(Graphic by Wilson Liévano. Original photo by Skip Foreman/Associated Press)

After a fire exposed language barriers in emergencies, Winston-Salem reacted

Eileen Rodriguez

Eileen Rodriguez


February 3, 2023

WINSTON-SALEM, NCThe first hours and days of the Weaver fertilizer plant fire were terrifying for many people that lived in the vicinity. And many of those residents were Spanish speakers who had little to no access to critical information.

Just weeks after the fire, over 100 residents gathered at a community meeting held by Winston-Salem officials. One by one, they came up to the microphone, demanding answers and accountability, and describing the chaos of those moments. Juan Gomez pleaded for any information available in Spanish. 

“We were scared, we were smelling all that smoke. Some of them don’t speak English, don’t understand what’s going on, so we need more information in the future for anything like that for the Hispanic community.”

Many turned to community organizations led by Latinos due to the language barrier, fear of prosecution due to a lack of documentation, and faster response time. Daniel Sostaita, the founder of Iglesia Cristiana Sin Fronteras, says the church was also a go-to place because of its involvement in the community and the bilingual information it can provide.

“It’s easier to call the church than the police, it’s easier to call the Hispanic League than the county. They will understand in Spanish. They won’t ask for papers. People connect faster with people they trust and know, ” Sostaita said. “The government doesn’t have information in Spanish, the county doesn’t have a page in Spanish, or a direct line they could call in their mother tongue. So in case of an emergency, you want to speak to someone who understands you.”

A police car blocks access to a road leading to the fertilizer plant fire in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. (Photo by Skip Foreman/Associated Press)

Connie Trejo, executive director of Hogar del Inmigrante, a nonprofit organization that has provided social services for the Latino community for years fielded many calls during those days. “They were really scared and they were screaming, ‘Miss Connie, please, come on, fire!’ and I asked, ‘What? Your house?’ and they said, ‘No, the fertilizer plant,” said Trejo.

The day after the fire, Trejo posted a flier on social media asking for all members of the community who have been affected by the fire to contact the organization or go directly to them for emotional and financial support. But she wasn’t expecting so many people to come forward.

“People didn’t understand, it was chaos, nobody went to get them out, there were only firefighters and they didn’t speak Spanish,” explained Trejo. “A lot of Hispanic people locked themselves in their homes because they didn’t understand.”

One of the residents, Zoila Sevilla Ayala, said she knew what was going on thanks to her relatives who called her since they knew English. The next day, she saw the flier on Hogar del Inmigrante’s Facebook page.

“We went first and foremost to know what was going on and what was going to happen, and if the fire would have health repercussions. We went to receive information.”

Residents near the fertilizer plant were ordered to leave their homes on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 after a fire and explosions rocked the plant. But the information was only in English, leaving some Latino residents confused. (Photo by Skip Foreman/Associated Press)

An awakening for the city

It was the middle of the night when Vivian Perez Chandler saw the news. She noticed all of the information from the city was in English and took action. 

“So I ended up texting an elected official at 12:03 a.m. on Tuesday, February 1st, and I said, ‘I apologize for the late text. Due to the fertilizer plant fire, does the city have the ability to also make a video in Spanish?’”

Perez Chandler helped the city in the days to come. She translated press conferences and contacted local Spanish media to raise awareness. But that was temporary. The city had to act, and fast.

So, it created  the Language Access Department to be a bridge between authorities and the Spanish-speaking residents. Javier Correa-Vega, a local man who provided food and support to people who were displaced due to the fire, joined seven months later as the department’s Language Access Coordinator. 

He says the focus is earning the community’s trust, making it easier for people to access Spanish speakers in the city’s department, and increasing visibility.  

“So I came with the idea and I created, for the first time at the City of Winston-Salem, we’re going to now identify Hispanic workers, Latino workers that speak two languages, and we’re going to attach ‘Hablo Espanol’ to their ID.”

The Language Access Department and city management worked together to draft a plan in case of future emergencies, which they presented in March of this year

The plan contemplates identifying bilingual officials working for the city so that when an emergency happens, they can support the Language Access Department to spread the information in the non-English speaking communities. 

After passing a language proficiency test, those with badges will receive an extra $1,100 per year. In the case of emergencies like the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant fire in 2022, these employees will work with the Winston-Salem Language Access Department. 

Correa-Vega says the personnel will collaborate with the marketing department, the mayor’s office, city hall, and they will also send someone to be at the emergency site. He says the city currently has around 60 people who speak Spanish.

Adolfo Briceño, the human relations program manager responsible for the new language access team, says the plan is a work in progress. 

“Should an event of this magnitude happen again, and I hope it never does, but if it does happen, we are going to be a little bit better prepared, I hope, than when it happened initially and there was nothing there,” he says. “And everything had to be, you know, worked on the minute it happened.”

Vivian Perez translate city announcements days after the Weaver Fertilizer Plant caught fire. City of Winston Salem/Facebook

A systemic issue

The lack of emergency access for non-English speakers is not unique to Winston-Salem, Tianyi Xiang researches social vulnerability and disaster management at Arizona State University and looked at several states’ county emergency plans.

She says it’s difficult to quantify their performance, but when she looks at their plans on paper, many counties lack concrete action. 

“Nearly half of the counties mentioned they’re taking action in addressing the language access needs,” she says. “And almost two, almost two-thirds of the counties in my sample acknowledge there is a language access needs.”

Xiang says nonprofits and other entities have to fill the void. That was the case during the Weaver Fertilizer plant fire.

Vivian Perez Chandler, who helped in those early moments, found that the need was so high she opened her own business to help organizations be more language-inclusive. But she says the problem itself is systemic.

“I think it’s been a lack of representation on boards and staff, but also, just realizing that there’s a lot of working families here,” she explains. “I mean, had I not been given the opportunity from my job to serve on boards, that representation wouldn’t be there.”

Winston-Salem and Forsyth County officials say the updated emergency plan was delayed by COVID-19, but should be completed within six months and available to the public for viewing at that time.

This story is part of “More than Words,” a Report for America initiative that brought together newsrooms covering Latino communities in eight states to examine the impact of language barriers on the social, economic, and educational advancement of Latinos and the local efforts to close this gap.

This project is made possible by