Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo found himself in the national spotlight last year when a potentially explosive fire threatened the community around the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant.
Through regular press briefings, Mayo became the public face of the emergency during the fight to keep volatile ammonium nitrate at the plant from destroying the immediate area around it.
In reflecting on one of his major decisions, Mayo explains why he issued a voluntary — rather than mandatory — evacuation order.
“I did not want to communicate to the citizens of Winston-Salem that if they elected not to evacuate that we were not going to go back and help them if they had a true emergency,” he says. “We never stopped providing services inside that one-mile evacuation area for the duration of the event. But I think folks probably would have taken it more seriously if we had issued a mandatory evacuation.”
Another difficult decision was pulling his personnel away from the firefight. “Evacuating is just not what firefighters do,” he says. “You've heard the cliche, you know, that firefighters are running in a building when everybody else is running out. And it's just, it's just not in our nature to evacuate, you know? Whatever the situation is, we are there. And we have the tools, the horsepower, the training, to assess that situation, and make it better.
"But here, I mean, after 90 minutes and flowing 600,000 gallons of water, and we weren't making any difference. I mean, we were making zero difference. The fire was just continuing to move through the building, getting bigger all the time. You know, at some point, you've got to, to use another cliche — and I don't I'm not a big cliche guy — but you got to quit while you're ahead.”
Mayo says the community will never know the cause of the fire. Last year the department ruled it as “undetermined.”
He does say that the age of the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant played a major role in how dangerous the situation became.
After a deadly explosion killed 15 people in West, Texas, 10 years ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Inspection Board made two recommendations involving regulatory changes for facilities that store ammonium nitrate.
The agency said companies stockpiling the volatile chemical should have sprinklers, and they should avoid using wooden storage bins. Neither of those were the case at the Winston Weaver plant.
Mayo says the ammonium nitrate was held in three-sided bins. He says the walls were made of wood, which created a hazard.
“That adds to the potential for collapse,” he says. “Which is what they think happened in West, Texas, was the detonation was caused by the pile collapsing on itself and shocking itself hard enough to detonate. ...You wouldn't be able to have containment bin walls made of wood today.”
Mayo says there are sprinkler requirements for newer industrial facilities. But the decades-old Winston Weaver plant was grandfathered in among older buildings that didn’t already have them.
He says had sprinklers been there, the fire likely would have been easily contained and not become nearly the emergency situation that unfolded.
Mayo credits a multi-agency response from city, county, state and federal agencies working together for minimizing the fire’s impact.
“It really was a team effort,” Mayo says. “And again, we came out of it relatively unscathed. No injuries, no deaths, you know. Might have burned up some fire hose and broke the windshield on a fire truck and you know, those sorts of things. But we were lucky.”