When Environmental Quality’s hazmat facility burst into flames Oct. 5, Jimmy Sauls and his wife were two blocks away, watching TV in the Apex house they’ve called home for 22 years. Around 10 o’clock that Thursday night, Sauls was stepping outside for a cigarette when he heard a boom. At first he thought an electrical transformer had exploded, but then he smelled something strange.

“It was like Clorox, but sweet,” recalls the retired 63-year-old pest control professional. “There was a burning, itchy feeling on my face.”

Police cars raced by, and a frantic officer stopped to tell him there was a chemical fire and he had to evacuate. Sauls and his wife, Wanda, scooped up their three dogs and prepared to flee–but then realized their neighbors didn’t know. Sauls dashed from door to door, telling people to go. He says most of his neighbors were unaware there was such a facility nearby.

The police initially directed the evacuees–eventually 5,000 in all–to Apex Town Hall, where they stayed for 45 minutes. During that time, the explosions intensified, sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air.

“It sounded like Iraq,” says Sauls.

The evacuees were then directed to Olive Chapel Elementary School 2½ miles away. Once outside, they smelled the chemicals and watched a yellow-green fog creep over town. The fumes irritated their throats and gave them headaches.

The Sauls stayed at the school until Friday, when they headed to their son’s place in nearby Fuquay-Varina. They returned home Saturday afternoon, soon after the evacuation order was lifted.

Authorities instructed returning residents to clean their homes thoroughly–wipe down counters, change air filters, shampoo carpets. Sauls and his wife complied, but more than a week after the fire, they’re still bothered by a lingering odor he describes as “weird” and “stale-ish.” And while his physical symptoms have abated, his wife’s throat still bothers her.

Sauls also worries about the health of their dogs, two Pekingese and a Shih Tzu. “They’re normally busy,” he reports, “but since the fire they’ve been sleeping an awful lot.”

What exactly was in the plume of smoke and gases created by the blaze–and how much made its way to nearby homes and businesses–remains unknown.

Environmental Quality was unable to provide authorities with an inventory of onsite materials until the Monday after the fire, complicating the work of first responders. When the company finally released the data, it came in the form of a 19-page document listing chemicals by code rather than name. So that won’t happen in future disasters, state Rep. Nelson Dollar, who represents Apex, is crafting legislation to institute electronic reporting for such facilities.

“A grocery store can tell you how many boxes of Corn Flakes they have on their shelves,” says Dollar, a Republican who’s up for re-election in November. “We should know what hazardous materials are being stored in these facilities.”

Dollar also wants to ensure municipalities are informed of regulatory penalties against local facilities, noting that Apex officials were unaware the state fined EQ $32,000 earlier this year for improper waste handling.

A plain-English analysis of EQ’s inventory (available at Raleigh Eco News) shows the presence of more than 1,800 containers of ignitable materials such as fuels, at least 180 containers of powerful solvents and more than 150 containers of heavy metals, including lead and mercury. Also present were pesticides, including banned DDT.

At least some materials made their way offsite. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which assisted local and state agencies, dispatched an airplane that used infrared technology to detect chemicals released in the plume. It found what an EPA press release described as “trace levels” of chlorinated ethanes and benzenes, which are carcinogens. Asked for details on levels, EPA officials said they could not provide them.

Dream Sports Center, a private recreational facility near EQ, reopened Monday following the fire after receiving what its owners describe as a “clean bill of health” from the EPA and the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, an Arkansas-based monitoring firm hired by EQ. But across the street, Apex Gymnastics hired an independent firm that found mercury in the air vents–even after the EPA gave the building the all-clear, according to news reports. Whether the fire put the mercury there remains unknown. The gym expects to reopen this week after a thorough cleaning by specialists, its Web site says.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the agency leading the regulatory investigation, conducted air and surface water tests, which it says show no cause for concern. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with making safety recommendations, is also investigating the incident, which represents the biggest off-site community impact the board’s seen in its eight-year existence. CSB spokesperson Sandy Gilmour says the fire’s cause may never be known, in part because private firefighters hired by EQ used heavy equipment that destroyed evidence.

DENR has approved most sections of EQ’s proposal for site cleanup, which is expected to begin this week. However, that proposal does not include plans for offsite testing of homes and businesses, according to DENR officials. That information will be set out in a separate proposal EQ will submit to the Wake County Health Department, though company spokesman Robert Doyle doesn’t know when.

Toxicologist Stephen Lester with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Virginia says one of the major contaminants of concern after such a fire are dioxins, which are produced when organic material is burned with chlorinated compounds. Dioxins accumulate in body fat and have been linked to serious health problems including impaired immunity, reproductive disorders and cancer.

The only way to know if dioxins are present would be to conduct tests that cost about $1,000 per sample. Because of the expense as well as associated liability, companies and regulatory agencies are often reluctant to do such testing, Lester reports.

“The only way it’s going to happen is if the community gets organized and makes it happen,” he says.

Apex has hired the Earth Tech environmental firm to help decide whether further testing is warranted. The town also held a meeting Oct. 17 to discuss the fire, and Mayor Keith Weatherly says the town board opposes the facility’s rebuilding. In addition, several lawsuits have been filed seeking damages from EQ, which is still facing lawsuits from a fire last year at its Romulus, Mich., plant.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace has been in Apex interviewing residents and submitting Freedom of Information Act requests for regulators’ test data, which so far remain unanswered. The fire also led Clean Water for North Carolina to reiterate its long-standing call for stronger hazmat reporting requirements. But so far, the community’s anger and concern remains largely unorganized.

So Sauls took matters into his own hands, organizing a one-man protest. For several days after the fire, he picketed outside the charred building carrying a homemade sign that said “NO EQ.”

One man driving an EQ truck gave him the finger, he reports.

Another told him to get a life.

“At least I still have a life,” Sauls says.

Since the fire, Apex has instituted a long-planned emergency notification system to replace the old reverse-911 system. Town residents who haven’t received a test call yet can register by visiting the Town of Apex‘s Web site and clicking on the “CodeRED” item or by calling 362-4001.