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Authorities asked about 16,000 residents to evacuate this Raleigh suburb early Friday after a hazardous material fire at an industrial plant.
No injuries were immediately reported, although a spokeswoman for Rex Hospital in Raleigh said the hospital expected to receive as many as 11 people needing oxygen.
Officials said the fire started around 10 p.m. Thursday (0200 GMT Friday) at EQ Industrial Services, a hazardous waste business that town manager Bruce Radford said had a variety of volatile chemicals inside, including chlorine.
He said when he arrived at the scene, a chlorine cloud rose 50 feet (15 meters) in the air. He estimated that 20 to 30 explosions had occurred at the plant.
"This is truly awful," he said early Friday. "It is the worst potential hazardous materials fire that you can expect."
Several thousand people were evacuated, and others were told to remain in their homes. The town issued a mandatory evacuation for anyone who lived within a mile of the business. Schools in Apex were to close Friday.
Radford said some residents who live near the fire had not heeded the evacuation order and were walking on the streets near the fire. He begged them to get away from what he called a "black, smoky cloud" that was covering downtown Apex.
"They are taking their own lives at risk," Radford said. "They are putting themselves in very grave danger by being around this smoke. If you see this smoke, get away from it."
The Web site for EQ Industrial Services says the company operates a fleet of specialized industrial cleaning equipment to deal with both hazardous and non-hazardous wastes.
EQ officials were on site and assessing the situation, said a man who answered the phone at the company's emergency response headquarters in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He declined to give his name or elaborate.
Apex is a city of about 28,000 near Raleigh.
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