CINCINNATI -- On Aug. 19, 2004, Queen City Barrel, a 77-year-old industrial-container recycling business on the western edge of Downtown, erupted in flames. Even people who had never heard of the company, or the neighborhood of Lower Price Hill, watched live television coverage as the five-alarm fire’s smoky plume billowed and hung across the city.
Downtown and Clifton residents were warned to stay in their homes as winds shifted. News organizations scrambled to learn more about the company that had racked up years’ worth of environmental violations and had earned the lasting distrust of neighbors.
Gawkers drove from miles away to catch a glimpse of the action as residents in Lower Price Hill watched and waited for the ash to settle.
Ten years later, the building and barrels are gone. But still no one knows what caused the blaze that caused $5 million in damage. The site remains an empty lot, marketed for eight years as an 18-acre commercial park called MetroWest, and just this summer the Environmental Protection Agency granted its final approval that the land is good to build on. Many of the kids who watched the spectacular fire burn and inhaled the acrid smoke still live in the neighborhood rich in Appalachian heritage.
In Rising from the Ashes, WCPO remembers the fire and what led up to it in a series of stories and interactive media that explore the community, the hazardous waste business and the fire itself.
Then and Now
The Queen City Barrel fire started around 6:30 p.m. Aug. 19 and was under control by about 1:30 a.m. Aug. 20. Crews put out hotspots for a couple more days before demolition. The cause was officially recorded as "undetermined" when the investigation closed in December 2004. Two dozen interviews conducted earlier that year by special agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms offer a glimpse of operations at the company:
- A building maintenance and construction employee named Tom Young told investigators that the Lawson building, where the fire started, had a sprinkler system. But it was not turned on at the time of the fire. "He said that the sprinkler system had several leaks in the past and was not turned on because cold weather (was) coming soon."
- Former Queen City Barrel owner Eddie Paul told investigators that he "first saw smoke coming from the top of the windows on the ground floor level in the area of the pallet company on the north side of the Lawson building." A pallet company rented space in the building from Paul, who owned the property separately from his ownership of Queen City Barrel.
- A Queen City Barrel maintenance supervisor and plant manager named Tom Wenning told investigators that the basement under the C & H Pallet Company space contained "about 40 55-gallon drums of 20W50 motor oil."
- After firefighters arrived on the scene Aug. 19, a man emerged from the building that was on fire, according to an interview with Firefighter Robert Thomas.
- The man told investigators that he was an employee of C & H Pallet Company, the company that was renting space from Paul, and that he had been secretly sleeping in the building at night because he was homeless. He said heavy smoke woke him up after he had fallen asleep around 4:30 the afternoon of the fire. The man acknowledged that he had a history of drug arrests but denied any involvement in the fire.
- Maggie Morris, the owner of a nearby business known as The Designer's Workroom, explained to investigators that a video camera that faced the west side of the Queen City Barrel building had been installed by a former tenant to try to catch whoever had been breaking into his car. The tenant installed the cameras in March 2004 but committed suicide in the early part of May that same year. She unplugged the camera after his death. The Cincinnati Fire Department's Fire Investigation Unit determined the last images on the videotape were dated April 30, 2004.
A WCPO team of reporters interviewed firefighters, residents, environmental experts; reviewed hundreds of pages of investigative records and EPA findings as well as analyzed Hamilton County death records.
- Dan Monk, reporter
- Lucy May, reporter
- Elissa Yancey, contributing environmental reporter
- Keith Rutowski and Emily Maxwell, photographers
- Mark Nichols, data specialist
- Brian Niesz, multimedia producer/designer
- Anne Hallilwell, interactive timeline
- Maxim Alter, then and now graphic
- Chris Graves and David Holthaus, editors