This story was done in partnership with Enlace Latino NC. Léalo en español.
All photos by Victoria Bouloubasis.
At 6:42 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 31, the Winston-Salem Fire Department received a call that the Winston Weaver Company Fertilizer plant was up in flames. Nearly 600 tons of ammonium nitrate caught on fire.
At least 6,000 residents had to evacuate their homes due to the risk of explosion. The majority of that community, per the U.S. census, is low-income people of color: the residents living within a three-mile radius of the plant are 53.7% Black and 25.6% Hispanic.
Firefighters worked for four days to put out the fire, pouring more than 2.4 million gallons of water onto the site to avoid an explosion. Ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer, caused the 2020 explosion in Beirut, which killed 218 people, wounded 7,000, and displaced more than 300,000. In Winston-Salem, a chemical explosion of that magnitude could knock out 35 city blocks, making it the worst in U.S. history, according to fire chief Trey Mayo.
NC Policy Watch found regulatory loopholes that put into question whether the company filed proper safety records and revealed that it withheld information on behalf of state agencies on similar fires at other plants across the state.
During the fire, many Spanish-speaking residents were left in the dark: No information given by the city was translated into Spanish until one immigrant advocate stepped in. Vivian Perez Chandler, who runs a nonprofit, Asset Building Coalition of Forsyth County, texted city officials the night of the fire and the next morning asking for Spanish-language information.
“Their response was ‘we don’t have the ability to push out information in Spanish.’,” she said. “In that moment I was very upset. This is unacceptable.”
Perez Chandler took time off from her day job to assist the city. For weeks, she translated every piece of information and alert in real time, posted on the city’s official social media, and contacted Spanish-language press.
“Vivian did an incredible job as far as translating everything. She was doing every update,” said firefighter Andres Herrera. Perez Chandler interviewed his father, fellow firefighter and captain Gustavo Herrera, for a Spanish-language Facebook video she posted to the city’s page.
“I have retained Vivian’s services if we have anything else going on in the future,” said Ed McNeal, communications director for the city. “To have someone with sharp communication and who knows the community, and who grew up here, gives us a lot of comfort to have her as a partner on that.”
On Feb. 16, about 300 people packed a community basketball gym to air their grievances and demand more support.
They had uprooted their lives, losing days of work and wages. North Hills Elementary School, a mile from the plant, temporarily shut down. Some residents complained of headaches and respiratory problems; others worried about a contaminated water supply.
“I’m so caught up in emotion,” Winston-Salem Councilwoman and Mayor Pro Tempore Denise D. Adams told the crowd. “I believe in the possibility to jump in and help.”
Families filled the risers, many people donning white headsets to listen to Spanish interpretation provided by the school system.
It was the first time the city addressed Spanish-speaking residents directly.
“It was through working with Vivian on this that we just purchased a translation headset system to be able to host our meetings,” McNeal said. “The school system let us use theirs in February, and we bought our own set.”
Since the meeting, the city of Winston-Salem said affected residents within a one-mile radius can apply for limited reimbursement of meal and hotel costs at a March 9 community meeting from 5-8 p.m. at the Home and Garden building on the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds. Residents can fill out the reimbursement application, submit receipts, and ask questions.
Spanish interpretation will be provided by the city at the meeting.
“It’s been a conversation over the years, but it’s accurate that this emergency event has been a catalyst,” McNeal said.
Southerly and Enlace Latino NC visited Latinx neighborhood residents and small business owners in the evacuation area to learn how they accessed information during the emergency. All of them told us it was through word of mouth, their neighbors, and community advocates in churches and schools.
They said the emergency shed light on what the city needs to change when addressing the public so everyone can fully access information.
Here are their experiences, in their own words. They have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Almost all of these stories were recorded in Spanish, and translated into English (léalo en español).
Vivan Perez Chandler, executive director of Asset Building Coalition of Forsyth County
I texted a city official at 12:03 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 1, to actually ask where the information was in Spanish or if the city has the ability to make a video in Spanish. The next morning I texted again and I said “any response on the Spanish communication about the evacuation?” and their response was “we don’t have the ability to push out information in Spanish.” In that moment, I was very upset. This is unacceptable.
I then called my boss and told him I need to take the day off to assist with Spanish communications and his response was, “no, don’t take it off, go ahead and do this. Our community needs you.” And from that moment on, I went wherever the communications director went. I was at the command post the entire time. And I was doing translations on posts. I was doing video recordings. I also reached out to three other news media; there was no communication in Spanish [with media] either.
I’m originally from Guatemala. My native language is Spanish and my parents have been in that situation as well. I couldn’t help but think of how I felt in many moments where I didn’t understand. But also this was an emergency. There was the risk of an explosion and if you didn’t speak English you didn’t know what was happening. So to me, it was very alarming.Which is why that night at midnight or 1:00 AM. I posted on my social media, which wasn’t enough.
I’ve been a huge advocate around Spanish communications for 10-plus years. I was ready to step up because it’s my community. It’s my people. But not everyone thinks of us as a priority. Some people think of us as an afterthought, even though we are contributors to taxes, and to everything economically and to Winston-Salem.
I met two firefighters who spoke Spanish and I actually did interview one of them, Gustavo Herrera, to tell the community what was going on; that’s also on the city’s Facebook page. I kept scrolling. It was only on Facebook right at the beginning. If you don’t have a phone or social media, how do you find out? There was a message recorded on CityLink, but it was only in English and only for people who have signed up for that [service]. And it’s referred to as the “citizen notification system.” You cannot be inclusive if you have the word citizen because of the connotation it has.
More ways of communicating the information needs to happen. And it immediately needs to happen in Spanish.. You’ve got to make an effort to make Spanish media aware the way everyone else is. We’re not a priority.
Businesses nearby had to close. It’s a domino effect. It affects one person and then the entire family. And it’s entirely a population of minorities.
Lilian Ortiz, owner of Lily’s Beauty Salon
I have had the salon for seven years. I’ve been doing this work since I was 12 years old. I learned from my godmother and then did my schooling [in Dominican Republic]. This is my passion: hairstyling.
My clients are Mexican, Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan. And they are truly hard workers. My respect. I stay here until 10 p.m. to serve and help them. I am very thankful to my Latino community.
I was here that night working. A client called [to tell me].
I had to stay home until Friday. Five days. On Friday I had a woman come in for color. She is ashmatic and got dizzy from the smell of gas, a strong smell in the air. So she had to go home.
Saturdays are always full of people waiting for me to cut their hair. But hardly anyone showed up. People are still scared to come to this area. The community is frightened. And business has gone down. I have to make up two weeks worth.
Around 3 a.m. my phone at home did sound an alert. But they were already evacuating. Because that factory caught fire at 6:40 p.m.
There was a danger and we were at risk. But I don’t know how much. [I received information] by calling Sanchez [Tires]. No information appeared in Spanish. This area should not be for residents with that factory there. Thankfully God took control and there weren’t any deaths.
Sandra Galindo, resident who evacuated
I live a mile from the plant and could see the smoke from my house.
I work between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. at a plastics packing company. I heard it on the news–because I understand a bit of English–that we had to leave. Everyone [at work] was crying. I saw the map on the news, that it was approaching my house. I thought, “I have to go.”
That day I arrived home around 11 p.m. because I worried that my kids were alone. The oldest is 13. My neighbor called me and said I needed to come get the kids. She was watching out for me.
You could feel the smoke inside. When I saw the smoke I had to put wet towels underneath the door so it wouldn’t come into the house. The youngest packed his favorite toys and he was crying. He was so nervous. He’s eight years old. I grabbed all of our important things, like my kids’ documents and insurance cards, and we left. Four kids, one nephew. And two dogs.
I returned home after a whole week away and I could still smell the odor. I told the kids not to play outside because it still felt dangerous.
I have not received any information. It was horrible. People could have died. I never knew… that plant is pretty dangerous, huh? I never knew there was such a dangerous factory near my house.
Griselda Mejia Cruz, resident who evacuated
We live about 800 feet away from the plant, in a house. We actually pass it every day on our way to Walmart or to run errands. I saw the news on Facebook around 7 p.m. I didn’t give it much thought, to be honest. We eat dinner early and go to bed around 8 or 9.
We went outside and it smelled horrible. Smoke. It was scary. We didn’t know what to do. Then my cousin called me around 9:30 p.m. and said “you need to evacuate, they just made an announcement.”
There is truly nothing more frightening than having to wake up your child, gather your clothes or whatever you can. We have pets. It was very difficult. It was scary. I had to tell my neighbor to leave. She has four kids.
We knew there was a plant there. But we couldn’t have imagined how dangerous it is, that it contained chemicals that could explode. Our concern is that it will happen again. It would be a good idea to move [the plant] outside of the city. I don’t wish that fear on anyone.
Jose Ayala (middle), son of Sanchez Tires owner Dionisio Gaspar (right)
I was here with my dad, Dionisio Gaspar, at the tire shop Sanchez Tires, near where the fire happened. We were here watching the sirens and the building burning.
It was five, six days where the police obviously wouldn’t allow us to come in because everything was contaminated. It impacted us financially because we didn’t have the same work because we couldn’t come into work. We just started working again to alleviate the strain a bit. But it impacted us badly.
We have lived in Winston-Salem for almost 25 years. We never knew of any danger here. But all of a sudden, you never know. We found out on the city of Winston-Salem Facebook page that there was some type of chemical in the air. Just the police telling us we couldn’t come in, but they didn’t say much else. They didn’t tell us if the air was contaminated with chemicals. They hardly told us anything.
They are compensating homes, people who live nearby. But they aren’t giving anything to the businesses. We’re waiting to see if they give any type of financial support to businesses. It would be good.
Nareny Martinez, English Language Learner (ELL) Parent Engagement Manager, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
There is one school near the fire: North Hills Elementary. We had many affected families, Hispanic and otherwise. When we found out about the fire, the school sent a message to all families in our district letting them know what was happening.
After that we connected with the Hispanic Task Force and came up with a plan. What did the families need most at that moment? Food, since they were displaced from their homes. We contacted the food bank and other agencies. They donated food, fresh vegetables. I communicated one by one with each family myself and I invited them to come by the church [Iglesia Cristiana Sin Fronteras] for food. For those who ended up in hotels, we delivered the food. About 100 people came to the church.
We closed North Hills from the day the fire started until Thursday. On Friday North Hills opened. The majority [of students] are African-American and Hispanic. You couldn’t breathe. The smell was very strong. I passed by the plant every Friday to get to North Hills and leave boxes of food for the families. And it still smelled very strong for a while.
Families are still calling me because I’m Hispanic and the voice for the school system. So they come to me to look for resources, like where to go to the doctor if they feel sick afterward, and how to pay for those medical expenses. Or how they’ll manage after losing a week’s worth of pay while displaced.
They were also worried about kids missing days of school. So what did the school district do? For students without internet access, they offered classes in another educational building. We located the ones without the internet. The kids were so happy. They got their lunches [in class]. We even sent food home with them, because many were in hotels and their parents couldn’t cook. So we were able to give them some food.
I am grateful to the entire community, Hispanic and not, who joined us in this great effort. I thank the collaborators with all my heart. We had a great team to serve our community.
Daniel Sostaita, pastor at Iglesia Cristiana Sin Fronteras
Our church is well-known in the community. Not because of what I preach or our music, but for how we serve the community. The calls we received most were about food and help with paying bills. If the church only preaches the Bible it’s not serving its entire purpose. If you are hungry, you have to eat. That’s why our church does so much more that’s relevant to our community.
The truck came from the food bank and we were able to distribute to a ton of families. Thursday afternoon through Friday we handed out food.
The radio does its job. The church does its job. But there isn’t an organization that’s like “knock on our door and you’ll receive help.” There’s an absence of leadership. That’s why we started the [Hispanic] Task Force. But there is still a lot of work to be done. It would be great if there was something bigger on behalf of the state. With so many immigrants in this state, I don’t think it would be difficult to open up an office to serve [this community].
I know that plant. Passing by there… it was disgusting. The lack of maintenance. The filth. The place smelled horrible. But honestly I never thought this would happen.
It caught us all by surprise. I don’t think there was prior knowledge. People would come here and I asked if they lived close by and they’d tell me, “yes, pretty close.” “So what happened?” “I don’t know!” The people who spoke to me didn’t seem informed.
Andres Herrera, rescue firefighter (left), and Gustavo Herrera, hazmat and rescue captain (right) at Winston-Salem Fire Department
Gustavo: You can see when you go to a call and someone doesn’t speak English, you ask what happened in Spanish and it’s like “Oh my god, you speak Spanish?” It’s a relief. And it’s a relief for the crew.
Andres: I feel like we’re able to recognize each other as far as, like, they see me and feel like maybe they can communicate with me better than with someone you doesn’t speak that language. So it takes a lot of stress off them and off of us because now there’s a pathway for us to talk and not be uncomfortable.
Gustavo: In fires especially, they can connect with us and treat us like their liaison. We do jobs that are not ours, but it’s the only way to help the [Spanish-speaking] people.
Andres: You build a connection. Instead of just meeting someone, it’s like, they call you back by your name. It’s like “I know you.” Even I, who speaks English. If someone came to my house and spoke Spanish to me, I would feel “oh, I can relate to you a lot more.” At least six of seven firefighters speak Spanish.
Gustavo: I’ve been in that factory three times for different fires. It’s normal. I’ve been in several factories for the same reason. It’s part of the production process. Every time we walked in there we knew it was a high-risk place. Every time we made inspections there – no problem. I think this was just part of bad luck of this process. A bad moment. The product is highly combustible and highly explosive. The luck we did have was that, when the fire started, the product was mixed. So that’s why the explosion didn’t happen. The fast combustion was slowed down. An explosion is a fast combustion; a fire is a fast corrosion, oxidation. If it had been earlier [in the process] it could have exploded.
Andres: But the potential was so high, it was better to evacuate.
Gustavo: It’s important to reach them in these emergency situations. Even educate them. Vivian took me to a radio station and we explained all the chemistry and everything in Spanish. I think that’s important. We can’t insulate people because they don’t speak English.
Victoria Bouloubasis covers Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities in North Carolina for Southerly and Enlace Latino NC. She is a journalist and filmmaker based in Durham.
This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.