At 1:04 p.m., Monday, October 23, 1989, my presentation to key management in charge of safety at one of the largest chemical plants in Pasadena, TX, had just begun. Just call the place Bystander Inc. The conference room lights were dimmed for a lengthy slide presentation. Painstakingly, I worked through a series of images illustrating industrial calamity at its most destructive.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I said, "imagine if you had a major explosion … "
Without warning, a thunderous concussion slammed our ears. Ceiling tiles crashed down. Every molecule of existence heaved like a sick drunk. It was as if God's celestial CD player skipped from Track 1 — "The Magic That Is David White" — to Track 13 — "Enola Gay Delivers the Goods."
Of course, some class clown asked if this was part of the presentation.
"No," I said, not at all amused. "Your friggin' plant just blew up." To be fair, Bozo was not the only guy confused. John Maleta, a visiting hazmat expert with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, wedged himself, limbs extended, into the nearest door frame.
"Earthquake!" he shouted.
Wrong Pasadena. "John," I shouted back, "we don't have earthquakes in Texas." Everything else that kills, but not earthquakes. But at Rice University, 15 miles away in Houston, the seismology equipment agreed with Maleta. Pasadena, prominent for chemical and petrochemical refining, had been shaken by a disturbance registering 3.5 on the Richter scale. People without the benefit of seismographs felt it as far as 25 miles away.
The slide presentation was over. My audience pushed John aside to hurriedly exit the building. I hung back. Until I knew more, concrete walls on all sides seemed like a good idea. I stepped into the sunlight last. Outdoors, all attention turned north. It only took me an instant to fall in synch with the gawking crowd — head back, eyes wide, mouth open and breathing rapidly.
Cataclysm filled the autumn sky. At first glance, the mushroom cloud looming in the distance seemed acres wide and many times as tall. Had Pasadena exploded? Houston? Texas? It took a few seconds to orient myself, tracing the smoking column back to the ground. Two miles away, the cloud rose from a neighboring chemical complex that moments before had been responsible for one-third of the world's polyethylene production.
An industrial disaster such as the Pasadena blast was an ugly way to make history. Back in 1947, Texas City, just down the road, set the bar gravely high in this particular field of endeavor – 581 dead and more than 5,000 injured. Thankfully, Pasadena fell far shy of that staggering holocaust, but it still ranks as the worst U.S. industrial accident in the six decades since.
The Pasadena blast ushered in a new era of stringent federal regulation. It also brought a greater recognition of management's responsibility in safe-guarding personnel and property.
Across the Houston Ship Channel, one of the world's largest concentrations of refineries and petrochemical plants, interest snapped toward Pasadena. Ten miles southwest in LaPorte, the news reached my friend Doug Miller, fire chief at one of those plants, by parallel routes. He happened to be on the telephone with the Bayshore Medical Center, about eight miles south of the explosion.
"The doctor screamed, 'My God, the window almost blew in.'" Soon after Bayshore and other area hospitals started filling with those injured. "I felt the blast rock my own office hard enough to bring the pictures off the walls," Doug said.
As the acting chairman of Channel Industries Mutual Aid, an emergency response group combining more than 100 in-plant fire brigades and other emergency organizations, Doug would be busy that day. Not that he was a stranger to crisis. This would be the eighth major industrial response in his career to date.
"To me, it feels like it happened yesterday," Doug said. "Every time I talk about it I relive it. From one o'clock that day until 12 o'clock the next day, I felt like I was constantly pleading for help. I had all the help possible, but I still felt like I was the only man in the world."
A flammable vapor cloud spreading through a chemical plant is a terrifying apparition. On the day of the Pasadena blast, maintenance personnel closed a key 10-inch valve isolating a polyethylene reactor from a product collecting "leg" being disassembled to clear a plug of polyethylene particles. To assure safety, air hoses controlling the opening and closing of the valve were disconnected. Double block valves or blind flange inserts, normally used to open hydrocarbon lines in service, were not required for maintenance on the setting legs.
Somehow, when the valve was returned to service, the air hoses were reconnected in reverse position. With a hideous screech louder than any emergency siren, 90,000 pounds of gaseous ethylene-isobutane pushing at nearly 900 pounds per square inch pressure escaped almost instantly through the now open valve.
Ethylene-isobutane is extremely flammable and potentially explosive. Once free, the vapor went searching for an ignition source. Heat is important in making plastic, so it did not have far to go.
Nearly 300 workers were on-site, many of them busy with new construction. They had maybe 90 seconds to react before ignition. Most fled. Those who ran north only got as far as the Houston Ship Channel before they had to start swimming. Many did just that. Others headed south toward Highway 225, a main thoroughfare that links Pasadena to Houston. Nearly 200 feet of six-foot-tall Cyclone fencing was flattened along this property line. Ordinarily, a blast wave would pass unimpeded through such fencing. But this fence had extra surface area — plant employees trying to climb it.
But not everybody ran away. Some employees, including the plant's fire brigade, rushed to the affected process unit, desperate to prevent catastrophe. The gesture was noble but futile. A shattering blast devastated an area 750 feet by 500 feet, reducing a maze of piping and 14-story-tall process towers to twisted wreckage. Sheets of aluminum that peeled away from the pressure vessels landed on Interstate 10 five miles away.
Even from LaPorte, what people saw staggered the imagination.
"I looked down the ship channel and said 'My God! They've nuked a ship," Doug said.
Still, he waited. Mutual aid requires a formal request for help. Doug Miller is not the kind of firefighter who wastes time chasing smoke in the distance. Agonizing moments of radio silence passed. No one called. One of Doug's firefighters pulled up outside in a fire truck, anxious for the boss to make his first important decision.
"I thought, 'I've got to move,'" Doug said.
En route to the scene, Doug started filling the communications vacuum with his own steady voice. Any trace of uncertainty had dispelled. Doug does some preaching on Sundays and projects all the confidence of Eisenhower on D-Day. The first five minutes of emergency radio traffic consisted largely of him doing a dissertation of the resources available in the Houston area for a massive callout. Doug requested everything he could get.
"It wasn't until we turned off Highway 225 toward the plant that we started picking up a weak signal from somebody's two-watt handheld radio — 'There's been a big explosion … we need help.'"
About a half mile from the plant, Doug saw the first of the survivors. Some were still running. Others had fallen to the ground, injured or exhausted. All of them shared the same stunned expression.
Responders to an industrial emergency usually depend on the available plant personnel to bring them up to speed. At the Pasadena explosion, the people who knew anything were dead, hurt or gone. Twenty-three people died. Only one of those fatalities lived long enough to reach a hospital. More than 100 others were injured. One injured man haunted Doug's dreams for years to come, he said.
"His hair was burnt off. Blood came out of his eyes and ears. He was crying. He put his hands on me and kept saying, 'My buddy, he ran the wrong way.'"
The man's friend was later found among the dead, Doug said. He had been decapitated.
Robert Stegall, then safety manager with a chemical plant in Port Arthur, TX, later followed the same route to the plant. The area reminded him of the aftermath of a hurricane.
"There was metal hanging in the trees past the plant property," Robert said. "There were scraps of metal and insulation and other debris. Another thing I remember is the number of hard hats discarded on the ground. There were hard hats everywhere."
Robert's son Michael, then a student at the Lamar Institute Fire Academy in Beaumont, rode with his father that day. The image burned in his memory was the rows of stretchers laid out and waiting for patients.
"It gave him an immediate under-standing of the vastness of what had happened," Robert said.
With the human element on-site so completely incapacitated, Doug fell back on what emergency responders refer to as "pre-planning." As the term indicates, redundancy is rarely a bad thing in fire fighting. Pre-plans include structural diagrams, details about available fire protection systems and, most important, an inventory of hazardous materials. At Pasadena, with no management personnel immediately available, the emergency pre-plan became critical.
But pre-plans have limitations. In an emergency, the plant trained workers to report to pre-arranged assembly points where head counts would be conducted. This worked better on paper than in real life. Panic drove the evacuation at Pasadena. Understandably, those still able to move put as much distance between themselves and the plant as humanly possible before stopping to consider.
Traumatized workers wandered across Highway 225 and into nearby residential neighborhoods. Concerned residents took them to the hospitals they knew best, not necessarily the closest available, making them harder to trace.
Meanwhile, with much of the plant inaccessible due to smoke and flames, accounting for those dead or potentially trapped took many days, further delaying notification of next of kin. Log records listing the plant employees on duty were either destroyed or unavailable.
The pre-plan broke down in other critical ways. Triage means assigning the injured to one location where they can be assessed as to who gets treated first. Seriously injured are treated before the walking wounded, and so on. Responders at Pasadena — police, fire and ambulance — too often grabbed the first injured person they found and rushed them to the hospital. Others with more life threatening injuries had to wait.
Doug pushed on to the chemical plant. Along the south side of the plant proper was a rail line. Without the benefit of bunker gear, it was as close as Doug could get to the fire. To the right, the blast flattened a maintenance building, possibly trapping survivors inside. Across the tracks on the left was a dirt parking lot filled with every kind of debris. Vehicles were overturned and burning.
All this was irrelevant for the moment. What captured Doug's undivided attention was a polyethylene plant that originally consisted of six loop reactors. One of those reactors had the aforementioned valve problem and had gone up in the blast.
Think of a loop reactor as a huge closed circuit. Reactants are fed into the loop, where the desired chemical process occurs at high pressure and temperature. Then product is withdrawn. Once initiated, that internal process continues, emergency or not. Flammable gas continued to generate, freely escaping from the damaged reactors. Worse, the catalyst used in the process, diethyl aluminum chloride, is pyrophoric. Introduce air and it burns — violently.
Officially, the ignition source of the Pasadena blast remains undetermined. Doug said he was satisfied as to the source within moments of arriving at the plant. Near the reactor was a building where plastic was heated, then extruded into pellets.
That building was now gone, he said.
"It was not rated as explosion-proof," Doug said. "It had fans sucking in air from the east while fans on the other side blew it out to the west. It sucked all that gas inside, into an electrical non-rated space. It literally blew the walls out and the rest of the building fell down."
Most immediate, flames were threatening a large chemical storage area. At least two shipping containers packed with highly flammable polypropylene had fire spreading beneath them. There was also a polypropylene pilot plant nearby to worry about. Doug got on the radio.
"I told them there would be further explosions. You see, I knew the loop reactor process. I knew how they made polyethylene. I let everybody know what was burning and what was going to happen."
At Bystander Inc., where the afternoon safety lecture starring myself had been rudely interrupted, personnel were aching to respond. Only a few of them had protective clothing and none had breathing apparatus. Bystander didn't even have a fire truck. "No," I said. "We're going to wait a bit. There's likely to be more explosions, and I don't think we want to be too close."
The Bystanders were insistent. "What about all the injured?"
I leveled with them. "The dead are dead," I said. "No one can help them. Anyone still alive is either going to make it out on their own or die too. It's not going to help anyone to risk your lives when there is no chance of surviving."
Industrial fire fighting can be very predictable. For example, the average pressure vessel can generally withstand flame impingement on the vapor space above the flammable contents about 20 minutes. I got my Nikon out of the pickup. Right on schedule the first of a series of pressure vessel BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanded vapor explosion) blossomed. For the next several hours, angry fireballs repeatedly burst through the smoke, struggling to escape the wreckage. Fingers of flaming debris arched across the sky.
Talk about rushing to the scene died down. Being objective would have been much harder had I known that some of my closest friends, including Doug, had almost been killed.
Three industrial fire chiefs — Woody Cole, Randy Westmoreland and John McHazlett — were the first to cross the tracks and approach the polypropylene facility. Doug ordered them to, one, find anyone still alive and, two, make a closer assessment of the fire.
Bunker gear protected them from the heat. Nothing could protect them from the sound, Woody said.
"It just hammered us," he said. "McHazlett yelled in my ear. I was surprised I could hear him at all. He said, 'I can't see anybody.' I replied 'What do you mean? They're everywhere.'"
John expected to find intact bodies. What was left of the fatalities among the burning debris was anything but intact. Closer observation revealed that the area was strewn with body parts. All who died were within 250 feet of the gas release at the time of the blast. In many cases, identification was made through dental records or personal effects.
"I kicked over a piece of sheet metal," he said. Underneath he found another body part. "That's when the second explosion happened. It automatically knocked us to the ground. Boom! Just like that. I looked at the other two
Doug said he thought he had killed all three men.
"They were about 200 yards away when the second reactor blew," he said. "I was so stunned that I froze — that is, until the radiant heat from the blast hit me."
Like myself, Doug is a full figured individual. He intelligently decided the best place for him was underneath his truck, but the snaps on his bunker coat kept catching on the muffler.
"As much as I wanted to, I couldn't squeeze under that truck," Doug said. "I got behind it. Sections of six-inch stainless steel pipe were flying past us like rockets. Equipment fell all around, pieces of steel the size of our truck."
Woody, Randy and John did survive the blast. The trio found a truck high enough to get beneath.
"When we crawled out after the fireball lifted, we found that everything above the door handles had burned up," Woody said.
Doug's remorse turned to relief when he saw them alive.
"I spotted them behind an overturned truck, throwing dirt and sand on one another," he said. "They couldn't get away from the heat. Their bunker gear was the only thing that saved their lives."
There were other things for which to be grateful. Had the second explosion reached that nearby chemical storage, the resulting fireball would have been many times worse, Doug said. It could have easily spread into the polypropylene plant. If that had happened, the death toll could have reached into the hundreds.
That moment of relief was fleeting. Doug said he remembers being short with Randy when he hurriedly returned to report.
"He said they had observed four fatalities," Doug said. "I told him that our first priority was people we could still rescue. 'Go find them,' I said. Then I turned to setting up a command post just off the railroad tracks."
Doug had more to worry about than just the polyethylene facility. He was now in charge of a badly damaged industrial complex the size of a small city.
"It was nearly a mile long and a quarter mile wide," he said. "There was hydrocarbon everywhere. It was packed with possibilities, with risks. I bounced a lot of ideas off others about what could be the next high risk we were going to have to deal with."
Bouncing those ideas was mostly done face to face. Radios were limited to three channels that were not always reliable. Runners, not radios, proved to be the main means of communication at Pasadena.
"Everything we did, we had to do by legs," Doug said. "When we could, we put people in trucks and sent them." The most direct routes between the command post and points of concern remained blocked by fire and debris. To reach the channel side of the plant alone required a four-mile detour.
The explosions were far from over. The first two blasts bent a lot of piping, including major product lines. That trapped product remained highly flammable. With the fire heating those lines and no relief valve available, these blocked pipes would suddenly let go with shattering impact.
"I had a piece of scratch paper that I marked every time there was an explosion," Doug said. "When I went back to check it several days later I counted 27 major explosions after the first two. That made it very difficult to proceed with fire fighting efforts."
Jurisdictional wrangling at the Pasadena fire was legendary. Two separate incidents emphasize the increased interest of federal authorities in industrial emergencies. All U.S. waterways, including the Houston Ship Channel, are protected by the Coast Guard. Two Coast Guard representatives in uniform requested access to the fire scene in Pasadena. Plant management said no. The Coast Guard returned with armed personnel.
Likewise, a Pasadena cop turned back an EPA federal on-scene coordinator at a road block. The next stop was the federal courthouse. A U.S. marshal showed up at police headquarters with a warrant to arrest the chief. Again, access granted.
The middle of a disaster like Pasadena is a lousy time for a turf war. Fortunately, in the mid-1960s, Texas legislators took action to assure
"They began to tell me that it was their right-of-way and they could come through if they wanted," Doug said. "I just bluntly told the guy that if they pulled a train down through there, I would have the crew arrested. This disaster was under CIMA's jurisdiction."
A basic component of CIMA's authority is the Incident Command System. It establishes a common framework for multiple agencies to work together effectively. Today, ICS is federally mandated in Pasadena-level emergencies. But, in 1989, ICS, while long established in wildland fire fighting, was a relatively new concept in industrial emergency response.
In some ways, implementing ICS proved a struggle. One fundamental tenant of ICS is that the command staff needs time away from the fire to plan strategy. Dragging that staff away in the midst of an ongoing search and rescue mission took resolve, Doug said.
"No one wanted to stop looking for the people. We were still looking for survivors. Everybody felt like you couldn't stop."
A control room near the initial reactor blast became the focus of that concern. Smoke and flames made it impossible to confirm whether survivors remained trapped inside.
"I asked a friend if he thought anyone inside was still alive," Doug said. "He said, 'We have to assume they are.'"
In fact, they were not. It was not discovered until the smoke cleared and wreckage was removed that the initial blast had crushed the control room building, killing everyone inside.
Even more agonizing were reports of what looked like a person clinging inside a caged ladder high above the ground. The flames beneath made it impossible to confirm whether it was truly a person or just debris. Eventually, the flames consumed the suspicious object, Woody said.
"In my opinion, yes, it was the remains of a human being," Woody said. "Would I go on record as saying it was a human body? No, but it sure looked like one to me."
Other officials beside Doug began exercising their authority. Harris County Sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen informed him that, in addition to Highway 225, he had closed Interstate 610, the inner loop encircling Houston. The main traffic artery for the fifth largest city in the United States was at a standstill.
"If I didn't already know this was the most important thing to happen in my life, I knew it then," Doug said. "It was like somebody walked up and slapped me."
He urged Klevenhagen to reopen both routes as soon as possible.
"I immediately told him, 'Johnny, we've got foam trucks and people coming,'" Doug said. "'We've got to let the traffic flow to get it here.'"
Most important, Doug needed large-diameter hose. The blast sheared off most of the fire hydrants at ground level. Shut off valves to prevent loss of water were out of reach in the burning wreckage.
"Water was coming out of the ground and running down the ditches," Doug said.
Fire fighting water would have to be brought in using hose laid to remote sources — settling ponds, a cooling tower, a water main at a neighboring plant and even the ship channel. Every drop of water became precious. On Highway 146 to the west, backhoes dug ditches to capture the runoff from the plant's damaged water system. Pumpers drafted from those ditches to bring the escaping water back to the plant.
Now occupied with the overall emergency, Doug designated Woody incident commander for the southwest section of the fire, the section including the loop reactors. Shortly after, Woody was approached by someone who asked if he was in charge. It was the person who used to be in charge – the plant manager.
"He asked, 'What do you need?'" Woody said. "I said, 'I need portable electrical transformers, portable pumps, etc.' He said, 'I'm giving you a blank check.' I told him we were fixing to start spending his money."
More than anything else, Woody needed water. For the little water that was immediately available, taking charge of the southwest section was like being declared head hydrologist of the Death Valley Water Department.
"I couldn't do a thing," Woody said. "There was nothing to do it with. For the first three hours of that fire, I can't remember even squirting a drop."
The first water came from a neighboring pipeline terminal, relayed by a string of fire pumpers working in tandem. For municipal fire departments, this was standard operating procedure. The industrial firefighters, used to convenient fire hydrants, required a crash course in hydraulics.
The training text in hydraulics used today by the Houston Fire Department explains it succinctly as an issue of pressure versus volume.
"A common misconception in the fire services is that if you boost the pressure of the water being discharged, the volume of the water will increase," the literature explains. This is only true to a point.
Say a pumper is rated at a maximum capacity at 150 psi pump pressure from draft. With a positive pressure source, a centrifugal pump takes advantage of the incoming pressure. Therefore, a pumper can pump 150 psi plus the incoming pressure and maintain its rated capacity. Any increase above 150 psi net pump pressure actually decreases the amount of water flowing.
"You could get pressure or you could get volume," Doug said. "We wanted volume."
For Doug, getting that first wet stuff on the red stuff proved to be a personal turning point.
"We sighted our first monitor on the railroad tracks and started putting water on those polypropylene tanks. I remember I sat down and felt like the weight of the world had just been taken off my back. Because then I knew those were okay. Now, what's next?"
Back at Bystander Inc., I finally decided that enough havoc had passed to risk sending help. To avoid cluttering the access route with unnecessary vehicles, the Bystander contingent walked. I assurred them that plenty of fire would be left when we got there.
Still some distance from the burning complex, we came upon Van Little, an assistant fire chief at one of the
"We need pumpers," Van said. In particular, we needed pumpers equipped with five-inch diameter hose or larger. To find large-diameter hose, you needed to know whom to call.
The front seat of that Suburban would be as close as I got to the fire for the next 12 hours. Doug said he remembers hearing my voice on the emergency radio that afternoon.
"David knew all the fire departments and all the equipment available for a 12-county area," Doug said. "What we couldn't get from industry, we were able to get from municipalities as far away as Montgomery County. It meant so much to us. We ended up with 12 miles of large-diameter hose on the ground, 27 fire trucks relaying water, five pumps at 2,000 gpm or bigger. David was part of that."
I asked for two mobile phones. They were delivered almost immediately, the old-fashioned kind that came in a bag. One phone would be used for outgoing calls only, the other for incoming. We used the cigarette lighter in the dashboard to keep them charged. Then Van and I started making calls. All we had for reference was our memories and some numbers scribbled in my address book. We did not even have a telephone directory, let alone a computer database.
Adding an extra degree of difficulty, the local phone system crashed due to call overload. As a result, we had to call Harris County 911, then ask to be connected to whatever fire department we wanted. My first call was to the Houston Fire Department. Another old friend, Charlie Wilson, was dispatching.
"I need 30 pumpers," I said.
"David," he pleaded, "I can't send 30 pumpers if the mayor of Houston's house catches fire."
Eight pumpers were all he could spare. Next, I called Joe Brantley, fire chief at a chemical plant in Texas City, about 30 miles away. Joe had one of the world's largest industrial fire brigades. He also knew where I had been teaching that afternoon. "David is at the fire," he told his men. "He'll find a way to get us there."
He was already heading for his vehicle when the person who answered the phone said it was me.
"Tell him we're on our way," he shouted. Then he signaled his firefighters, who were waiting in their trucks. Everybody split for Pasadena. Only then, while en route, did Joe radio his plant manager for official permission to respond off site.
"Are you there yet, Joe?" asked the manager, knowing Joe too well.
"Only halfway," Joe said.
Thank God his boss did not call him back. Joe, one of the first industrial chiefs to embrace large-diameter hose, brought 2,000 feet of five-inch to the fire. Back then, municipal fire departments were more likely to have large-diameter hose, often having to deal with low pressure. A fire might be as far as 1,000 feet from the nearest hydrant, requiring a large-diameter hose lay.
"Most industrial chiefs didn't see the need for five-inch hose because their plants had a fire hydrant on every block and monitors attached to the fire hydrants," Joe said. "We had all these appliances that could deliver water on the fire. We didn't think in terms of delivering it from anything but an internal source."
Bigger and better equipped industrial fire trucks demanding more water to operate helped force change. Using large-diameter hose also made tactical sense, protecting deluge systems that trigger automatically in case of fire.
"We could have 15,000 to 20,000 gpm flowing on an incident from the deluge system," Joe said. "If I connected to a hydrant, then I would take water away from that system, which was my first line of defense. With five-inch hose, I could go to another part of the plant outside that loop and connect to different hydrants to feed the apparatus."
At Pasadena, large-diameter hose stretched even further, as far as the plant next door.
"I wish I had been a salesman selling five-inch hose after that," Joe said. "Pasadena changed industry overnight to using large-diameter hose."
However, in the early stages of the fire, Joe found himself in the same boat as Woody and the other responding fire chiefs. And that boat was high and dry.
"When we got there, we had five-inch hose but no way to put water in it," Joe said. "So we started laying the five-inch down the street, waiting for some kind of water source. We spent a lot of time removing debris just to lay these two lines down the road."
Not that water was scarce. It poured out the doors of warehouses from broken water lines, Joe said. But only one source of draftable water was readily apparent in that sector. Three-quarters of a mile away, the plant's headquarters building had taken the brunt of the pressure wave from the first explosion. Flying glass from the large picture windows injured many of the occupants.
A beautiful pond stretched in front of the building. All that was needed to move the water was a pump. But Joe did not want to commit one of the pumper trucks that would be needed to relay big water later in the emergency.
"We knew that we were going to have to splice engines in thousand-foot relays to get sufficient water," Joe said. "We had a big American LaFrance pumper but it wasn't really set to be draft capable."
Enter Robert Stegell. Responding from Port Arthur, his brigade brought several thousand feet of precious five-inch hose, a large portable monitor and one of the first 4,000 gpm pumps built by Williams Fire & Hazard Control. When Joe saw the big pump, he refused to let Robert take it anywhere else.
"We technically kidnapped this pump," Joe said.
Even with the powerful pump, getting suction from the pond still proved challenging, Robert said.
"We used clear hose for suction," Robert said. "You could see the water come up but we couldn't quite get it to the pump. We tightened the packing down to a level that cut off all possible air leaks. It was certainly not the way you wanted to operate a pump. It was too tight." When the hose finally filled, the operator immediately loosened the packing to allow the pump to operate normally.
Meanwhile, Robert's responders laid three hoses down the road to Joe's position.
"I knew that the more lines I could lay, the less work it would be on that pump," Robert said. "Then some guy came by and ordered us to stop, saying that we were blocking too much of the road. 'You were told to lay one line,' he said."
Once he left, Robert told his team to keep laying three lines. When the fellow counting fire hoses returned, Robert decided to test his fire fighting expertise.
"He said, 'I told you to only put one line down.' I said, 'That is just one line.'"
Thoroughly confused, the hose counter left.
With water now available, the responders could address a fire working north through a row of silos containing polyethylene pellets. Strangely enough, polyethylene pellets scattered by the initial blast laced the water being pumped from the pond.
"As the hose charged and water passed through the nozzle you could hear ding, ding, ding," Joe said. "It was the pellets passing through."
Polyethylene aside, the water was wet enough to get the job done. The responders stopped the fire cold, saving the last 10 silos in the battery.
Still stationed at the Suburban, I continued to make calls. Then a brainstorm hit. I contacted Montgomery County 911 to the north. I lucked out again. Another friend, Charlie Womack, answered the phone.
"How many pumpers have you got with large-diameter hose? Ten or 15?"
"At least," Charlie said.
"Send them all to the fire."
"What fire?" Fires on the Houston Ship Channel are not normally something that a Montgomery County dispatcher more than 50 miles away has to worry about.
"The one on TV," I said.
It was already dark when Montgomery County 911 started calling out every station in its jurisdiction. The directions were simple. Take Interstate 45 south, turn left on Loop 610 and head for the big glow in the distance. It was still visible for miles. I made more calls. An industrial brigade agreed to respond from Beaumont, two hours away. Their 20,000 feet of large-diameter hose was brand new, still in 100-foot sections packed in boxes. Instead of one long, easy hose lay from the rear of a moving fire truck, some unhappy firefighters spent the evening connecting short sections one box at a time.
Everybody wanted to go to the party. Five-inch hose was the price of admission. Anyone without it was turned back at the gate. If they didn't have big hose, they were no use to us. Some guys were almost crying. Not counting those turned away, Doug still had more than 2,000 responders at his disposal during the worst of the fire.
Having the right hose was not the only critical factor. The responders also had to bring the right adaptors. One of the most aggravating idiocies of modern fire fighting is the lack of standardized hose thread. Some communities use National Standard thread. Others might use New York Corporation thread, New York City Fire Department thread, Eastern Hose thread, Pacific Corporation thread, Chicago Hose thread, Chicago Fire Department thread or even a bastard thread that does not match any other standard.
Adapters were also needed to link different size hose. One responder got on the radio and announced he needed an adaptor to connect a six-inch pipe thread to a five-inch coupling. It was not something you find on the shelf at the local hardware store. I remember turning my head and, like magic, there was a fire nozzle with exactly the adaptor needed on it. All I had to do was find a 48-inch pipe wrench to take it off.
Other logistical issues arose. Despite thousands of barrels of hydrocarbon surrounding us, keeping the fire trucks fueled became a problem. I turned to a Pasadena cop. "We need a couple of bobtail gasoline trucks." Voila! The bobtails appeared. Unfortunately, one progressive department had switched from gasoline to diesel-fueled apparatus. Across the road at the neighboring pipeline terminal sat a loading rack with unlimited diesel. Without electrical power, no way existed to pump it out of the storage tanks.
No electricity also meant no lights. We needed generators, big ones. I turned to a company purchasing agent. "Who do you order big generators from?" He was useless. All of his files and records were inaccessible, if not destroyed.
I turned to the company electricians. They said we needed 500 kilowatt generators and told me where to get them. "Oh, and don't forget the transformer," they added.
The people renting the generators only wanted to know who was paying. I gave them the purchasing agent's name. Next I started ordering the lights themselves.
"How many lighting plants on trailers do you have?"
"Oh, maybe 25," the sales clerk answered. I estimated we needed that many times 16. Eventually, I found another 300 units. I was still looking for more when the ordered equipment started filling up the staging area. The funny thing — one of the few funny things that day — is that when it got dark everybody had lights except me. As many as I ordered, I could never get any to my location.
Radios needed electricity too. A walkie-talkie battery is good for four hours tops. Like hose threads, radio batteries are not standardized. Different brands and models use different batteries. Thankfully, somebody from a nearby refinery arrived with a trunk load of radio batteries, all shapes and sizes. As for Doug, he had his command radios rigged to run off car batteries.
Many people worked on logistics at the Pasadena fire. Everyone involved deserves credit. But I think I made at least one other major contribution besides lights and LDH. My own ample physique gets fed and watered at least three or four times a day. Many hours into this event, I figured that everybody else must be hungry too. Again I turned to a cop who needed something to do.
"We need some food," I said. My rough estimate was that we needed at least 400 meals delivered to the fire ground. "And I don't want any Spam and crackers. Real food, not McDonald's."
I never ate so well in my life. That means something coming from a firefighter. We had steak and potatoes washed down with ice cold Cokes. Hours later, I got hungry again. Domino's Pizza missed a great PR photo that night. In the foreground, a tiny Datsun pickup with a blue Domino's sign rolled up, hundreds of pizza boxes stacked in the bed. In the background, a burning chemical plant blazed against the night.
"Hey," the delivery boy shouted. "Did somebody here order some pizza?"
Some firefighters resisted putting down the hose long enough to eat. Once you get your hands on the nozzle, it is hard to surrender it. To this day, firefighters resist "rehabbing" at regular intervals. Doug and I did not set a good example. In an emergency like this, time loses all meaning. Your adrenaline pumps, go, go, go. You do not sleep. You just keep going.
At the end of his 12 hours in charge, Doug crashed hard.
"They almost had to help me lay down," he said.
By 7 p.m., officials declared the fire under control. It continued to burn through midnight until the last of the available fuel had been consumed. Spot fires lingered into the next day. But, despite extinguishment, Doug was tied to the fire scene for many days to come.
"There were more than 50 of us there for the next two weeks," he said. "There was nothing to do but work and go over to a special truck where we could shower, change clothes, eat, lay down, then go back to work."
After the fire came body recovery. The plant owners opted to have their own employees conduct the search for those still missing and presumed dead.
"We tried to talk them out of that," Doug said. "Several other companies offered to do it.
The company wanted to be able to say 'We take care of our own.' Those who did the actual recovery paid a heavy price psychologically for company pride.
Also after the fire came intense review of procedures. No emergency response is flawless. Failure to keep the media better informed made the emergency response seem more like chaos than careful management.
"That's because the messages reaching the outside were incorrect," Doug said. "We didn't hold a press conference quickly enough."
Doug criticizes himself for waiting too long to combine his incident command center with Klavenhagen's command post on Highway 225.
"He had a tractor-trailer rig set up, but it was too far away," Doug said. "That's where all the media was. He wanted me to come up there. I said, 'I would like for you to take the security part. You take the perimeter. Let me handle the fire rescue.' I could not see us moving our command post so far away."
If management and the incident commander refuse to comment, reporters will seek somebody else. On the incoming mobile phone at the Suburban, I took calls from the Associated Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, even the
"People called me up later saying, 'Hey, you're famous, aren't you?'" Joe said.
Pasadena marked the worst in a series of disasters that put industrial safety on the feds' regulatory radar screen big time. Eight months later, an explosion at another chemical plant on the Houston Ship Channel took 17 lives. On Christmas Eve 1989 fire swept through 17 storage tanks at a Baton Rouge, LA, refinery. That onerous volume of federal regulations previously reserved for the nuclear industry got a new cover labeled "chemical and petrochemical." Then the feds shoved it straight up industry's reverse flow valve.
Not being a fan of federal regulators, I am loath to admit that tougher OSHA and EPA regulations have made a big difference in plant safety. But nothing on the scale of Pasadena happened again in the U.S. until July 28, 2005, in Texas City. Yes, industrial emergencies continue to make headlines. It is a hard fact of life that many of the basic components of modern living are either toxic, flammable or explosive. Dwight Williams, founder of Williams Fire & Hazard Control, explains it this way — "These guys aren't making cake batter."
Events in Pasadena also led to the advent of big water in industrial fire fighting. In the future, plants and refineries would not only invest in large-diameter hose and monitors 2,000 gpm and better, but large-diameter water mains to supply the massive water needed. Big manifolds began replacing hydrants. Ways to effectively block water systems compromised by explosions were studied. Mutual aid pre-planning focused on mustering equipment scaled to match industrial disasters.
Nothing was the same for industrial fire chiefs after Pasadena, Robert Stegall said.
"From that point on, when I thought about what could happen in a plant, it really broadened my imagination."
When I finished at Pasadena that night I was exhausted. I found a hotel somewhere close by and slept until noon the next day. That hotel might have been a dump or the Ritz-Carlton. I do not know. I never could remember the name again.
Then I went to Joe's plant and taught another safety class as scheduled.
"Ladies and gentlemen, imagine if you had a major explosion … "
It seems a shame to list the lessons learned from the Pasadena chemical complex explosion and fire 20 years ago. If the lessons are truly learned, we would not review so many of them after similar industrial emergencies today.
Once again, for the historical record, we must reexamine what has too often failed to sink in during the last two decades.
- Pre-plans can not cover every eventuality. The key to a good pre-plan is providing a structure while remaining flexible enough to adapt to the changing situation.
- Accountability for both the responders and the survivors is critical at a disaster the scope of Pasadena. The responders from distant departments must be monitored to make sure they are certified for the specialized tasks involved. They must also be tracked to make sure they are regularly "rehabbed" for their own benefit. However, expecting survivors of a traumatic experience as overwhelming as Pasadena to wait for a head count is wishful thinking.
- Medical triage is best left to the experts. Firefighters should be responsible for fire fighting. Medical personnel are better equipped to separate the worst injured from those who can wait for treatment.
- Knowing how a chemical plant works is as valuable to an industrial responder as knowing how to operate a nozzle. Doug Miller's intimate knowledge of the particular processes involved may have saved hundreds of lives.
- Having telephone numbers available in an emergency is vital. At Pasadena, management's ability to assist in recruiting resources was seriously compromised. My personal address book became a valuable database to recruit needed equipment and apparatus.
- Having issues of authority resolved in advance gave Doug Miller the clout he needed to stop the trains. An emergency is no time to have a turf war. Better coordination with other authorities, such as the sheriff, might have expedited the arrival of important personnel and apparatus.
- Logistics, logistics, logistics. Food, lights, fuel and batteries have to come from somewhere. Providing the consumables may not be as glamorous as battling the big blaze, but it is every bit as essential.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.