Firewall protected manufacturing equipment in Holliston Mills blaze

Jeff Bobo • Nov 22, 2019 at 9:00 PM

CHURCH HILL — The Holliston Mills plant might not be out of business for long thanks to a firewall that protected the company’s manufacturing equipment from a huge chemical fire Thursday afternoon.

Approximately 100 employees of Holliston Mills and 200 residents living near the plant were evacuated as a result of a blaze that started on a loading dock where barrels of nitrocellulose wetted with alcohol were located.

Most of those workers stayed home Friday, although maintenance staff members were doing some cleanup while state officials were checking the wastewater plant to make sure it wasn’t contaminated by runoff from the fire hoses.

No serious injuries were reported, although four firefighters were transported to Holston Valley Medical Center by Hawkins County EMS as a precaution due to possible chemical vapor inhalation.

Holliston Mills maintenance employee Chris Bellamy told the Times News that the cause of the fire hadn’t been determined as of Friday afternoon.

Workers do know it was a nitrocellulose drum that caught fire, but the storage room, which they call the “Jelly Room,” did its job.

A concrete firewall and fire doors held, while the Jelly Room’s outer wall blew out, just as it was supposed to do.

“That wall is designed to blow out, and that’s what happened,” Bellamy said. “When it did, it was a small boom, and it went through that wall like it was supposed to and caught the deck out there on fire. So it didn’t burn through the concrete wall that was there. It blackened it pretty good, but it didn’t make it through it. The entrances had fire doors in place, and when it went off, they shut both of them doors and turned the sprinklers on in that area, and got out.”

Bellamy added, “I was in a meeting at the time, and my phone rung. I turned it off and it rung right back, so I answered it because usually it don’t ring back-to-back. When they said what it was, everybody knew it was time to go, when the Jelly Room is on fire. The stuff in there ain’t nothing to play with.”

Bellamy said he doesn’t anticipate the plant being idle for long.

“I would imagine a week or two at most, but hopefully not that long, but we’ll have to see,” Bellamy said. “They’ve already got hold of a contractor to come check out fixing the wall back, and the deck that burned.”

Bellamy added, “They haven’t said, nobody is coming to work Monday. The part that burnt was the Jelly Room where a lot of our chemicals are that go into making the color for the cloth. The machines themselves are all right. It didn’t get beyond that (firewall).”

Firefighters from across Hawkins County responded to the fire after it was reported at approximately 12:29 p.m.

Kingsport Fire and Rescue and the regional HAZMAT based in Kingsport also responded.

An evacuation of homes within a half mile of the plant was in place for about two and a half hours, and it took about six hours before firefighters cleared the scene.