Some firefighting is best done at night. The action plan that industrial firefighters devised to deal with the flaming aftermath of a devastating 1991 explosion at a nitroparaffin plant in Sterlington, LA, called for waiting until dark.
That decision mystified the people in charge, said Jerry Craft, then the fire chief with a major Baton Rouge refinery.
"I said 'There are three nitromethane tanks burning and fires in the process area. You won't see those flames in the daytime. It's just that type of product.'"
Nitromethane is used in pharmaceuticals, pesticides, explosives, fibers and coating. However, nitromethane is best known as a fuel for drag racers. The Sterlington plant accounted for nearly 75 percent of the nitro fuel used by drag racers.
Like alcohol, nitromethane burns with an almost invisible flame in the daylight.
"We wanted to go in and identify all the fire we could before daylight," Craft said.
At 1:10 p.m. May 1 multiple explosions demolished the nitroparaffin or NP plant, killing the plant manager and seven other employees who were responding to a compressor fire, a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report states. Flames from the propane compressor reached a pipe rack overhead, one of the pipes containing pressurized nitromethane.
More than 100 workers and persons in the vicinity of the plant, part of a larger industrial complex, were injured. Nearby homes and businesses received extensive damage as well.
As an emergency response assignment, the job in Sterlington would prove to be emotionally as well as physically draining for Craft and his team. Beside firefighting, the responders would soon be made responsible for body recovery.
"At a time like that, you can't let it affect you beyond the point of being able to do your job," he said.
Today, Craft is senior lead firefighter and Training and Consulting manager with Williams Fire & Hazard Control. At the time of the Sterlington explosion, Craft also served as an advisor to the Louisiana State Police's hazmat division, the leading state agency in responding to hazmat emergencies. The state police requested immediate help from Craft's fire brigade.
Initial reports from the scene were bad, Craft said. Much of the plant and nearby community had been damaged by the explosion. The plant's assistant fire chief had been killed and much of the remaining fire brigade injured. The fire chief had suffered a heart attack.
"The Louisiana State Police has the authority to legally take charge if nothing positive is being done to protect the community," Craft said.
To make the best time, state police provided an airplane to fly Craft, brigade captain H.E. "Hershell" Stafford and two others to Sterlington, 230 miles northwest of Baton Rouge near Monroe. The industrial complex consisted of two ammonia plants, the NP plant and an NP derivatives plant. The entire facility covered more than 2,300 acres and employed nearly 400 workers.
Production included four basic NPs — 1-nitropropane, 2-nitropropane, nitromethane and nitroethane — all made from nitric acid and propane. Component separation and refining were via a series of distillation/fractionating towers. Nitromethane, the source of the explosion, is sensitive to shock, friction, concussion or heating. Although TNT has more velocity, nitromethane is more energetic as an explosive.
"The demethanizer tower, which removes the methane from the compound product for recovery, stood 150 feet high and 20 feet in diameter," Craft said. "The explosion blew it off its foundation."
First, an incident command center was established in a blown-out video store near the scene, Craft said. Then Craft and Stafford made their first reconnaissance, wearing breathing apparatus and protective clothing. For the first eight days after the explosion, personnel entering the restricted area were required to wear Tyvek disposable suits and half-mask air-purifying respirators. Of primary concern was the presence of large amounts of asbestos insulation that had been disturbed by the explosion.
"We start seeing bodies as we went," Craft said. "We documented where they were, then continued identifying the fires."
Returning to the command center, the responders made a plan. Stafford took charge of the command center while Craft and two other firefighters returned to the fire scene to begin extinguishment.
"We put the three tanks out," Craft said. "Then we started putting out the process fires."
With the firefighting done, Craft and the responders returned to the command center. However, the state police had a new mission waiting for them.
"Usually, the sheriff's department and the coroner would have responsibility for body recovery and scene investigation," Craft said. "However, because of all the hazardous materials including nitric acid used in the product and the propane for the refrigeration system to keep it stable, the state police was not going to let anyone go in except us."
Craft agreed to take charge of body recovery. After setting up a decon station, he and his responders returned to the hot zone.
The new job would not be easy.
"I found a guy who was near the base of a caged ladder," he said. "It was like he was frozen in a climbing position, only burnt from head to toe. He apparently got caught in the second wave of explosions."
Craft examined one body in particular at least three separate times. It was not until later that he learned it was a woman. Even worse, not everybody was intact. These remains were collected together in a box.
"It was a shock to see, but we couldn't let it affect us," Craft said. "We just kept moving forward until we could complete the assignment. We took pictures, flagged the area, bagged the bodies and then brought everything out."
The exhausted responders had worked 50 hours straight without a break, he said. But the pressure was far from over. While trying to rest, the responders were sought out by the families of the dead asking for more information. This could be understood, Craft said. But intrusions were also coming from union officials wanting detailed data on what the responders heard and saw.
"We had to get the state police to fend these people off us," Craft said.
Flying back to Baton Rouge provided the first real opportunity to emotionally process what the team had experienced, Craft said.
"We started mentally downloading, thinking about the circumstances and situations," Craft said.
That rest was short-lived. Once on the ground, management at Craft's own refinery wanted an immediate debriefing of its own.
"We were a third party to this event and management permitted us to support the state police," Craft said. "Management realized how involved we had gotten in that."
During the debriefing Craft suggested that the lessons learned in Sterlington be adopted into the Baton Rouge refinery's own emergency pre-plan with regard to contacting family members, securing the site and other pertinent issues in a situation involving fatalities.
Realizing that the Sterlington disaster would be a subject of intense litigation, the Baton Rouge company became reticent about any further connection.
"The state police, through the governor's office, wanted to acknowledge all four of us by giving us an exceptional bravery award," Craft said. "You would think the company would be proud of its people but politically it was not good because it again linked us to a situation that you know is going to involve litigation. So, we declined to accept, but the state police kept pressing it."
The two companies that owned the nitroparifin plant were fined $10 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violating 82 safety standards. None of the violations were considered willful. Multimillion-dollar class action lawsuits were also filed against the two companies.
At one point the director of OSHA's Region 6 office in Dallas flew to Baton Rouge specifically to interview Craft and Stafford. "Gentlemen," he asked "how much prior knowledge did you have of that facility?'"
With the plant manager dead, the firefighters met with the highest-ranking management person available to review maps and photographs of the facility, including aerial photos provided by the state police.
"The director asked, 'Did they tell you where they store all this nitromethane material at?'" Craft said. "I asked the director 'What do you mean store?'"
Unbeknownst to the firefighters, three 50,000-gallon underground storage tanks were located beneath the unit itself. Had the propane refrigeration system failed, the nitromethane inside those tanks would have becomes shock and temperature sensitive. Above ground, plenty of opportunities for both were going on while the firefighters were vulnerable.
"There was a chance that it could have blown a cavity so big you could have backed the Ouachita River into and made a new lake," Craft said.
He told the director that neither he nor the state police had not been told about the underground storage.
"It wouldn't have made any difference," Craft said. "We still would have done what we did."
- Asking people to risk their lives without disclosing the full extent of the danger is unspeakable. With the dangers that they face, firefighters should at least be able to trust the people for whom they work.
- Firefighters are as vulnerable to psychological pressure as soldiers. Dealing with the families of the missing is more than should be expected of them in this kind of emergency.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.