New Year's Eve came two days early in Garfield Heights, Ohio — at least the fireworks did. Throughout the night of Dec. 29, 2003, and into the next day, a series of spectacular explosions at a magnesium recycling plant on fire illuminated the snowy skies above this Cleveland suburb.
That snow, together with light rain, further complicated what was already atouchy situation, said Garfield Heights Fire Chief Tony Collova.
Burning magnesium reacts violently to water, producing great heat and a piercing white light. Monitor streams used to protect exposures had to be directed with great care. With a flame temperature exceeding 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, magnesium burns hot enough to break down water into its basic components, hydrogen and oxygen. That feeds the fire rather than extinguishing it.
As the snow began fluttering past the emergency lights, sounds akin to popping firecrackers went off, Collova said.
"We backed up and all of a sudden it started to rain," Collova said. "Then weheard and felt the booms from numerous explosions. It wasn't raining very hard. It was more like a spray, but it was enough to cause a reaction."
Soon the escalating concussions grew loud enough to break windows nearly800 feet away. Explosions began throwing large pieces of glowing steel hundreds of feet into the air. Fire spread to neighboring businesses, forcing the evacuation of more than 500 homes and apartments overlooking the industrial area.
By the end of the 25-hour emergency, two recycling plant buildings and two neighboring businesses were destroyed.
Garfield Heights, with a population of more than 31,000, is a 7½-square-mile bedroom community southeast of Cleveland. The largest local employer is Marymount Hospital with more than 300 beds. The Garfield Heights Fire Department, with a muster of 46 firefighters, operates with 14 firefighters per shift, plus two assigned to work in the Fire Prevention Bureau. Personnel are split between two stations on opposite sides of town.
The magnesium processing and recycling plant, open since 1950, ranked amongthe largest of its type in the U.S. Located on Chaincraft Road in north Garfield Heights, the plant, operating from four buildings, reclaimed magnesium from waste material to process into ingots for reuse. An estimated 1,000 tons of magnesium were stored on site. The 16-acre plant site shared the three-quarter mile long deadendroad with a dozen other industrial occupancies.
To the west, less than a quarter mile away, a hilltop neighborhood including apartments and residential dwellings stands 80 to 100 feet higher than the plant site. North, east and south of the plant are open areas, railroad tracks, businesses and scattered homes. An estimated 21,434 people live within one mile of the magnesium plant.
Garfield Heights responders routinely visit all industrial facilities in the city to"pre-plan" — firefighter terminology for formulating contingencies to address potential threats. While GHFD had responded to emergencies at the magnesium plant in the past, nothing approached the scale of the December 2003 incident, Collova said.
Fire dispatchers logged the first report about the fire at 3:01 p.m. According to an investigation by the Ohio State Fire Marshal, a plant worker loosened the lidon one of four 55-gallon drums of magnesium waste sitting on a single pallet.Then, operating a forklift, the worker left to get another load. He returned to find smoke issuing from the opened drum.
An attempt to smother the fire with factory flux, a heat insulator, failed. A Class D fire extinguisher containing sodium chloride-based dry powder was also tried without success. As the fire spread to the other drums, thick black smoke forced the workers to evacuate the plant.
The general public outside the plant also took notice of the commotion."The dispatch office has 10 emergency lines," Collova said. "According to the police, almost all 10 lit up at once."
Dispatch activated a first alarm, sending an engine and tower from Station No.1 and a ladder and an advanced life support (ALS) rescue squad from Station No.2. As the units left the stations, the officer in charge, Capt. Tom Nemetz, ordered a second alarm using the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), a resource for requesting additional firefighters and equipment from nearby departments.
"The captain knew the call involved magnesium," Collova said. "He would have enough challenges just setting up his sector and containing a major fire, so hecalled a second alarm that brings in two more pumpers, an aerial truck, a squad and an air truck."
Collova, attending a meeting at Marymount Hospital near the plant, checkedwith dispatch when the first alarm sounded. He left for the scene. "As I rounded the corner of the hospital looking north, I could see the black smoke," he said.
Before the first firefighters arrived, fire broke through the roof of the mainbuilding. Nemetz met with the plant manager, asking him to account for all employees. The manager assured him that everyone was safe. He also confirmedthat magnesium was involved.
Garfield Heights firefighters designate the address side of any burning buildingas "A" sector, moving clockwise to determine sides B, C and D. Nemetz established his command on Side A. With the danger of applying water to burning magnesiumin mind, he concentrated on containing the fire. Using a hydrant on side A farthestfrom the fire, Garfield Heights Tower 1 and Ladder 2 positioned themselves toprotect exposures near the A-D corner of the building.
Almost immediately, the lack of room to maneuver large vehicles hampered firefighters. As typical for local industries, the magnesium plant operated from atightly congested site with only narrow streets or alleys separating the buildings.The only access for fire trucks to reach the A-D corner was a narrow one-way street.
An influx of personnel and equipment from neighboring fire departments soon allowed Nemetz to position a tower, ladder, pumper and a squad at the A-B cornerof the fire as well.
"The monitors we laid down were unmanned," Collova said. "Eventually, theaerial towers were unmanned also. I know it's an expensive piece of equipment to risk, but I'd rather lose it than any firefighter."
Collova arrived at about 3:15 p.m. and assumed command. Nemetz immediately assumed the role of operations officer.
"Capt. Nemetz already knew what initial strategy had been laid out," Collovasaid. "He did it and did a fine job. He already knew who was on scene and whatadditional help had been called for." The chief also assigned staging and watersupply officers. Staging of apparatus and equipment was established upwind inthe parking lot of a neighboring business.
Thorough pre-planning provides firefighters with the inventory and locationof all hazardous materials at an industrial site. However, having the plant manager close by is still a valuable asset, Collova said.
"A pre-plan includes good basic information, but in an industrial setting manyimportant factors can change overnight," Collova said.
Specifically, the plant manager warned Collova about the closest exposure onSide D. "He said 'Chief, you don't want the gray building right there to go.'"
Measuring almost 200 feet long, the wooden roofed building in question servedas a storage warehouse for magnesium. Only a narrow one-lane road separated itfrom the burning main building. Collova ordered streams from the aerials directed onto the warehouse roof to create a water curtain between the buildings without affecting the magnesium inside.
Regardless, radiant heat began taking its toll with smoke appearing near thewarehouse roof. After checking to see that the entry was safe, a four-member teamfrom the Maple Heights Fire Department moved in to set up an interior monitor.Not long after they entered, heat began pushing darkening smoke out one of theopenings, warning of a potential flashover.
"As soon as the smoke increased and the pressure started coming down we hit the air horns and the radios — all entry-team firefighters were ordered out! When they walked out, black smoke was pushing right behind them."
No sooner had the firefighters exited than a popping noise could be heard close to where the entry team had been operating, Collova said.
"It wasn't an explosion like we had later that night, but it was enough to say'We're out of here,'" he said.
Firefighters took up new positions to better protect businesses threatenedon the D side. Principal among these was a company specializing in the heattreatment of machine parts. Once again, only a narrow street separated the firefrom the next building. A fire pumper relayed water to two aerials protecting thisexposure. To supplement the hydrant at the A-B corner, two long hose lays helped furnish the pumpers and aerials there.
"The water demand to protect exposures was draining their pumps all the waydown to 10 pounds per square inch residual pressure," Chief Collova said. "They pumped all the water they could and still couldn't stop the heat treatment companyfrom igniting and burning from one end to the other."
Fortunately, wind from the west meant no other exposures were immediately threatened. Equipment and personnel were now assigned to protect businesses to the east. As a precaution, dispatchers contacted the railroad to hold all trains downwind.
Next, continuing mutual aid assistance enabled Collova to place an aerial, pumperand rescue squad in each of the four sectors of the fire.
Public officials mobilized to help. Garfield Heights Mayor Thomas Longo,vacationing in Arizona, saw television coverage of the fire and immediately flew home. Cleveland Mayor Jane L. Campbell called personally to find out what hercity could provide, then sent an assistant mayor to the scene.
Cleveland Fire Chief Kevin G. Gerrity also responded in person, bringing an entire battalion. He also brought his department's hazmat team to monitor air quality. Concern arose that sulfur dioxide released by the fire could pose a health risk to peopledownwind.
"Garfield Heights shares a regional hazmat team with other fire departments located in the Chagrin/Southeast regions of Cuyahoga County," Collova said. "Many of these firefighters were already being utilized at the scene, so when the Cleveland fire chief offered their team, I jumped at the opportunity."
Both the federal and state Environmental Protection Agency and the Cleveland Air Pollution Control Agency responded as well to conduct their own air quality checks. Thankfully, it remained at safe levels. Regardless, medical advisories were issued by radio and television via the Cuyahoga County Emergency Management Agency's emergency operations center.
Beside air quality, environmentalists also checked a creek flooded with runoff water adjacent to the plant and local sewers for hazardous materials from the fire. As the fire expanded, operations became so widespread that Collova appointed three safety officers under GHFD Capt. Mike Brasdovich. Two officers were also appointed to monitor the various hose relays.
"Firefighters from different departments were well trained and so dedicated," Collova said. "Whenever a chief officer said we need to implement a certain objective the firefighters would just say 'We'll take care of it' and it was done. You just said 'Water relay officers, you've got to supplement your water supply' and it was done. If I said 'This is our sector A side,' I didn't have people saying 'What's hetalking about? They just knew and went to work."
Along with the incident command system, all departments involved were wellversed in the mutual aid box alarm system.
"It's not as if we had to instruct the dispatcher to call Maple Heights, Bedford, Parma Heights, then have her call back and say 'Parma's not available — what do I do now?" Collova said. "By saying 'strike a second box,' the dispatcher knows exactly what to do. They did a fabulous job."
While the plant burned, the remainder of Garfield Heights still required fire protection. Off duty personnel under the direction of GHFD Capt. Bill Horrigan staffed the city's two fire stations using equipment borrowed from other mutual aid companies.
Horrigan coordinated finding shelter for evacuees. Snow and rain had begun triggering a series of ongoing explosions at the site. Police, firefighters and the public works department evacuated nearby houses and apartments. The city's main fire station and the local civic center served as evacuation centers inemergencies.
Fighting fire is physically demanding work done in challenging environments. Responders can rapidly overheat, leaving them fluid and energy depleted. Toprovide an occasional respite, the Cleveland Fire Department brought its mobile rehab center. The American Red Cross, aside from caring for evacuees, moved from sector to sector to provide refreshments for the firefighters.
Throughout the evening, additional boxes were struck to replace exhausted firefighters. The number of available personnel had to be closely coordinated, since new departments bringing those replacements traveled increasingly greaterdistances, meaning longer response time. Once on scene, each firefighter was carefully tracked by means of an accountability system. Failure to track individualfirefighters is too often a contributing factor to line-of-duty deaths.
While on duty, firefighters depended on their radios. A communications officertook charge of keeping hand-held radios operations with fresh batteries. Collovadesignated channel one (repeater channel) for fire dispatch and the GHFD Simplexfire ground channel for operations. Simplex channel systems use a single channelfor transmit and receive.
Communications problems soon arose between incident command and firedispatch, Collova said.
"Even though we were dealing with three- to five-watt radios on Simplex channels at the scene and fire dispatch had a 35- to 40-watt radio at the dispatch office, shewas still getting cut off more than anybody," he said. "So eventually we put her on channel one talking to the communications officer inside the command post. "Most communication with the command sector went through a single dispatcher. Other dispatchers contacted needed agencies, answered routine calls and researched information for fire personnel.
Water supply needed its own radio channel as well, Collova said.
"If you needed to contact somebody else, you used the cellular phones."Radio equipment occupied an entire section of the fully outfitted command vehicle from which Collova operated. Cuyahoga County routinely stores its command vehicle for that region at Station No. 1 in Garfield Heights. The 37-foot vehicle formerly served as an X-ray trailer for a hospital before being donated foremergency management use. "It's divided into three sections," Chief Collova said. "The center section is forcommunications. The command post has seven different radios operating on fourdifferent bands. The center section also serves as a planning section with greaseboards on the walls. The rear section is where you're able to meet with a company representative or whoever and discuss the situation. The front section serves asan operations area where you meet with other officials to go over strategy and tactics."
Communications became even more critical as firefighters worked to keep wateraway from the magnesium. Aside from snow and rain, concern grew that water runoff from the protected exposures was flowing toward the fires. Firefighters also suspected that broken water lines inside the burning buildings were contributing to the explosions.
"You had restrooms, a locker room and drinking water throughout the plant," Collova said. "There was also running water for some of the industrial processes involved. Once that plumbing broke, it might have added to the problem. "Even worse, water runoff was beginning to flood the low-lying areas surrounding the plant. One of the relay pumpers was standing in water up to its tail pipe, threatening to stall the vehicle. Valley View Fire Department responded with special pumps to drain the water. Command also contacted the Cuyahoga County Emergency Management Agency EOC requesting more apparatus equipped with pumps respond to the scene.
Then the EOC sent word that a wind shift was expected between 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. Further evacuations from surrounding neighborhoods were ordered. "Our emergency response guide called for an evacuation of at least 800 feet," Collova said. "We evacuated approximately 2,600 feet, all the way to the next major intersection. But we exempted the hospital because it was obvious they weren'tgoing to be able to pack a bag and leave with all their non-ambulatory patients.They would have to shelter-in-place."
Marymount Hospital, appraised of the situation, activated their internal emergency plan, he said.
The biggest explosions came at about the same time. Trailers containing magnesium were stored in two separate parking lots at the plant. Two trailers backed up to a loading dock on the A-B corner of the fire never ignited, Collova said. However, fire did reach a trailer backed up to the D side of the main building with staggering results.
"When that thing blew, it just rocked the stadium," Chief Collova said. "It blew twice. We had other trailers in the rear of the parking lot that were full of magnesium, so we put unmanned monitors there to protect them. They were never in direct heat from the fire, but we backed up further out of safety concerns."
Southeast of the blaze, burning magnesium relentlessly fell on the roof of a 100-year-old office building that had been recently renovated. Despite the best efforts of Chief Lee Zmija of the Cuyahoga Heights Fire Department and GHFD Capt. Dan Kaminski, fire spread through the two-story structure. Firefighters in a hurry to save their fire trucks used an ax to immediately sever water-supply lines and leave. Unfortunately, fire and debris blocked the only escape route. Firefighters parkedtheir trucks as far from the flames and possible and left on foot along the railroad tracks to the east.
Eventually, the explosions subsided. Firefighters brought the flames under control by 4 a.m. About 12 hours later, most of the fire crews at the scene had been released. The recycling company hired an environmental hazards company to manage the site until clean up could begin.
Firefighting begins long before the flames ignite. The best way to preparefor an emergency as extreme as a magnesium fire is pre-planning, Collova said. "Once you get that vital information, you can create a scenario based on what you could be faced with, then sit down in your training room and face your goal," he said. "You need to match that pre-plan with resources available through your mutual aid box alarm and utilize the incident command system."
An essential part of pre-planning is taking any opportunity to better familiarizefirefighters with industry in their area, Collova said.
"Even though your fire prevention personnel are conducting the buildinginspection, have on-duty crews walk through with them," he said. "Let them talk to the people and ask questions. Let them get an idea of what the place is like. "Eighteen fire departments provided equipment and/or personnel during the fire. All of the 165 firefighters who helped extinguish the stubborn magnesium fire deserve special credit, Collova said.
"This was a successful operation," Collova said. "No one was seriously hurt, and the incident was contained as much as possible.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.