Fire leveled a petroleum leveling and blending plant in Pearland, Texas. - Photo by Mark Turvey/Friendswood VFD.

Fire leveled a petroleum leveling and blending plant in Pearland, Texas.

Photo by Mark Turvey/Friendswood VFD.

With fire and explosions rapidly spreading through a petroleum blending and packaging plant, Fire Chief Paul Jamison of Pearland, TX, faced two key problems. One, the plant had no water supply enough for firefighting. The closest fire hydrant lay at the end of a dead-end main almost a mile away.

That made the second problem moot. With burning liquid from failing tanks and containers flowing into drainage ditches, any water applied to the fire threatened to spread pollution to nearby creeks. Even if the plant had ample fire water, Jamison said he would have been reluctant to use it and risk runoff.

In the end, the plant was all but destroyed. That destruction included 1.2 million gallons of petroleum-based products, more than half of which had been packaged for sale.

This fire, said Jamison, was a loser from the first word.

"There is an old axiom they taught me at one of the first fire training schools I ever attended," Jamison said. "Don't risk your life or the lives of your firefighters on a fire you have no chance of beating."

A report approved unanimously by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in March states that better fire protection systems at the Texas plant could have suppressed the May 1, 2002, fire. Existing fire codes provide for smoke and heat detectors, alarms, sprinklers, firewalls and access to fire water. However, this plant, located in unincorporated Brazoria County, was not governed by any mandatory local code and did not voluntarily follow accepted fire protection standards.

The plant blended and packaged motor oils, hydraulic oils and other lubricants. It employed nearly 100 people, mostly from the surrounding cities of Pearland and Friendswood. The town lay about 20 miles southeast of Houston.

Helicopter pilots estimated that the fireballs reached 2,000 feet. - Photo by Mark Turvey/Friendswood VFD.

Helicopter pilots estimated that the fireballs reached 2,000 feet.

Photo by Mark Turvey/Friendswood VFD.

CSB Chair Carolyn Merritt said the magnitude of the fire "should be a wake-up call to all those who handle combustible liquids" or regulate their hazards.

"Under the right conditions, combustible liquids like motor oil can burn rapidly and cause tremendous damage," Merritt said. "Proper safeguards — including adequate local fire codes — are essential."

According to Jamison, the blending plant has been a familiar presence in Brazoria County for many years. Located in an unincorporated area between Pearland and Friendswood, the plant was originally a small operation that had expanded many times since opening. At least 74 steel storage tanks totaling 735,000 gallons stood three deep in the plant's tank farm. The rest of the petroleum product on site was packaged for resale in everything from 55-gallon drums to 300-gallon totes of quart, gallon and five-gallon containers.

Recent fire calls to the plant preceding the May 1 fire included a chemical related fire at one of the "filling stations" where tankers make deliveries. The Pearland Fire Department had pre-planned the plant, strongly suggesting that on-site fire water supply was needed, Jamison said.

On Tuesday, April 30, the evening shift ended at 11 p.m., with production to resume the next morning. At about 1:20 a.m., a security guard making his rounds opened the back door of one of the plant's main warehouses. From there, he observed a small fire in another building used for packaging product and accepting tanker truck deliveries. In the small amount of time it took him to find a telephone and report the fire, the small blaze became a major fire.

"When the fire call was dispatched it was also broadcast to area police," Jamison said. "The dispatcher got an almost immediate report from a patrol officer several miles on the east side of Pearland who said he could already see a large plume of smoke visible against the night sky."

The Pearland Fire Department is a professional organization comprised of 65 volunteers with five Class A pumpers, one reserve pumper, two pumper Quints, one heavy rescue vehicle, two tankers, three brush trucks and two support vehicles. The department operates from four stations. It covers an area of 75 square miles with a population of more than 76,500.

Jamison arrived five minutes and 15 seconds after the first call. His first action was to call for mutual aid from nearby Friendswood and Alvin. Jamison observed an 80-foot wide pool fire completely involved and continuing to spread. How far back the flames extended was uncertain. Beside spreading through the building, the flames had surrounded two trailers and one 18-wheel tanker truck. The rigs were parked in a truck well or recessed truck dock with only their ends visible through the flames.

"It seemed obvious the truck wells had already filled with escaping product," Jamison said. "We later found out they were empty. But the tanker truck, sitting on level ground, was filled with oil-type product and was already venting under pressure through a relief valve on top. The vapors from the relief valve were ignited."

Confusion is always a problem in emergencies. When Jamison inquired about the contents of the tanker truck, company officials told him no tanker was there.

"Well, I didn't imagine it being there," Jamison said. "The story changed. I think the final consensus was that, yes, the tanker was there, obviously, and, yes, it was full of some type of product." Later, the fire spread to a loaded tractor-trailer rig parked on a scale beside the burning warehouse.

To complete his initial size-up, Jamison used his vehicle to break through a locked gate and gain access to an area behind the fire. However, a series of large explosions soon forced him to back out.

"Some loud stuff started going off by then," Jamison said. "There were a lot of the 55-gallon drums going off and other containers too. Inside the building were propane fueled forklifts. We know that the tanks went off on those things. But no bulk tanks were involved at that point in time."

The initial assessment completed; Jamison informed the other agencies involved of his decision. Containment and evacuation would be the limits of what could be done.

"Upon arriving, seeing the size of the fire already burning, we knew there was absolutely nothing that could be done to attack that fire," Jamison said.

City and county law officers on scene were put to work evacuating homes in a three-block radius of the plant, starting with the closest homes first. Meanwhile, the fire continued to progress.

"In the first few minutes there were these loud noises as the tires went out on the trailers, then we started having these larger ruptures or container explosions," Jamison said. "You couldn't see what exploded because of the amount of fire. The fire continued to grow, consuming all the immediate building there, then went into the tank farm. From the tank farm it went into the first immediate warehouse, then another warehouse until everything was consumed. The fire burned virtually all the product contained on the site."

Every type of tank failure imaginable was reported during the fire, Jamison said.

"We had some tanks sitting on steel legs," Jamison said. "As the steel legs fatigued from the heat, the tank simply fell over. We had some piping and flanges connecting into the tanks that failed and blew out. We had some tanks where either the bottoms or the tops blew out of the tanks."

Spacing between the vertical bulk storage tanks was very tight, Jamison said.

"Again, that had to do with the fact that these were Class 3 products," Jamison said. "The thinking was that the flash point of these products is so high that there was little possibility of a fire spreading through the tank farm. This is a classic example of the fact that if these materials are heated enough, they become just as volatile as lower class rated chemicals."

Proposals are under consideration to rethink some of the exemptions granted to facilities handling Class 3 products as opposed to Class 1 and 2.

"If you have the right scenario come together you can have just as big a fire with Class 3 products," Jamison said.

Unable to attack the fire, responders occupied themselves with protecting exposures outside the plant threatened by radiant heat.

"A small shop or garage south of the plant was destroyed," Jamison said. "A nearby house survived because prevailing winds were carrying the heat away from it."

Once Friendswood and Alvin arrived, Jamison ordered that apparatus and tankers be placed to support a hose line extended down West Clover Lane, the street in front of the plant. A ground monitor was set up to protect houses and businesses across the street from the plant.

"That was the first and only thing we did during the many, many hours that followed," Jamison said.

The only person to question his judgment on not attacking the fire was a representative of the plant owners, Jamison said.

"He was yelling and screaming about why didn't we go and put that fire out," Jamison said. "We told him we would be glad to if he could tell us where his water supply was so we could hook up."

Environmental concerns became a key factor in how to approach the emergency, Jamison said. As the bulk tanks began to fail, roadside ditches near the plant were flowing several feet deep with heavy oil products. In some cases that oil had heated to a point where it was burning in the ditches. Foam was applied to keep the fire inside the plant site.

"This was mainly Class 3 material," Jamison said. "There was such a volume of it flowing out that it was moving faster than the fire front could keep up with. This material, as it flowed past the command post, was very hot. You could feel the radiant heat coming off of it. But most of it was not hot enough to self-sustain the flame. This material has to be heated to a certain temperature to really make it volatile."

Early in the emergency Jamison requested help from the City of Pearland and the local drainage district in using heavy equipment to temporarily dam all area roadside ditches and a small creek nearby. No product reached the creek, however.

Pearland firefighters remained on scene nearly 36 hours as the fire ran its course and died out. In the end, 16 fire departments from three counties participated, some coming from as much as 45 miles away. Thirty-three pieces of apparatus and 13 support vehicles were utilized. Among the specialized apparatus was a tank truck and foam from Dow Chemical, a foam trailer from BP and a 5,000-gallon tanker from Schneider Truck Lines. The fire drew 185 firefighters.

According to CSB lead investigator David Heller, there is no evidence that the plant owners or insurance company had conducted any formal fire protection analyses or consulted with any outside fire protection experts. The owners also failed to follow recommended best-practice guidance, such as the standards of the National Fire Protection Association.

"Better fire control systems could have spared the plant from total destruction and minimized the impact on nearby residents and businesses," Heller said. Residents were not able to return to their homes for three days.

Leading the CSB recommendations was a call for Brazoria County to adopt a county-wide fire code. The Brazoria County Commissioners Court adopted the International Fire Code for the county the week after the CSB issued the report.

Plant owners presently have no plans to rebuild the destroyed plant.

Lessons Learned

  • About 98 percent of the materials at the plant were classified as "Combustible IIIB" — materials that must be heated above 200°F before they will support a flame. While those combustible liquids are often regarded as a less serious fire hazard, once heated up they burn as fiercely as other more easily ignited substances.
  • Whatever started the blaze, an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found that the facility lacked fire detection and suppression equipment and was not designed to contain the spread of even a small fire. The plant had no smoke or heat detectors, sprinklers, or fire alarms, nor was the plant designed to contain or safely drain burning liquids. There was no supply of firefighting water at the plant. Blending tank supports were not fireproofed. The plant did have a dike around the tank farm, but the walls were broken in places and ineffective. Within the tank farm, storage tanks were positioned too close to each other and to dike walls. Finally, warehouse buildings lacked firewalls and were built too close together.
  • The Board recommended that Brazoria County make unincorporated areas subject to a mandatory fire code, such as the National Fire Protection Association code or the International Fire Code.

Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.