Rumors regarding the retirement of Dwight Williams, one of the leading figures in large-volume flammable liquid storage firefighting, have been greatly exaggerated if the March 20 extinguishment of the massive Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, Texas, is any indication.
“Well, I guess I lied,” Williams said.
Williams, who stepped down as head of Williams Fire and Hazard Control in September 2011, took a major role in the joint effort to put out the stubborn 64-hour blaze that spread through petrochemical products in and around 15 storage tanks and unleashed black smoke tracked by radar stretching as far west as Austin.
He ranked the Deer Park emergency as among the worst in a career that includes the M/V Jupiter tanker fire in 1990 in Michigan, the Stapleton Airport tank farm fire the same year in Denver, the Christmas Eve 1989 refinery fire in Baton Rouge, LA, that involved 16 burning storage tanks and, in 2001, the extinguishment of a 270-foot diameter gasoline storage in Norco, LA, the largest single tank fire in history.
“I’m going to say that it was one of the top three most challenging burns that I’ve ever dealt with,” Williams said.
How much did it cost to bring Dwight Williams out of retirement? The terminal owner purchased 15,000 gallons of Williams’ new 1 x 3 AR-AFFF Signature series firefighting foam, almost the entire inventory on hand.
“I told them that I wanted them to be successful using my product and I could only assure that if I was there,” he said.
Deer Park Disaster
Press releases issued by ITC pinpoint the initial blaze at the terminal as occurring at 10:22 a.m. on March 17. ITC identified the chemical involved as naphtha, a component that is used in gasoline. The refinery was shut down and residents in Deer Park were instructed to “shelter-in-place” by remaining indoors, closing all doors and windows and turning off central heating and any air conditioning units. Officials also closed several major traffic arteries east of Beltway 8, the intermediate beltway in the Houston area.
ITC’s Deer Park location is a 265-acre facility situated on the Houston Ship Channel less than 3½ miles east of Beltway 8. The terminal consists of 242 storage tanks with a total capacity in excess of 13 million barrels. The burning tank was one in a tight cluster of storage tanks designated as 80-1 through 80-15, each sized to hold 80,000 barrels and sitting in a common dike.
Tank 80-8, the first tank to ignite, contained 72,000 barrels of product and was the closest to full of the group. By 7 p.m. the fire had spread to a second tank containing xylene, also a component in gasoline.
“Emergency responders continue attempting to control the fire using foam and are fighting defensively to ensure the fire does not spread,” the press release states. “At this time the cause of the fire is undetermined.”
The fire continued to spread. A press update issued at 1:30 a.m. March 18 stated that five additional tanks were now ablaze. Chemicals in the newly involved tanks were identified as gas blend stocks used in the production of finished gasoline, and base oil commonly used as machine lubricants.
By sunrise on March 18, the fire had touched off an eighth tank, this one containing toluene, used in production of nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner. Air monitoring was now detecting low levels of particulate matter from the fire. Readings indicated a single volatile organic compound had reached as far as six miles southwest of the facility.
Although these readings were reported to be well below hazardous levels, officials continued to urge residents to observe the shelter-in-place warning.
By 10 a.m. most of the local traffic restrictions had been lifted. ITC reported that efforts were ongoing to pump the flammable contents out of the tank that initially caught fire. The tanks ablaze were identified as 80-2, 80-3, 80-5, 80-6, 80-8 and 80-11.
Later that day firefighters faced a major setback when, between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m., water pressure provided by two fireboats drawing from the Houston Ship Channel was lost. Due to the fire’s intensification, two additional tanks became involved. At 10 a.m. March 19, ITC identified the new fires as tanks 80-14 and 80-15, both containing pyrolysis gasoline.
Meanwhile, two empty tanks, 80-9 and 80-12, had collapsed.
Retirement on Hold
On the night of March 18, Williams was in Baton Rouge to give a presentation. At about 11:30 p.m. he got the call that tested his reserve on remaining forever retired.
“They wanted me at the fire by 7 a.m. the next morning and to bring all the Signature Series foam we had,” Williams said.
Fortunately, US Fire Pump, distributor of the recently introduced brand, is based near Baton Rouge. Williams arrived on time the next morning with three truckloads of his new firefighting product.
The first order of business was to meet with the owner’s representatives and with representatives of Channel Industries Mutual Aid (CIMA), a Houston-area non-profit mutual aid network comprised of more than one hundred emergency response agencies, not the least of which are the industrial fire brigades along the Houston Ship Channel.
“We had a very good meeting,” Williams said. “The owner was very responsible. He said that he wanted to get the fire out but that he did not want to hurt anybody. I told him that I hadn’t hurt anybody in 43 years in the business and I didn’t plan to start now.”
Neither did he want to paint a false picture of the situation the firefighters now faced, he said.
“I told him that we were going to be successful but that it was a very complex fire,” Williams said. “I said I would tell him the truth as to what I thought needed to be done if there were any problems. He said ‘We’re going to get along fine.’”
To help with the planning, Williams made a helicopter tour of the fire ground. That experience proved just as eventful as the actual firefighting.
“There were two big dike areas with tanks all bunched up in them,” he said. “A pipe band separated the two dikes. The good news was that there were not a lot of flanges, mostly just good straight pipe. That was a blessing because we already had a lot of pressure fires in the dike area.”
As for the bad news, damage was so extensive within the dike that only one tank remained fully operational.
“The rest were blown up pretty good,” Williams said. “There were multiple tanks that had the roofs blown off. And those that hadn’t collapsed were starting to collapse.”
Extinguishing a damaged tank with only a few feet of product left inside can be more challenging that putting out a full, undamaged tank. The twisted metal of those collapsed tank shells make delivering foam to where it was needed most even more difficult.
“These tanks collapse inward, coming down into the center of the tank,” Williams said. “Many times the steel is below the liquid level. So you have a problem in communicating foam all the way across the fuel surface. It shields the fire like an awning or a tent.”
His aerial survey also brought him face to face with the weather conditions that had been a hindrance since the first flames had shown themselves.
“The wind was extremely strong,” Williams said. “With a lot of these fires, the only way you could fight them was downwind or crosswind. That’s tough to do on a tank fire.”
While in the air, Williams came particularly close when an over pressured storage tank suddenly and dramatically relieved itself.
“I was in the helicopter when it went off, probably only 250 to 300 yards from us,” he said. “The roof just picked up and waved at us. It comes loose at a weak seam and it’s just like it’s waving at you.”
Again, this is a good news/bad news situation, Williams said. Being that close is bad news. The good news is that the roofs opening along the weak seam as designed gave the ground monitors better access to the burning contents of the tank.
“When the roof settled, it gave us enough of a fish mouth to get into the tank,” Williams said. “Otherwise, we’d have had to hang portable wands in the burning eyebrow vents for dry chemical shots as well as foam.”
Overall, the fire was a complex maze of extreme hazards bunched close together including manifold fires with running, boiling liquid and hot steel, he said. For a level of complexity, Williams compared it to marine firefighting in a confined engine room flooded with combustible liquids.
“Marine fires are unique in that there are so many unknowns and things you can’t see,” Williams said. “I would equate it to that. If you wanted to design a fire that was just a real stinker this would be it.”
Back on the ground again, Williams met with his fellow firefighters to formulate a plan. He made it clear that he was only one of many participants in planning and executing the extinguishment of the ITC fire. In particular, Williams cited Pete Greco with LyondellBassell, Mark Turvey with Lubrizol and Chris Ferrara, owner of US Fire Pump for their contribution to the final success.
“We all had a lot to do with it,” Williams said.
After four hours of preparation on the scene, the firefighters were ready to attack. Much of the groundwork to accomplish the job had already been done. CIMA had done an exceptional job getting water to the fire ground, he said.
“We had neighboring plants that allowed us to come across their facilities and feed us water,” Williams said. “We had a lot of 12-inch, 8-inch and 5-inch hose on the ground.”
Along with the Signature foam, Chris Ferrara brought submersible pumps, monitors and proportioning packages from US Fire Pump in Louisiana. He also brought dry chemical.
“I told him when this thing started that it was a one-team fire,” Williams said. “Now, after burning a while, it was a battalion size fire. I don’t know how many people Chris brought but it wasn’t one too few. He even brought protective clothing for me because I turned mine in six years ago.”
However, the time had come to turn some of that ample water off. The water inside the dike stood nearly five feet high.
“The tanks that are full don’t need much water on them,” Williams said. “The other thing is you load up the dike area and overfill it. Then you’ve got fire running all over the ground.”
Dividing up the work, Williams and Greco took one side of the fire while Ferrara attacked from the other. Throughout the attack, team size ranged from as many as 25 firefighters to as few as seven.
“The worst thing you can do is have too many people,” Williams said. “You’re better off with almost too few.”
The firefighting continued nearly nine hours until the teams met in the middle, Williams said.
“It was too big, like fighting a war on two fronts,” he said. “Only we didn’t have just two bad dudes to deal with. It was more like we had six or seven apiece.”
Working from outside the dike, firefighters positioned monitors rated at up to 4,000 gpm to begin knocking down the fire, he said.
“A lot of them were popped out with power cones and straight stream monitor nozzles,” Williams said.
Most firefighters think primarily about extinguishing the fire around the tank seal. However, working around obstructions such as gauging ports and wells and the manway is important too.
“You can have a lazy vapor fire above the manway and the gauging wells,” Williams said. “If you don’t put those out, usually with dry chemical, the fire will rekindle.”
As for the tank fires, Williams said he used a variety of techniques, from “swirling” to “feathering,” amassed over a lifetime of large volume flammable liquid firefighting.
“I used every trick that I knew about in this game and probably some I hadn’t used before,” he said. “It was an extremely challenging tank fire.”
Initially, the fire was so overwhelming that responders needed to reassess the situation after each extinguishment.
“The foam was not used in a conventional manner,” Williams said. “We had to put a lot of the fire out just to see how much more fire was behind it. So there was a lot of foam shot to gather intelligence.”
Throughout the battle, Williams moved from one side to the other to give additional direction.
“I’m 72,” he said. “My damn feet got to hurting after the first six hours. They gave me a scooter and a driver. And I went back and forth, communicating. I felt like it was well coordinated.”
Nearly five hours into the operation, Williams said he gained renewed faith that the mission was “doable” and worth the money that that was being invested in it.
“When you’re putting out a fire for somebody if you spend $100,000 on something that only saves the owner $20,000, that’s not a good deal,” Williams said. “What’s a good deal is when you save all the tanks in one diked area across the road and stop the flammable liquids from getting into another tank farm. And that’s what we did.”
The firefighting continued nearly nine hours until the two teams met in the middle, Williams said. But even with the big flames extinguished, the firefighting effort continued through the night.
“Some of those tanks had so much hot coke in them that you still had to work it over,” Williams said. “Even when the fire’s out it’s not really out. There’s a hell of a lot more to do.”
As compared to actual firefighting, most of the foam used at ITC was expended on vapor suppression after the fire, Williams said. The importance of that effort was underlined when, on March 21, onsite responders reported increased levels of benzene that again required officials to issue a shelter-in-place warning for the Deer Park community.
Once the situation at ITC is stabilized, the investigators will take over. But just as important as finding the cause of the fire is investigating ways to improve internal floating roof tank technology, Williams said.
“We need to get a number of people together and say, okay, what did we just learn about internal floaters?” Williams said. “A number of things can be done to make them safer by providing good and cheaper fire protection.”
One improvement that Williams recommends is the use of a high level suction that can draw product from underneath the floating roof pan paired with a water throughput at the bottom of the tank.
“You can move water into the tank while drawing product off the top,” Williams said. “You can replace the volume of the tank with water and not destroy the tank. The only fuel lost is what burns at the eyebrow vents.”
As for renewing his career as an industrial firefighter, Williams said he pleads guilty to charge of having thoroughly enjoyed himself.
“My old broke hands, feet and shoulders all said good morning that next day,” Williams said. “But I had a ball. I didn’t realize that I was still as mentally tough as I always was.”
The ITC fire gave him the opportunity to renew many old friendships, he said. It also gave him a new respect for the younger generation making its way into industrial firefighting.
“I worry about our country and our youth,” Williams said. “I think we’ve raised a generation of snowflakes and people who feel entitled. But the kids I worked with in Deer Park did a damn fine job. No one was confrontational. No one questioned what I told them. They were very responsive.”
Williams’ asking price to consult on your fire remains the same. Buy his foam and his expertise comes with the deal.
“I’m only going to care about people that buy my foam,” Williams said. “If you don’t buy my foam, I’m not going to give you any free advice.”