My column for this issue was supposed to be about Industrial Fire World moving to its new headquarters in Bryan, Texas. March madness around here involved cardboard boxes, moving trucks, back strain and eternally searching for the tape dispenser.
Unfortunately, an event of note placed itself in the headlines ahead of our grand opening. About 120 miles away in Deer Park, a massive fire broke out in a petrochemical terminal. Over a period of 2½ days the blaze destroyed or damaged 15 80,000-gallon storage tanks filled with varying amounts of flammable product.
It was the kind of fire we tell ourselves is not supposed to happen anymore. Losing that number of tanks in a fire burning that long is something you read in books about ancient history, i.e. the 1980s. Books written about people named Adair, Hansen, Matthews, and the Williams family, the father and son team of Les and Dwight.
These names seem mythological today, like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Surely, industrial firefighting has evolved into a basic, fundamental, boring business where X amount of wet stuff on Y amount of red stuff equals instant success. All you need is that annual refresher and you too can cope.
Apparently not. Anyway, not while you still find 15 storage tanks crowded into a common dike.
To meet a challenge of almost historical proportions, we had to recruit someone of those same proportions. Dwight Williams retired in 2011 after a career specializing in large volume flammable liquid firefighting. His name is tied to a string of incidents instantly identifiable by the mention of where they happened – Stapleton, Chalmette, Hackberry, Lima, Artesia, and Norco, to name a few.
Thirty-six hours into the Deer Park fire, the call went out to Dwight who, in turn, brought on board Chris Ferrara of US Fire Pump. Together they mustered a team of exceptional firefighters both young and, uh, mature to tackle the terminal fire. Helping to fill out the ranks were firefighters provided by David Owens of Industrial Rescue Instruction Service.
Taking advantage of the groundwork done by Channel Industries Mutual Aid, US Fire Pump drew from its company catalog to supply equipment for large-volume water delivery. At peak operation, the relay of trucks, pumps and monitors flowed up to 30,000 gpm.
A fire that refused to lay down for anyone else was declared vanquished on March 20 after 64 hours of chaos. Clinching the deal was a new product distributed by US Fire Foam, Signature series 1 x 3 AR-AFFF Signature series foam. It dealt with the initial emergency and a later rekindle that blossomed to almost 40 percent of the original blaze.
For a variety of reasons, the ITC fire is going to be a landmark in our business. It is a jolt to the complacency that settles over us when we go too long without a really tough fire. The last one of this caliber happened almost exactly 14 years earlier – the Texas City refinery explosion.
Thankfully, the ITC fire cost no one their life. It showed that industrial firefighting still has pitching depth. Some different names have moved forward as the place to go for these talents and skills. Equipment and techniques in place have once again been proven to work when correctly applied. Questions about the environmental impact of the foams used may persist, but there is clarity about the essential, indispensable ingredients needed for victory.
Best of all, one of the legendary names in industrial firefighting has once again established himself as the reigning champion. Already looking toward the future, Dwight Williams is calling on industry to fund research on improving internal floating roof storage tanks, such as systems to simultaneously replace product being drained from burning or endangered tanks with water pumped into it, thereby protecting the tank structure.
As someone the same age as Dwight it is nice to know that turning a few pages on the calendar does not necessarily diminish a person’s value to his community.