Firefighters work to remove the dead after the Tacoa boilover. -

Firefighters work to remove the dead after the Tacoa boilover.

Dec. 19 was the 30th anniversary of the Tacoa Thermoelectric Plant fire, close to Caracas’ Maiquetia Simon Bolivar airport. I wanted to share with you something that is in my mind after all these years and drives my determination to be an effective safety professional.

The corporate manager of industrial protection (fire and security) of Lagoven (formerly Exxon in Venezuela) called me that morning from his home in Caracas. I was at the Amuay refinery  about 500 miles away attending the company’s Christmas party and celebrating my sixth wedding anniversary. The manager said he was sending the company plane to pick me up. He needed my assistance at the Tacoa fire.

Ibrahim Alfonso Ferrer was the manager’s name. He was also my mentor and friend. He had earned the Associates Degree in Fire Protection and Safety from Oklahoma State University in the 1960s and later a Criminal Justice degree from Michigan State. Because of him, I got interested in the OSU FIRET program.

Only three months earlier I had returned from the University of Central Missouri with a MS in Industrial Security. Ibrahim sent me on a company scholarship. He then appointed me the company’s fire protection advisor working out of our headquarters in Caracas.

I went to the Judibana airport and patiently waited many hours for the company plane to arrive. I knew something was wrong since it was only an hour flight from Caracas to Judibana. I heard early in the afternoon that the tank fire had turned into a catastrophe, but details were not available. Finally the company plane arrived around 6 p.m. Later that night as we flew close to the fire, I learned the magnitude of the disaster. More than 154 people were killed and many had been injured. Ibrahim, who asked me to respond to the scene as an advisor, died too.

My first task was to make an assessment and determine what was needed to control and extinguish the fire now affecting another tank and the entire tank farm area. In the morning, civil defense, fire departments, military and law enforcement officials attended a meeting held at Lagoven’s Catia La Mar Terminal.

I presented my assessment, giving a detailed explanation of fire tactics recommended and the resources needed to effectively implement them. After the meeting, I returned to the fire scene and remained there for two days with the electric company’s representatives. I later assisted the investigators with my observations and my personal copy of the appropriate National Fire Protection Association literature, including the Flammable Liquids Code Handbook.

Up to this point, only crude oil was considered a boilover risk. The concept that any combustible liquid with a wide range of boiling points is capable of developing and propagating a heat wave could boilover was not well understood or communicated.

This is a tragedy that should have been prevented. The victims included electric company employees, firefighters, law enforcement and news media personnel, neighbors, bystanders and my dear friend Ibrahim.

Every year the Caracas Fire Department holds a ceremony to honor those who died in the Tacoa fire. The news media publish short articles about it. I reflect on how this tragedy has impacted my life. The company plane could have been on time. I could have been at the fire scene when the boilover happened. And I pray for Ibrahim and those who perished that day.

Editor's note: Before the 1982 Tacoa disaster in Venezuela, boilovers were thought to be a phenomenon limited strictly to crude oil. A burning storage tank of No. 6 fuel oil at a thermoelectric power plant proved that theory tragically wrong.