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ATF national response team joins investigation of giant Walmart fulfillment center fire in Indiana

The expansive fire in Plainfield could be seen on satellite and radar.

AVON, Ind. — As firefighters work to extinguish the last hotspots at the Plainfield Walmart fulfillment center fire and switch to investigating the cause, 13 Investigates is learning a decision firefighters made involved turning off part of the fire suppression system.

When firefighters were called to the warehouse just before noon, Wednesday, March 16, they began fighting the fire.

Plainfield Fire Department Chief Brent Anderson said the fire suppression system at the facility was working correctly at the time firefighters arrived. At some point a decision was made by firefighters to turn off the "riser" to the affected area. The riser is a component of the fire suppression system that supplies water to the sprinklers in different areas.

The overall system was kept on, but the sprinkler system in the area where the fire began was turned off. Anderson said additional details on fire response strategies and techniques will be discussed at a later date, in terms of what did or did not happen.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has its national response team joining the investigation.

The team began investigating at the site Friday and will coordinate with the Plainfield Fire Territory, the Indiana State Fire Marshal's Office, and the Plainfield Police Department.

The ATF team will begin by reconstructing the scene. They will then work to determine the origin of the fire, conduct interviews and sift through the debris for any evidence of arson. The cause of fire is expected to take days or weeks to determine.

More than 48 hours after the fire began, firefighters were still working to put out hotspots. The hope is to transition from fire suppression to investigating the cause and origin. 

As of Friday, more than 350 firefighters from 30 department have assisted in extinguishing the fire.

None of the workers or firefighters were injured in the fire.

The Hendricks County Health Department established a phone line for people with health concerns about the debris or air. People can call 317-718-6052.

The Town of Plainfield issued a statement Thursday, thanking the first responders who helped:

"The Town of Plainfield continues to support the first responders who are still working to put out hot spots at the Walmart Distribution Center fire. We are relieved and grateful there were no injuries due to the structure fire. The Town of Plainfield would like to commend the plans and efforts of Walmart and fire personnel for assuring we maintained safety of life first and foremost.

The number of agencies who have and are still assisting our local fire territory with this effort is overwhelming. We also had a large amount of donations from local businesses and restaurants and that generosity speaks volumes about the community in which we live.

We will continue to support the leading agencies of this ongoing investigation and will follow their guidance going forward."

Timeline of events

The Hendricks County Communications Center got a call at 11:57 a.m. March 16 about a fire at the Walmart fulfillment center, which is located at 9590 Allpoints Pkwy., near Ronald Reagan Parkway and East County Road 100 South.

Plainfield firefighters were training nearby and arrived three minutes later to the building fully engulfed. Firefighters tried to battle the flames inside until about 12:45 p.m. Wednesday and then moved to a defensive position outside.

As of 3 p.m., there were nearly 200 firefighters from 24 agencies battling the flames. Firefighters were looking at having to scale back operations due to water concerns. For hours, crews had been pumping water and said that effort was not sustainable. Crews were looking at how to get water from other areas, including a nearby pond. They said this would be a 24-hour operation.

Wednesday evening, the flames had died down, but the fire continued to burn and smoke still rose into the air over Hendricks County. 

Firefighters positioned themselves to continue putting water down on the area, even as part of the wall of the facility collapsed.

Crews rotated throughout the overnight attempting to manage hot spots.  

Thursday morning, flames and smoldering debris could still be seen inside the the warehouse. 

The building's roof has been mostly destroyed, as well as most of the semis next to the building. 

Fire investigators, including a national response team from the ATF, began investigating the fire Friday. The teams will work to determine an origin and if anything criminal occurred. A cause for the fire could take weeks or months.

More than 48 hours after the fire began, firefighters were still working to put out hotspots. The hope is to transition from fire suppression to investigating the cause and origin. 

As of Friday, more than 350 firefighters from 30 department have assisted in extinguishing the fire.

What happens to workers?

Plainfield FD Chief Brent Anderson said all 1,000 employees at the fulfillment center are accounted for and got out safely. Firefighters said the fire systems inside the warehouse were working correctly, but the fire was too much for the system to handle. Anderson did say the system was key to allowing all the employees to get out safely. 

A Walmart spokesperson told 13News all employees will be paid for 40 hours, as well as overtime but didn't specify the amount overtime pay. The spokesperson said Walmart has a disaster pay program and that will be implemented. 

Walmart has reassigned some of the workers to temporary positions within the company, while also looking into who can permanently work at other locations. Those other locations could be nearby stores or warehouses.

The company said workers should not be afraid for their jobs.

Walmart is now working to replace personal items, such as car keys and bank cards for the workers. Those items, along with cellphones, being left inside the warehouse is what led to officials moving workers to a reunification site at 1750 Smith Road. There, they were given assistance with reaching out to loved ones.

The ATF and Indiana State Fire Marshal also questioned workers about the fire.

Air quality and debris

There was an air quality concern during the fire, with the Plainfield Fire chief saying at the time that people in the path of the plume should shelter in place. 13News has learned IDEM was called in, and officials have conducted an air quality test but have not shared the results at this time.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) issued an Air Quality Action Day (AQAD) for March 17. The counties included were Boone, Hamilton, Hendricks and Marion. There are concerns about elevated amounts of particulate matter in the air from the fire. Those particulates include microscopic dust, soot, and liquid that settles deep into the lungs and cannot be easily exhaled.

During Air Quality Action Days, the air quality may become unhealthy for sensitive individuals. These vulnerable groups, especially active children, the elderly, and anyone suffering from asthma, lung disease, COVID-19, or other serious health problems, should avoid spending time outdoors.

“People who are experiencing breathing difficulties that’s because of all these fine particles that were released when all this material burned at very high temperatures," said Professor Gabriel Filippelli with IU's Environmental Resiliency Institute.

According to Filippelli, air quality sensors inside the 465 loop are showing high levels of air pollution because of Wednesday’s fire. 

“Probably try and stay inside a little more than you typically would.  Try to minimize exercise especially vigorous exercise," Filippelli said.

That’s what Avon resident Joe Gallagher did. He can who can see the warehouse from his neighborhood. 

“We’ve stayed inside all day and probably will until they say the coast is clear," Gallagher said. 

He pointed to a device outside his home that he said the EPA set up Thursday to monitor the air quality.

“I could tell today the breeze was blowing some of it away. The fog isn’t near as bad as it was this morning," Gallagher said.

Just down the street, Hanna Foxworthy was being careful. She has asthma. 

“Yesterday, it was kind of hard for me to breathe. Today it’s not as bad," Foxworthy said, explaining that she used a mask when it got too hard to breathe. 

“I figured with everything going on, the air quality wasn’t going to be that great," Foxworthy said.

Filippelli agreed that’s the way to go. 

“All the things we did for COVID, like the N-95 masks, they work phenomenally for particles," Filippelli said, adding it won’t be for the long haul. 

“If we get a weather front that moves through, these particles will move up and move away and blow downwind and get diluted," Fillipelli said.

The Hendricks County Health Department established a phone line for people with health concerns about the debris or air. People can call 317-718-6052.

Debris in yards

Within an hour of the fire starting Wednesday, reports were coming in of debris falling in nearby neighborhoods. 13News later received reports from viewers finding debris in their yards in Brownsburg, Zionsville and Lebanon.

Firefighters say the public should not handle any of the debris from the fire. They warn the debris can be toxic. 

"I'd leave it right where it's at for now," Anderson told 13News. "IDEM and the EPA are doing samples, and we’re waiting for results and guidance. I’m not saying it’s toxic. I’m not saying it’s not toxic. I don’t think it's a problem, but let's let the professionals do tests and see what they find out."

Other fire officials echoed the concern.

Deputy Chief Mike Pruitt with the Bargersville Fire Department warned burnt materials can contain carcinogens and is why firefighters wear protective gear.

An IDEM spokesman told 13News the agency is also awaiting EPA testing to provide guidance.

A day later, those test results are not in. Neither IDEM, the EPA nor Plainfield fire officials have provided additional guidance or advice.

RELATED: Following massive Walmart blaze, safety and medical experts offer advice for cleaning up fallen debris

Because it is often unknown whether fallen debris from a fire might contain carcinogens, it's important to take safety precautions and not to touch it with your bare hands. Most residents probably have all the tools they need to safely clean up such debris on their own, like gloves and a face mask. The debris can then be placed in a trash bag and disposed of with regular trash collection.

As for pets, owners should try to keep them from breathing in the ash or touching the debris, too.

"Don't leave their food or water bowls outside," said Dr. Randy Cross, medical director at Veterinary Centers of America. He also suggested watching pets closely if they are exercising outdoors during poor air quality conditions to determine if they are coughing more than usual or showing signs of labored breathing.

Smoke plume on radar

The expansive fire could be seen on satellite and radar

It was so severe that Plainfield Police warned Plainfield and Avon commuters that due to the fire, County Road 100 South between 900 E/Smith Road and Ronald Reagan Parkway will be closed to traffic until further notice. The police department said this section of roadway could be closed for several days.

RELATED: Live Doppler 13 Weather Blog: Historic fire captured on radar

The National Weather Service posted a 3D view of radar data of the smoke plume and also shared a satellite loop showing the smoke was visible via satellite imagery.

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