When people ask about the worst fire Dwight Williams ever responded to, he replies with one word — Magpetco. Thousands of barrels of burning crude oil jumped out of a storage tank and chased the firefighters like a demon conjured from a witch's cauldron.
Williams, who later founded Williams Fire & Hazard Control, today describes what happened as "absolutely unbelievable."
"I was in the dike with the tank that erupted," he said. "Oil kept going up and up. Then I realized that stuff was fixing to come down eventually. I went to running."
Everything caught in the path of that superheated tidal wave instantly blackened, blistered and broiled. And, yet, Magpetco, which stands for Magnolia Petroleum Company, is a fire that is all but forgotten. Other than refinery workers or emergency responders who worked near Port Neches, Texas, in the mid 1970s, most people who hear that name can only shrug their shoulders in ignorance.
Pete Shelton, assistant chief of the Beaumont Fire and Rescue Service at the time, said the phenomenon that created the sudden havoc at Magpetco — technically known as a "boilover" — was something completely new to him even after 24 years as a firefighter.
"It might not happen very often, but when it does you'd better be prepared," Shelton said.
In the pre-dawn hours of January 11, 1974, a thunderstorm swept through the Golden Triangle, an area of southeast Texas between Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange renown for the Spindletop oil strike in 1901. Sometime after 3 a.m. a lightning strike ignited one of 49 storage tanks in a tank farm located in Williams' hometown of Port Neches, about 12 miles southeast of Beaumont. The burning tank contained nearly 20,000 barrels of crude oil.
By 9 a.m., fire spread to an adjacent tank containing another 70,000 barrels of crude. Port Neches Fire Chief Jim Harrington soon needed all the help he could get.
"We had a high wind coming from the north that was eating our lunch," Harrington said. "We had to work against that wind."
At the time, Williams' father Les was safety director at Jefferson Chemical (now Huntsman), the biggest chemical plant in Port Neches. A long-time student of flammable liquid firefighting, Les had already patented his own brand of firefighting foam called Firesorb.
Magpetco became the first big fire that Les and Dwight worked together. It would be great to report that it was the first of their many successes.
That would not be the truth.
Heavy rains had turned the tank farm landscape to mud, Dwight said. Workers hurriedly applied shell material to the roads to keep the fire trucks from getting stuck. As for water that could be used for firefighting, Magpetco had zero fire hydrants. Shelton said firefighters had to go about a mile north of the fire to draft water from the Neches River.
Having enough water handy to supply the large volume pumps and nozzles that Les and Dwight would develop for firefighting in the future would not be on the drawing board at most industrial facilities for many more years.
Beaumont firefighters occupied themselves with keeping cooling lines on the outside of the tank, Shelton said. Situated much closer to the fire, a foam attack trailer had been positioned inside the containment dike surrounding the burning tank.
"We didn't have anyone in that dike but we were pumping water through that foam trailer," Shelton said. "I guess that's what caused the boilover."
Les and Dwight busied themselves erecting foam towers. Mention a "foam tower" today and most firefighters picture a fire truck equipped with a hydraulic boom designed to reach over the tank shell and discharge foam onto the burning oil. In 1974, a foam tower was a portable device assembled in sections and erected much like putting up a telephone pole.
"It could discharge between 500 and 700 gallons per minute," Dwight said.
By noon, Les started to worry about the how long it was taking to bring the situation under control, Dwight said. He ordered Dwight and Jim Fultz with Jefferson Chemical to reposition a nozzle operating in the containment dike surrounding the burning tanks.
"I said 'Dad, that monitor has three lines hooked to it," Dwight said. "Can't we bring some more help?" No, Les said. He ordered Dwight and Fultz to take care of it and come straight back, period. Knowing better than to argue, the two men did as they were told.
Sure enough, the moment they finished the assignment, someone tried to commandeer them for other chores, Dwight said. Adhering to Les' specific instructions, they said no and left.
What had Les concerned is a phenomenon known as a boilover. The science behind it is not hard to understand. All crude oil contains water or brine to varying degrees. Oil and water do not mix, so once crude is placed in a storage tank the water begins settling to the bottom. When fire spreads across the surface of a crude oil tank, the crude beneath it heats to about 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Slowly, a heat wave descends through the crude, creeping downward at a rate of about three feet an hour. When it reaches the bottom, the waiting layer of water converts to steam at an explosive expansion rate of 1,700 to one. That expansion produces a sudden, violent eruption of hot burning crude that can quickly engulf an area 10 times as large as the tanks diameter.
Once the tank ignited, the countdown began. Les only missed zero hour by about four minutes. As Dwight and Fultz walked across the dike to leave, the ground began to rumble. Dwight glanced over his shoulder to see black crude rushing upward out of the tank.
"Jim ran one way and I ran the other," Williams said.
With burning crude hot on his heels – literally – Dwight ran out of the dike and back to Les' position down the road. Pete Shelton took to his heels too.
"It just rolled out of there and put us all on the run," he said. "We had to retreat back to the main road about 500 yards away." Meanwhile, the abandoned foam trailer and the hose line burned.
The Jefferson Chemicals fire truck had two 500 gallon per minute monitors on top. Dwight activated both, aiming one at the advancing crude and the other straight up to protect him and his father from the intense radiant heat.
"You had to bury your face inside your bunker coat just to grab a breath of air," he said.
The monitors were enough to split the fire coming at them, running past the truck on either side. A pickup truck brought from Texaco refinery was not that lucky. Parked nearby, it was incinerated.
The spreading crude ignited four more storage tanks, including a naptha tank near the Williams. The roof blew off and sailed into the sky like a giant frisbee. Bailing off the truck, Les and Dwight crammed themselves under the front axle.
"I remember praying 'God, don't let that tank roof land on this truck,'" Dwight said. "When I opened my eyes, all the boys I knew at that tank farm were underneath the truck with me."
However, Jim Fultz was missing. Les spent several hours certain the fellow employee he brought to the fire had burned alive. In fact, he escaped unharmed. A canal blocked the escape route that Jim had instantly chosen. Despite not being able to swim, Fultz got across the canal to safety. When Les retired from Jefferson years later, Jim replaced him as safety director.
Amazingly, nobody died that day. The single casualty was a friend named Clinton I. Smith, Dwight said.
"At first I thought he was burned," Dwight said. "They were carrying him and he had oil all over him. All that happened was he had pulled a muscle and slipped while running."
Firefighters worried that the fire could spread from the tank farm to the adjacent Union refinery (now Sunoco), Shelton said. Using backhoes to build levees, firefighters managed to keep the fire contained to the six burning tanks.
At least two more boilovers occurred in the other burning tanks. Harrington estimates that his firefighters and the other responding departments lost nearly 36,000 feet of 2½- and 3-inch hose that day. Despite all that, by 8 p.m., the Magpetco fire exhausted the available fuel and became history.
Two years later, Shelton became chief of his department. Based on what happened at Magpetco, he invested a lot more time in studying the available literature on industrial firefighting. Beaumont firefighters also began to experiment on their own.
"Using a 55-gallon drum we started experimenting with things like BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion) and fire impingement on the vapors space above the flammable contents," Shelton said. "We learned a little bit. I'm not saying we're experts, but we learned what could happen to you."
As a success story Magpetco ranks between the Titanic and Betamax. Fires that die because nothing is left to burn are not extinguishments. But as a learning experience, Magpetco became immeasurable. For Les and Dwight, it served as the catalyst for a new scale of thinking about industrial firefighting. In 1980, Dwight founded his own company to bring those ideas into reality.
If there was a Phoenix that arose from the ashes of Magpetco it was Williams Fire & Hazard Control.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.