EAST LIVERPOOL - A pink, powdery substance on her dark blue Pontiac Bonneville was enough to alert Cherie Copeland that there was something amiss on Saturday.
"I had just gotten home, and I saw this stuff all over my car, and I was like, 'What the heck is that?'" Copeland said Sunday.
Copeland, of 1115 Ohio Ave., was not the only East End resident with questions following Saturday's accident at Heritage Thermal Services, a waste incinerator company formerly known as Heritage-WTI, that released ash into the air.
Many were left wondering what the substance was and if it was harmful to their health.
"I need to know what this is," said Teresa Fristick, another Ohio Avenue resident who witnessed the ash cloud on Saturday. "What did I just breathe into my lungs?"
Fristick said she was walking her 80-year-old mother to her car after doing her hair when she heard a sound like a firecracker, only louder. Not long after, a cloud with particles and flakes in it blew down her street, she said.
"It was quick. It blew by very fast, like there was a force to it," Fristick said. "Maybe 15 to 30 seconds. In that time, it completely covered everything."
Fristick said the dust covered her car and got into the water of her 3,000-gallon swimming pool. She ordered her mother to get back onto the porch. "She didn't need to take a big breath of that," she said.
As for her swimming pool, she's not sure whether the filter will take care of the problem or whether she should replace the water altogether.
Copeland said she swept the substance off her porch and steps before she realized what it was and may have breathed some in. On Sunday, while trimming her hedges, she said her eyes started stinging, so she put on goggles and a mask.
Copeland said her cousin, who lives on Mulberry Street, has been complaining of her legs stinging and itching.
Other residents have been complaining about coughing, said Jason Croxall, who grew up on Ohio Avenue and whose parents still live there.
"I've just been so tired all day," his mother, Sandy Croxall, said on Sunday.
Authorities believe the ash from the accident was deposited as far north as Pennsylvania Avenue and as far west as D.W. Dickey & Son Inc. on Elmwood Street.
East Liverpool fire Chief Bill Jones said the substance will be tested by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, but he's not sure when the results will be available.
Heritage spokesman Raymond J. Wayne said the accident happened at 1 p.m. Saturday during the course of "routine incineration operations," when a large amount of ash fell from several interior walls of the incinerator.
"The volume of ash was larger than the ash-removal system could handle and an undetermined amount was deposited outside of the incineration unit," Wayne said.
Because the ash has a high metal content, Jones advised East End residents to wash fruits and vegetables from their gardens and to replace food and water for pets and farm animals.
Jones could not specify the metallic content in the ash, and Wayne could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
"We know what they were burning at the time, but we don't know what happens to it after the combustion process," Jones said. "That's why we're getting it tested. ... We don't know exactly what we're dealing with until it's tested."
Asked what was being incinerated at the time, Jones said it was a combination of materials from different waste streams.
The fact that it was already incinerated means that the ash material is probably less harmful than the original material, Jones said. "It's already been burned. It's not the pure product that they put in prior to burning," he said.
The ash and steam cloud was caused by a "vapor explosion," Jones said, that resulted when molten material fell into a large tank of water.
Heritage Thermal Services, located at 1250 St. George St. for more than 20 years, processes about 60,000 tons of hazardous and non-hazardous waste a year. Disposal is done through a rotary kiln incineration process where temperatures reach anywhere from 1,800 to 1,950 degrees.
Most of the waste comes from chemical manufacturers, refineries, the health care industry, colleges and universities, and the pharmaceutical industry, according to the company.
In addition to the Ohio EPA, the fire department also contacted the East Liverpool Health Department and the National Weather Service about the incident, Jones said.
"The National Weather Service wants to know about any large releases into the air," Jones said, noting that the initial cloud rose 300 to 600 feet into the air.