A heavy load of lead collapsed through the main floor of a west Vancouver warehouse Tuesday afternoon, creating a 50-foot hole. The lead fell onto some chemicals stored below, and a thick sheet of concrete wall was pulled down in the collapse, which was reported around 2 p.m.
Vancouver Warehouse and Distribution Co., 1101 W. 11th St., was condemned, and trains were not allowed to pass through the BNSF Railway at the rear of the warehouse, said Vancouver Fire Department Battalion Chief Rick Steele; officials feared the vibrations from passing trains could cause the building to collapse.
Battalion Chief Kevin Griffee said a worker with a forklift had unloaded pallets of lead ingots when the main floor of the building gave way. The worker had backed up the forklift before the collapse and was not injured. About 400,000 pounds of ingots dropped onto about 1,000 gallons of rubbing alcohol that was stored below in plastic containers. Griffee was not sure how much of the flammable liquid was released. One man was treated for chemical exposure.
The building was so unstable that some traffic on the adjacent BNSF Railway was halted.
“It sounded like and felt like an explosion,” said Judy Bower, whose husband owns the business. “The building shook, the lights went on and off.”
The warehouse building, which houses a variety of items — from chemicals to food to clothing — also includes loading docks where trailers regularly bump the building. But this, she said, was different.
“Our first concern is — was anyone there?” Bower said.
Her husband, business owner Chuck Bower, ran toward the sound and found that a pile of lead had fallen on top of the rubbing alcohol containers. The chemical caused a burning sensation in his feet. He removed his shoes and was treated at the scene. He stood outside of the warehouse wearing no shoes while firefighters investigated.
“Nobody was down there, nobody was injured. It was the best possible outcome we could have,” Judy Bower said.
Warehouse foreman Dennis Niemann had just been labeling the lead, placing a piece of paper on the pile that indicated which rail car the lead had come from.
“I walked back into my office and boom,” he said.
He had missed being on top of the floor that collapsed by two minutes, he said. Another worker, Barry Norman, was in the basement near the rubbing alcohol a few minutes prior.
Firefighters monitored the air around the building for fumes from the flammable liquid, but no problems were found. Most of the fumes probably evaporated, Steele said. The building owner will bring in a company to clean up the spill.
Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina said all the employees were evacuated and accounted for. Units responded from the Vancouver Fire Department, Clark County Fire District 6 and the Portland Fire & Rescue.
Griffee said an initial inspection determined that the back wall of the warehouse building was unstable, leaning out where the floor gave way. Several building engineers examined the wall to determine if it was safe enough to go inside. Tuesday night they were considering what to do with the building, including ways to reinforce it. Crews were concerned that other materials on the main floor could make more of the floor crumble away.
After learning about the incident, BNSF Railway took the tracks that run behind the warehouse out of service and shut down rail operations, to prevent train vibrations from potentially triggering a building collapse. About 20 trains were held up at stations around the region, from Portland to Seattle to Pasco, said spokesman Gus Melonas.
Operations were scheduled to resume around midnight, Melonas said. Trains were to pass through the Vancouver yard at a slow rate of speed, which is normal practice.
There are up to 40 train movements each day through the Vancouver yard, which connects the Columbia River Gorge route with Seattle. “It’s a significant connection trackage,” Melonas said.
Amtrak and Union Pacific trains coming from Portland were not affected, Melonas said.
Although Vancouver Warehouse was condemned, Judy Bower said the business would still dispatch trucks today outside of the structure. Paperwork, computers and keys were retrieved, so the business could continue shipping out customers’ materials.
Reporter Emily Gillespie and assistant metro editor Mark Bowder contributed to this report.