ELKHART -- If the feeling of familiarity didn't dawn when a boom shook them from their beds and living room couches late Thursday, neighbors of VIM Recycling were thinking it when they opened their doors to fire raging beyond the tree line:
As the blaze continued burning out of their view Friday, Baugo Township residents who live closest to the scene were lamenting a tragedy they said might finally convince government officials that the company has no business being next door to their neighborhood.
"I don't know if anybody realized it would get this out of hand over the years," said Cardinal Avenue resident Wayne Stutsman, who lives northwest of the recycling plant. "Hopefully, maybe with this situation, they'll move it out of here, get it out of a residential area."
For years, Gloria Trosper has tried to make the case that the company doesn't belong there.
In fall 2004, she gave county officials and state environmental regulators a petition with 200 signatures protesting sawdust emissions and the smell of raw sewage that neighbors said were coming from VIM. The company, they complained, was hurting their property values, endangering their health and working with materials that went beyond the aluminum and paper that neighbors initially thought VIM would recycle.
"The biggest problem is the politicians. They're the ones who let this go on," she said, sitting on the front porch of her C.R. 1 home with family members whom firefighters ordered to evacuate their house on the opposite side of the road.
"We've fought and fought and fought," Trosper said. "The sad part now is losing a life."
Neighbors' frustrations with VIM are well-documented at public meetings and in print.
They have long complained that a daily dose of dust and debris coats their cars. Some attribute breathing and health problems to VIM's work. Through the years, fires there, including one in August 2005, have taken hours to extinguish.
And then there's the smell of products the company uses in the recycling process.
Tower Road resident Charity Howard winced at the thought of the stench, which was replaced Friday by smoke that clouded the neighborhood. Her friend Madonna Dickson found words to describe it.
"You can't even open your windows half the time because it smells so bad," said Dickson, who was congregating near Blaine Avenue with neighbors chased from about 10 homes on the east side of the C.R. 1. "It smells like raw sewage every morning."
But none of those troubles has rivaled the latest incident.
The initial late-night blast was so jarring that Wilma Wolford thought a semi-trailer had hit her house at C.R. 1 and Tower Road. By the time she composed herself and went outside to see what was going on, fire crews were battling the blaze at VIM.
She later learned that her son, a volunteer firefighter for Baugo Township, was among the first responders.
"This is one of the times when you have to trust in God because he's there," she said of her son Friday morning, "and I have to be here."
Up the road, Dickson and her family weren't as stirred by the original explosion as they were by screams from the recycling facility. Her son wanted to run to the building where he suspected a VIM worker was trapped and crying for help.
"We had to hold him back," said Roger Dickson, Madonna's husband.
The Dicksons' thoughts then turned to saving their own lives and property.
They stomped out burning embers that the fire wafted into their backyard. When firefighters came knocking, the family packed a few clothes and yanked photos off the walls.
They spent that night in their cars parked across the street in the lawn of their church, Trinity Praise and Worship Assembly.
"I was thinking, 'There goes my house,'" Madonna Dickson said.
As of Friday afternoon, officials managing the fire scene had told her and other evacuees that they likely can't return home until today or Sunday.
For their part, the Dicksons said they were fortunate to be leaving this weekend for a trip to Kentucky. Jim Trosper's family, meanwhile, is crossing C.R. 1 and staying with his mother, Gloria.
"It's sad when you go to work and you don't know if your house if going to be there when you get back," he said.
He and his mother were gathered on her porch as she rifled through the file she's compiled on VIM through the years. It contained the neighborhood petition, correspondence with local government officials and news clippings about the company.
It also contained a copy of the $500 check that Gloria Trosper said VIM president Ken Will gave her for a furnace cleaning. The check, dated March 2004, paid for services that became necessary because of dust the company emits, she said.
"You wouldn't believe the stuff they took out of our furnace," she said. "There's just so much dust, it goes through your filter. It's unbelievable."
Will, who was at the fire site Friday, declined Truth requests for comment.
Trosper said Will also once wrote the family an $80 check to wash their car of debris that floated from VIM.
"You can wash your car and the next morning there can be that much dust on your car," Roger Dickson said, holding his thumb and index finger about an eighth of an inch apart.
His wife was more concerned about ash, burned pieces of fiberglass and other debris that had fallen the previous night on her 2007 Ford Mustang. She teared up as she found a few scratches on the hood and trunk.
"She's only made four payments on it," another neighbor explained about Madonna Dickson's reaction.
Then Dickson spoke for herself.
"We're hoping not to have to live like this all the time," she said. "I hope they won't rebuild."
Contact Jason A. McFarley at email@example.com.