GREAT FALLS -- Firefighters saw the first real progress Friday battling an ongoing mill fire as a pair of military helicopters dumped thousands of gallons of water on the still-smoldering site that's burned since Tuesday.
However, officials said hundreds of evacuated townspeople still may not be able to go home for days.
Almost half of the town's 2,200 residents remain evacuated following a fire at the J.P. Stevens No. 3 mill, and investigators found higher toxicity levels in the air Friday than in previous days. Emergency officials could not give a date for people to return because the fire is still burning, said Eddie Murphy, Chester County emergency management director.
No one will be allowed back in until the fire no longer "flares up," and health officials checking air quality say the area is safe, Murphy said.
"I don't think anyone has an answer," Murphy said about the end of the evacuation. "I can't give a date."
After the fire is out, if toxic acid levels in the air are found to be higher than what is safe for people to return home, the return will be delayed until the levels are safe, said Clair Boatwright, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Gov. Mark Sanford declared a state of emergency in Great Falls on Thursday, allowing more state resources to be used. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
The Air National Guard Black Hawk helicopters from McEntire Air Force Base used 750 gallon sacks of water scooped from the nearby Catawba River to make headway against the fire with several dozen loads Friday, Murphy said. Crews from many parts of the state have helped battle the fire.
The helicopters, using both water and foam provided by a federal response team, put a dent in the fire that hadn't been made in the first three days by land-based fire trucks, Murphy said.
"The helicopters made a lot of difference," Murphy said. "We feel for the first time we are gaining."
Each of the two helicopters dropped 750 gallons of water Friday during each of dozens of fly-overs, Murphy said, and will be used again today. Another piece of heavy equipment with a self-contained air compartment will also be used today to fight the fire from inside the building, he said. More foam and water from ladder trucks will also be used.
The mill, closed more than 20 years, had other businesses inside the huge building, including a plastics storage business. The burning plastic, combined with burning roofing, wood, tar and still unknown chemicals inside and under the collapsed roof, have made the fire fighting difficult, Murphy said.
Overnight testing of toxicity levels for hydrochloric acid in the fire plume rose from Thursday to Friday, Boatwright said. The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting additional tests, she said.
But the toxicity levels have not reached those that typically cause respiratory or sinus problems, Boatwright said. Daytime levels Friday were lower than overnight, she said Friday afternoon, but typically levels go up at night.
DHEC and EPA investigators conducted "swipe tests" on surfaces in the neighborhoods around the mill to determine what chemicals have fallen from the fire plume, and what potential dangers the chemicals might pose to residents when they return home. Initial tests were negative, Boatwright said Friday afternoon, but more will be done on surfaces and on wells.
"We are checking to see if the matter poses any health threat," Boatwright said.
River water downstream used for drinking downstate has been tested since Tuesday but has not shown any high toxicity levels, she said. Great Falls gets drinking water from a section of the river above the fire.
No one has been reported hospitalized with respiratory ailments, Boatwright said, although several have called private doctors or DHEC clinics with complaints of some respiratory distress. Late Friday afternoon, two people had been evaluated by doctors for possible exposure to smoke, she said.
Officials could not give any timetable for cleanup of the site.
"We have to get the fire out first," Murphy said.
Almost 20 people stayed in an American Red Cross Shelter at Great Falls High School through Friday that has been operating since Tuesday afternoon.
There have been no serious injuries reported from the fire fighting or in the community.
But there is a sense of frustration among displaced people about getting home and what they'll will find when they get there.
"I've been gone four days, and I just want to get home," said Edward Mosley, who lives near the mill and watched the helicopters from a bridge over the river.
A few people have been arrested on trespassing charges and law enforcement officials have vowed to keep property safe until residents return.
"We will be here for them the whole time," said Chester County Sheriff Robby Benson.
• When: Begins 9 a.m. today
• Where: Great Falls High School
• What's offered: Clothes, food and medication
• What to bring: Copy of proper identification with proof of residence in the evacuated area
• For information, call (803) 482-4816 for the American Red Cross 24-hour helpline.