Tyler resident Jacqueline Ates-Biscoe was inside her house when she heard a rumble she thought was thunder, until she looked outside and saw the sun shining.
Within seconds, she knew this was no thunderstorm. The sounds of explosions one after another filled the air along with what sounded like glass breaking.
“We gotta go,” she screamed to her son, Arsheal Ates, 15, who was playing video games in another room.
As soon as the two stepped outside, they could feel the heat and see the smoke. They were already driving away when Ms. Ates-Biscoe thought of their neighbors, an older disabled couple with health issues. She knew she couldn’t leave them. So they turned around and went back.
What Ms. Ates-Biscoe didn’t know was that the explosions came from Tyler Welders Supply in the 3500 block of U.S. Highway 271 near the intersection with County Road 279.
Exploding canisters sounded like bombs going off. The flames roared and large balls of fire erupted from the plant.
The Tyler Fire Department arrived on scene shortly after 2:15 p.m. More than 20 employees were on-site at the time of the explosion, but all were evacuated with no reported injuries.
Residents and businesses within a half-mile radius were evacuated as a precaution, and officials closed a portion of Highway 271 from Duncan Road to Loop 323.
The Smith County Sheriff's Office’s drone was launched. Footage from its flyover allowed fire officials to make the determination to let the fire burn out to avoid any hazardous material contamination issues.
Fire officials assessed the fire about 5 p.m. Canisters were no long exploding, but a light plume of smoke could still be seen rising from the area.
The family owned business dates back to 1973, when Melvin Ruyle moved his family to Tyler to manage the store as an employee. He purchased it one year later, according to the company’s website, and today the company has seven locations in Texas and Louisiana. Tyler Welders Supply is one of two acetylene plants in the state.
A mobile command center was set up less than a half mile south of the site on U.S. Highway 271 and officials staged there for several hours.
Firefighters let the fire burn for several hours before reassessing and allowing fire crews to go onsite. The firefighters used drones to survey the area and collect aerial footage during the time they were not on the site.
Shortly after 6 p.m., fire officials moved up to County Road 3179 to assess the situation. Small flames still were coming from the rear of the business where hundreds of acetylene canisters were blown apart.
A crew with the Winona Volunteer Fire Department planned to stay overnight at the business. Officials said the cause of the fire remained unknown, and the Smith County Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the incident.
The American Red Cross Serving East Texas set up a canteen area at Pine Springs Baptist Church, 2155 County Road 334, where they were giving out water and food to first responders and evacuees. They were available to shelter residents overnight if needed.
This is where Ms. Ates-Biscoe, her son and neighbors came after they fled their homes following the explosion.
Church pastor Jack Newton said he was at the church when he heard the explosions, but he just assumed it was thunder. However, he later received a call from the sheriff’s office asking if they could serve as a shelter.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Newton said.
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AS IT UNFOLDED
About 2 p.m.
Multiple fire departments and responders are headed to a possible explosion on in the 3500 block of North Highway 271 in Tyler, home of Tyler Welder's Supply. According to scanner traffic, emergency personnel are responding to reports of multiple explosions that have ignited small fires near the vicinity.
Evacuations are underway in a nearby neighborhood. Goolsbee Tire and nearby housing is being evacuated.
Traffic diverted at 271 and Duncan Street as a safety precaution. Motorists are asked to avoid the area until further notice. Additional details to come.
Update 4 p.m.: Emergency responders have established a mobile command center at Goolsbee Tire, 2880 US-271, Tyler, and the Smith County Fire Marshal Connie McCoy is on site. A reporter on the scene indicated fire crews have not gone in.
Update 4:15 p.m.: A reporter on the scene said all exploding seems to be contained or burned out, but it does not appear that fire crews have been given the OK to go on site and cordoned off area remains in effect.
Update 4:18 p.m.: Fire department drones have surveyed the area and collected aerial footage. The Tyler Fire Department is in the process of transitioning command to the Smith County Fire Marshal.
Update 4:20 p.m.: Officials indicated they are going to let the fire burn for one more hour, which they expect will reduce hazmat issues. Then they will reassess the area and determine if fire crews will be safe to go on site. Tyler Police is rerouting traffic at Gentry Parkway and Old Gladewater Highway. The cordoned off area, which includes evacuated structures, spans about half a mile.
Update 4:30 p.m.: Official say there were 23 employees on site at the time of the explosion. There still are no reports of injuries. Officials added there was a delivery driver on site at the time of the explosion who is in the process of being interviewed.
Update 4:40 p.m.: Officials said they do not know when people will be able to reassess the area, and they are in the process of setting up a shelter for those impacted but they do not currently have an estimate on the number of evacuees. Officials also are uncertain if there is any damage to homes in the surrounding area. They indicated it will be another hour until the next update.
Update 4:45 p.m.: Several fire trucks and the Smith County Fire Marshall have left the command center to attempt to reassess the site at Tyler Welders Supply.
5:05 p.m.: Tammy Prater, executive director of the American Red Cross, said the Red Cross has established a canteen area at Pine Springs Baptist Church, 2155 County Road 334, where they are giving out water and food to first responders and evacuees. The agency is on stand by to set up a shelter at that location if there is a need throughout the night.
Update 5:36 p.m.: Sgt. Darrell Coslin with the Smith County Sherrif's Office said there are no major changes in the situation. He said officials are not ready to determine it safe to send fire crews into the area, and they continue to allow exploded cannisters to burn off. He said there are some unexploded canisters visible in drone footage. He added that evacuee will be notified when they are able to go back into the area, and they are able to take shelter at Pine Springs Baptist Church.
Update 6:02 p.m.: Fire crews are at the scene of Tyler Welders Supply, where there is still some smoke coming from the buildings.
Update 6:23 p.m.: It appears traffic has resumed on Highway 271. Some smoldering continues at the site, and it appears some Tyler Welders Supply employees are on site surveying the situation alongside fire crews.