Sometimes the difference between a learning experience and a line-of-duty fatality is a split second. Limestone Fire Protection District Fire Capt. Don Boyle in Oklahoma escaped an explosion at an asphalt plant in October that came that close.
Even better, he has the GoPro video to illustrate his learning experience.
“When I turned around and ran I wasn’t running from the explosion,” Boyle said, referring to the video. He stood his ground when an explosion suddenly separated the end cap from a 3,000-gallon bullet tank and launched it nearly 80 feet straight up.
Boyle was only 40 yards away when the tank blew. His decision to run came when the end cap returned to earth on its edge and rolled toward him, he said.
“I was running from that lid,” Boyle said. “You can see that in the video if you look real close.”
Claremore, the county seat of Rogers County, is only 30 miles northeast of Tulsa. However, the Limestone Fire Protection District in Rogers County does not include Claremore or any other city or town.
According to Fire Chief Carl Smith, the more than 58 square miles the district covers is entirely rural.
“We don’t have any diners,” Smith said. “There are no bars. I’ve got three churches, an asphalt plant and a stone quarry and that’s about it.”
Staffing the fire district is 22 volunteers and four paid personnel split between three fire stations. When the first alarm about the fire at Tulsa Asphalt sounded at 8:37 a.m. Monday, Oct. 12, the district mustered 14 volunteers and all four paid responders.
“All of our firefighters are issued handheld two-way radios,” Smith said. “That’s how the alarm was issued.”
The closest fire house to the asphalt plant was only three miles away as the crow flies. However, winding rural roads made the actual distance closer to six miles. The firefighters assembled at the district’s three fire stations before proceeding to the asphalt plant.
Tulsa Asphalt is a large facility serving much of northeastern Oklahoma, Smith said. Engine 3 with two of the district’s paid firefighters aboard arrived at the plant first, relaying an immediate size-up of the situation to Chief Smith while he was in route.
Flames were spreading through a battery of seven storage tanks that provide fuel and material for making asphalt. Arranged side by side, the three largest bullet tanks, each 30,000 gallons, contained heated tar. The other four tanks, arranged end to end in pairs, were 3,000 gallon bullet.
Three of the smaller bullet tanks contained used oil recovered from gas stations and utilized as raw material. The fourth tank contained diesel fuel.
The first firefighters on the scene immediately began fire ground operations, stretching hand lines and applying water. Firefighters also began immediate application of a foam solution, Smith said.
“All of my engines are equipped with CAFS (compressed air foam systems),” Smith said. By use of an educator or direct injection, air is sucked into the nozzle causing the pressurized combination of foam solution and water to exit as rich, thick foam.
Using CAFS, water turned into foam bubbles can be effectively distributed over a wider area, increasing its extinguishing properties. The fact that CAFS is relatively economical in its use of water proved to be an immediate benefit because two of the three available hydrants malfunctioned.
“Two of the hydrants were in a new housing addition,” Smith said. “According to the water district, the hydrants were not installed correctly.” These were of limited usefulness during the fire. The third nearby hydrant worked at full capacity.
“The firefighters had to climb over or crawl under a six-foothigh chain link fence to reach that hydrant,” Smith said.
First responders on the scene immediately requested mutual aid, asking for an engine and water tanker from a neighboring fire department. Smith expanded the request for tankers, hoping to establish a shuttle operation to get more water to the scene.
Complicating that shuttle operation was a great deal of street traffic generated by rubberneckers gawking at the flames from their automobiles, Smith said.
“The smoke from the fire was visible for a hundred miles,” he said. “The spectators managed to choke the road down to a single lane coming in and going out.”
Two tankers drawing water from different locations worked from the east and west sides of the fire. Eventually, the number of tankers available increased to at least ten. Dump tanks were assembled to hold the arriving water, freeing the tankers to get more.
“Normally, there was always one tanker waiting to dump,” Smith said.
Eight departments responded to Limestone’s mutual aid call. Smith eventually had three engines and a ladder truck on hand.
“One of the engines was kept on standby,” he said. “We never had to use it.”
The asphalt company provided two front end loaders to prevent water runoff into two nearby creeks.
“They used the loaders to scoop up this finely crushed rock they had on hand and block the runoff,” Smith said. “None of the product got off the property.”
Even with adequate water reaching the scene, the handline firefighters made little headway against the blaze until the arrival of an airport foam tender dispatched from nearby Tulsa International Airport by the Oklahoma Air National Guard.
“Without their help it would have been a really long haul to get that thing under control,” Smith said.
Drawing water from the dump tanks, the crash tender began applying foam to the fire, sweeping from east to west, he said.
“Just as it got to the final tank, the foam ran out.”
Two hours after the initial alarm, the major portion of the fire had been all but eliminated. All that was left was one small fire coming out of a diesel tank on the south side of the battery. However, that fire proved stubborn.
“A 1½-inch pipe had broken or the connection had melted,” Smith said. “It was still dumping diesel on the ground. That was the only fire left.”
Because the fire district includes numerous high pressure pipelines, Smith insists on adequate training regarding fuel fires. During the preceding two-hour battle, the screech of relief valves on the tanks opening under pressure became familiar to the firefighters.
“I’d been watching the relief valve on all the tanks,” Smith said. “And every one of them had worked.”
Firefighters worked on the remaining fire nearly 45 minutes. With the diesel tank pointing north and south, two firefighters using a foam line stood on the west side near the north end. Boyle watched from about 40 yards southwest of the tank’s south end.
With no warning, a relief valve opened -- not on the diesel tank still burning but on an identical tank beside it designated for used oil. The screech lasted less than two seconds before an explosion blew the eight-foot diameter end cap off the used oil tank’s south end.
Boyle came closest to being hit. However, the end cap hinged at the top before completely separating, making a 90 degree turn straight up. It rose nearly 80 feet into the sky before it started tumbling back to earth.
It landed only 10 feet from Boyle and began rolling towards him.
“I was just trying to get out of the way,” Boyle said. “I ran toward the pair of firefighters with the hose line. I figured if they started running too it was still chasing me.”
The GoPro camera on his helmet recorded the entire event.
“Sometimes I forget to turn it on because that’s not my main focus or priority,” Boyle said. “I had been there nearly two and a half hours before I thought to turn it on.”
Boyle escaped without injuries. A firefighter with the Oklahoma Air National Guard was not as lucky. Capt. Kim Wathen was standing near the blast and suffered a severe concussion.
He told KJRH-TV that he was struck on his left side by debris and briefly lost consciousness. He also suffered joint pain and memory loss.
“For my memory I can’t recall everything and I have trouble just getting things out,” Wathen told KJRH-TV. Damage to Wathen’s crash truck was limited to a cracked windshield.
Smith also ordered the two Limestone Fire District firefighters handling the foam line to the hospital as a precaution. Both were treated and released.
Thermal imaging had failed to indicate a growing problem with the tank that exploded, Smith said.
“This bullet tank was double walled with insulation between,” he said. “Plus it was covered in foam.”
A determination about the condition of the relief valve has not been made because no one has been able to find it after the blast, Smith said.
“I don’t understand why that relief valve just popped and then -- bang,” he said. “Either it was clogged up or had melted over.”
The asphalt plant fire tops an eventful year for the Limestone Fire Protect District. Earlier a firefighter was injured at a traffic accident.
“The accident was right over the top of a hill,” Smith said. “This was a five-lane highway with a clear view for a mile and a half. A fellow driving a truck at 65 mph wasn’t paying attention and slammed into the back of the fire truck.”
A firefighter who had just entered the fire truck cab did not have time to get his seatbelt on, Smith said. He spent four days in the hospital.
About a month after that the district answered an alarm involving a structure fire.
“It was a homemade metal building built on two-by-fours,” Smith said. “The gentleman who owned it worked on cars. So he had diesel, brake fluid and transmission fluid on hand. There was also kerosene.”
To make it even more interesting, the owner reloaded ammunition, so gunpowder was handy, Smith said.
“The roof caved in all at once,” he said. “When it did fire blew out the open front door. One of my firefighters was standing off to the side but still got burns on his shoulder.”
As for Boyle’s GoPro video it has already proved to be a valuable training tool, Smith said. For example, at least one firefighter and several civilians were not wearing full bunker gear at the time of the blast.
“I’ve already spoken to those people,” Smith said.