The fire was immediately dramatic. It spread quickly to a railroad car full of chemicals. ChemCentral is owned by a multinational company that makes and distributes thousands of industrial chemicals, so dozens of highly toxic compounds were on-site that day. The blaze spread to a tanker truck. Several tanks caught fire. Each time the fire hit a new vat of chemicals, it exploded again. As it spread, it sent a towering cone of smoke into the sky. The cloud was as black as coal, and, as it hit the higher atmosphere, the winter breeze carried it straight toward downtown. It looked frightening, as though a severe tornado-alley thunderstorm had suddenly formed in otherwise clear skies. It passed over the residential neighborhood of Columbus Park, and as it did, the cloud rained down hot ash and debris.
Firefighters at Station P34 got the call just after 2 p.m. on February 8. They arrived first, but there was little anyone could do. Captain Lisa Malloy ordered her crew to help the evacuation of ChemCentral's employees. Malloy immediately radioed headquarters to ring a second alarm. Battalion 104 arrived as backup. They had no hope of putting out the fire, so the firefighters fell back into defensive positions. With her crew amped on adrenaline, Malloy ordered a "no screaming mode" to keep radios from getting jammed with panicky calls.
Soon, many downtown workers were either glued to live TV coverage or staring out their windows at the approaching cloud. Among the buildings in the path of the cloud was the Environmental Protection Agency's downtown office.
The EPA sent an environmental scientist named Mike Davis to collect samples at the scene. Janice Kroon, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA, stayed behind to field phone calls and to direct the agency's staff.
Like the firefighters, the EPA could do little. The smoke was drifting straight up, hundreds of feet into the air, and wind currents were carrying it southwest. It was impossible for Davis to get close enough to the raging fire to take samples directly from the cloud. The EPA relied instead on five air-quality monitors that it has stationed around Kansas City.
But the air monitors, which measure smog and pollution, can't detect the kind of chemicals that could have been traveling in the cloud.
During a fire, it's the EPA's policy to give firefighters all the latitude they need to protect lives. Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer took command, overseeing representatives of six government agencies including the EPA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
All around the city, people were wondering what was in the cloud of smoke. Dyer took control of that, too. He began assuring the media about the safety of the air, even though nobody had any idea what was really in the cloud. "None of these are what those of us in the field would call exotic chemicals," the fire chief told the Associated Press. "None of these have a high rating for toxicity." Dyer continued his assurances to the TV news: "Every indicator we have is that the air is safe — we don't know of any problems."