2011 kept emergency responders on their toes
by Amanda Ryker
Dec 29, 2011 | 2242 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In April byproducts and the off-gassing of batteries turned the structure fire at Metal Conversions Technologies into a HAZMAT response. Nearby residents were initially evacuated from their homes. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News, file
view slideshow (3 images)
April proved to be a busy month for emergency responders throughout the county after a battery recycling plant exploded and a tornado devastated the area. The remainder of the year, though hectic as well, saw several drownings on Lake Allatoona and a fear of shopping at the local Walmart. Yet, amongst the tragedy the year saw, a gleam of hope can be found in the construction of a new Public Safety Headquarters on Cassville Road.

Battery fire temporarily evacuates residents

Looking back, the few days between April 16 and April 28 may have been the busiest time of the year for public servants. On the 16th, Metal Conversions Technologies, a rechargeable battery recycling center on Porter Street, erupted into flames. Cartersville Fire Chief Scott Carter said the fire began near the exterior of the building and quickly spread to the interior, swiftly turning into a HAZMAT response due to by-products and off-gassing of the batteries.

"We did an immediate evacuation here within the area initially because, quite frankly, we did not know what we were dealing with at the onset of the incident," Carter said.

No injuries were reported during the explosion, but Cartersville Medical Center treated eight patients who complained of respiratory problems. The hospital said no serious issues were discovered and the evaluations were mainly precautionary.

The cause of the fire was determined to be a reaction inside the batteries themselves. Lithium, a highly flammable and reactant element found in batteries, can become overheated and cause an explosion.

Tornado devastates county

A mere 11 days after the Metal Conversions Technologies incident, violent thunderstorms producing tornadoes tore through the South, leaving Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Ringgold in ruins. Bartow County was in the path of the storms and residents on the northern end of the county were hit hard.

The Crowe Springs area, Pine Log, and Gaines and Richards roads were hit particularly hard with leveled homes and churches. No deaths were reported in Bartow, but neighboring counties were not so lucky.

According to Bartow County Fire Chief Craig Millsap, Bartow lost approximately 49 homes completely and 400 homes had some form of damage resulting from the storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in to help, giving federal funds to the county. A Disaster Recovery Center was set in place at the Clarence Brown Conference Center for victims to meet with officials who helped to fill out financial assistance forms.

The American Red Cross Northwest Georgia chapter stepped in to help after called and offered meals and supplies to victims. No shelter was put in place, as it was not requested by county officials.

"[Shelter openings] depend on the number of people requesting shelter," Sarah Egan, Red Cross Emergency Services director for the North West Georgia area, said. "We had shelters in Floyd, Dade, Walker and Catoosa counties that were also open to Bartow residents."

Egan also stated that mobile feeding was not requested until the Friday after the tornado, over 24 hours after the storm claimed homes, so Red Cross then moved in to the area when the need became apparent.

"We begin feeding after assessing the situation," she said. "We can't immediately be on scene as that can be dangerous for our workers and volunteers. We literally had a crew going toward Catoosa five minutes behind the tornado. We can't risk more loss of life."

Bartow citizens not affected by the storm overwhelmed collection and volunteer locations with donations and offers to help. Some even bypassed those designated areas, carrying chainsaws and necessities up to the victims and their homes to help with the clean-up efforts.

STARS Pre-K opened its doors to provide a collection drop-off site for clothing on May 2 only to be quickly overwhelmed and stopped accepting donations four days later. Grace Baptist Church, Graceland, Cedar Creek Baptist, Crowe Springs Baptist and other designated collection sites received the same community response. The gym at Grace was quickly filled with necessities such as toiletries, non-perishable foods, and lots and lots of water.

However, as Ronnie Cowart, pastor of Crowe Springs Baptist pointed out, this is a good problem to have. "It's amazing to see the body of Christ come together to serve for the common good," he said.

In the days and weeks after, as clean-up continued, local leaders met to form a disaster reaction plan to insure a better response should such a disaster occur in the future. Together with local charity organizations, homeless shelters and churches, the leaders identified weaknesses and offered ideas on how they could work together to help victims at a faster rate.

Other community churches outside Grace and the three distribution locations were also heavily involved and remained a strong presence beyond the immediate response time, offering help with the long-term recovery process.

"Churches came together across denominational lines [to help]," said David Franklin, associational missionary for the Bartow Baptist Association.

Georgia Power crews worked endlessly throughout the days and nights following the disaster. On Saturday, April 30, over 100 trucks were in the Crowe Springs area, working to restore electricity to homes. Contractors from other areas as well as Southern Company crews from south Georgia and North Carolina were brought to the area.

Now, eight months later, new homes can be seen in the areas -- many now have basements.

Lake Allatoona claims lives over summer, early fall

The Fourth of July weekend closed with tears after two men drowned in separate incidents on the Bartow lake.

A 17-year-old male, identified as Augustine Ramirez-Del Angel of Norcross, went under the water at the Clark Creek campground off Glade Road. Investigators on scene said the young man lacked swimming skills and no foul play or alcohol was suspected in the incident. The second man, Byron Brock, 42, died near Lucille Avenue, also in Acworth. His body was recovered by the dive team the next day after they halted the search when nightfall decreased visibility. The third drowning of the season was reported July 29 after Nathan Ray Swanson went under the water at McKinney Campground, also in Acworth, and was recovered by the dive team.

Oct. 15 saw the final drowning of the year after a man in a wheelchair fell into the lake when the dock beneath him collapsed at Park Marina in Red Top Mountain State Park. Tom Moore, 68, of Plainfield, Ind., was visiting the area for a family reunion when the accident occurred. The wheelchair was recovered three days later, but the victim remained lost underwater for nearly a month. Dive teams struggled with water depths up to 76 feet that moves to a wave break area 30 yards away and construction debris interfered with sonar equipment.

Earth moves at Public Safety Headquarters

October marked the long awaited groundbreaking on the new Public Safety Headquarters that will combine the Cartersville fire and police departments on Cassville Road.

"It's been a long process at this point," Cartersville Fire Chief Scott Carter said. "We began work on these designs probably back in '07 when the last SPLOST was approved. So this has been a project a long time coming and we're glad to see the dirt moved."

The building will be 55,000 square feet and also includes a museum detailing the history of both departments.

Along with headquarters, Fire Station No. 4 will be added to the scene on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Construction is set to begin in January on that station.

Though Carter said some of the city's residents are saddened to see the departments leave from the downtown area, the older building is not sufficient enough to fully meet the department's needs.

The current Fire Station No. 1 is in a building that has been used as a fire department since 1918 and was the city hall before then. The police department is housed in the old Owen Funeral Home.

The headquarters and Station 4 have a completion date set for September 2012. Local subcontractors are joining Potts Construction on the project.

Syringes frighten Walmart shoppers

The rush of Black Friday sent some shoppers home in fear after they were pricked by syringes hidden in clothing at the Cartersville store. To date, 14 syringes have been found in various clothing items as well as the greeting card section of the retail outlet, according to Bartow County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Jonathan Rogers.

In the beginning, Walmart staff had discovered a single syringe that they believed to have been the only one in the store. After more were found, they turned over the syringe and the pair of socks it was hidden in to law enforcement.

Investigators have been working alongside Walmart staff to find the objects and review surveillance footage in hopes that a clue would appear to stop the incidents from occurring. The BCSO released a statement on Dec. 19, three weeks after the first discovery, saying that no evidence was collected from the videos and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab did not find fingerprints pointing to a suspect on any of the syringes delivered to them.

One woman, terrified that she may have contracted HIV or some other disease from contact with the uncapped needle, spoke out on the situation, saying "shame on you" to whomever was responsible for the incidents.

Due to suspects remaining unknown, Rogers warns shoppers to use caution.

"We don't want people to get into a ... panic," Rogers said. "But at the same time we want them to be vigilant and careful. If you're going to purchase a pair of pants, hold them up by the leg and shake them out and see if anything falls out, and if you feel something, be careful trying to get it out."