downwind of the plant because of concerns about chemicals in the air.

The Red Cross set up two shelters at Granite Falls Recreation Center in Granite Falls, and Mulberry Recreation Center in Lenoir. About 20 people stopped in at the Mulberry shelter, including Amanda Haas and her family.

Sure enough we got there just as some of the fire trucks were pulling in and you could see the flames coming out of the black smoke, said Haas. It was huge like an inferno.

Haas s mother knew it was the chemical plant, and the family decided to leave. She, her husband, her mother, two daughters, and a cousin waited at the shelter until the evacuation order was lifted around 8:45 p.m.

Investigators are working to find the cause of the fire. They re grateful the plant was closed Saturday, so there were no serious injuries. Two firefighters had to be treated for the heat, but they are okay.

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