Tropical Storm Allison set the stage for one of the seminal events in modern industrial firefighting – the successful extinguishment of a burning jumbo storage tank with substantial product saved. Every firefighter who participated in this breakthrough can claim a piece of the history making story.
"The thing I will remember about this fire is the dedication shown by the firefighters, the teamwork and their ability to shift to a higher gear even when they were tired," said J.R. Chidester, fire chief for the Orion Oil refinery complex in Norco, LA.
Dwight Williams, contracted by Orion to assist Chidester, specializes in extinguishing large volume flammable liquid fires. Dealing with a fire the magnitude of the Norco blaze is beyond the capabilities of just one man or one contractor, he said.
"The truth is that it was a tremendous effort on the part of Orion's fire brigade and J.R. Chidester, the fire chief, with support from the Hired Gun Gang (officially known as the Louisiana Emergency Resources Supply Network)," Williams said. "And Williams Fire & Hazard Control played a major role. However, you don't put out a fire like this without having a team effort. And maybe a little help from above. Maybe a lot of help from above."
More than 200 firefighters ranging from local volunteers to mutual aid responders were on scene throughout the 13-hour battle for extinguishment and beyond as weather continued to threaten. Under perfect conditions their achievement would have been staggering. With the degree of difficulty inflicted by Allison, the extinguishment at Norco becomes nothing short of miraculous.
Allison caught everyone by surprise. It swelled to life in the Gulf of Mexico southwest of Galveston, TX, on the evening of June 6, only five days into the June-to-November hurricane season. Usually tropical systems begin as depressions, and then build into tropical storms. Allison burst forth full-blown, dumping up to 40 inches of rain on Texas and Louisiana during the next three days.
With rains that sudden and heavy, the risk of sinking the roof on a floating roof storage tank escalates drastically. On the morning of Thursday, June 7, the 150,000-barrels-a-day Orion Refinery 25 miles west of New Orleans was only one of many along the Gulf Coast trying to protect exposed product. At Orion, the roof had partly sunk on Tank 325-4, a 270-foot diameter storage tank containing about 300,000 barrels of gasoline.
"I've been told that there were more than 14 roofs sunk between here and Texas," Chidester said. "In Louisiana alone I know of at least five including ours."
Orion maintains a storage terminal with a 10-million-barrel capacity, including four tanks even bigger than Tank 325-4. As for Orion's neighbors, the heavily industrialized community of Norco is also home to Shell, Motiva and Dow, each with sizeable storage facilities of their own. (Norco takes its name from the first refinery built there.)
The Orion Emergency Response Team was alerted to a situation at Tank 325-4 involving a partially sunken roof with a mixture of water and gasoline atop it, all resulting from the storm. The ERT consists of three full-time firefighters, including Chidester, and 86 volunteers drawn from refinery personnel. The equipment inventory includes one 3,500-gallon pumper truck, two 1,000-gallon pumpers, three 2,000 gpm nozzles and other miscellaneous nozzles ranging from 250 gpm to 1,250 gpm, and 2,000 feet of 5-inch hose on trailers.
However, getting that heavy equipment to where it was needed posed a problem, one that would hinder operations throughout the emergency to come. Only one of the three roads leading to Tank 325-4 remained above water. Other than the few narrow, paved surfaces, the Orion terminal had become a sea of deep Louisiana mud.
"We had a good 2 to 2½ feet of water across the road in the back corner of the tank field," Chidester said. "The night before there was a storm-related electrical problem with the pump that drains the rainwater into the recovery pond. But even after we fixed the problem that pump just couldn't keep up with the amount of rain that fell."
While refinery operators drained gasoline from the affected tank as quickly as possible, the Orion ERT moved into position. Tank 325-4 shared a 10-foot-deep common dike with two other storage tanks, each separated within the dike by shorter intermittent dikes. With four feet of water filling the common dike, the intermittent dikes had already overflowed. As a precaution, the tank's flooded dike would be foamed first to guard against igniting vapors in that area.
But the bad weather was far from through with Tank 325-4. Responders were in the process of foaming the dike when lightning flashed nearby. Chidester ordered everyone off the dike wall save for himself and two others who continued the foam operation.
"I remember at least three strikes," Chidester said. "One was by the river bridge, one was close to Shell and the third hit our tank."
At 12:32 p.m., Tank 325-4 ignited and immediately went full surface. Operators had only been able to drain three feet of product in the time available. Roiling, churning flames spread across an expanse large enough to swallow a football field. Then the flames lifted hundreds of feet skyward, bathing the refinery is a yellow-orange light that made the overcast day seem like summer at sunset.
"Usually when you have a fire in a tank you have one fireball coming out of the top," Chidester said. "This thing looked like it had seven. It was so big and massive there were a lot of fireballs coming out of the tank."
Not that the responders had time to be awestruck. The ERT immediately scrambled back up the dike to commence cooling operations around the perimeter of the tank shell. Orion's volunteer responders are divided into four sections, each with its own sector captain – Bill Truax, David Byers, Kenny Bennett and Rick Rykosky. But in those first minutes, responders reacted based on training, not orders.
"Nobody needed to be told," Chidester said.
As firefighters had feared, fuel in the dike ignited as well. Besides cooling the shell, the Orion ERT found itself occupied with the first of two dike fires that broke out during the emergency. The upper third of the 32-foot-tall tank shell blackened, then began to glow molten orange. The heated metal began to make peculiar noises.
"It was making a lot of noise, popping and stuff," Chidester said. "It tightened you up every time you heard a noise. The safety of the Emergency Response Team and all involved, including the surrounding community, weighed heavily on my mind at all times."
Somewhere in the endless volumes of Murphy's Law it states that if you have one road out of three passable in a critical situation, it's too good to last. Sure enough, the intense radiant heat sweeping north from Tank 325-4 closed the single dry road left. Heavy equipment moving into position would have to risk the narrow, flooded roads. As a result, only the most essential of the abundant mutual aid equipment that would soon be at Chidester's disposal could be brought to bear against the fire.
"If you got off the road there was nothing but mud and vegetation," Chidester said. "You had these small ditches you couldn't see for the water. We had one foam tender that got off the road and nearly sank. It was hard to stay on the road with all the fire hoses on the ground, some above water and some below. You had to do everything by feel, walk and touch."
Adding still further to the Orion ERT's problems, the radiant heat touched off small fires across the north side of the terminal, first incinerating a line of telephone poles, then igniting pasteboard boxes, construction debris, green vegetation and anything else within close proximity to the fire.
"My team not only had to fight a dike fire and cool a tank but we had to control anything that was getting past us," Chidester said.
Meanwhile, the rain continued.
"It rained most of the time we were working out there, all the way through Sunday," Chidester said. "The rain never let off too awful much. You were either out there soaking wet from the rain or, if you had on a rain suit, soaking wet inside because of the humidity. There were no dry people around this fire."
Within 15 minutes of ignition Chidester placed a call to Williams Fire & Hazard Control, exercising Orion's priority as a blanket order customer. Williams F&HC, based in Mauriceville, TX, near the Gulf Coast city of Beaumont, had flooding problems of its own to contend with that afternoon.
"We had water two feet deep in the road between our office and the warehouse," owner Dwight Williams said. And, Murphy's Law again, the telephone call came in the middle of an important meeting with executives of Ansul, Inc., partners with Williams F&HC in producing Thunderstorm, a new brand of ATC foam.
Williams and Chidester conferred on a preliminary attack plan to determine what specialized heavy equipment Williams would need to bring. Williams F&HC keeps two trucking companies on call, one of which always has a tractor-trailer rig nearby. Several rigs can be loaded and on the road in less than half an hour. While the loading proceeded, Williams and associates Eric Lavergne and Chauncey Naylor departed by truck for the 266-mile trip to Norco.
Thankfully, the opportunity to tackle a jumbo storage tank fire is rare. Williams F&HC's track record of successful extinguishments in the more common 150-to-200-foot range dates to the early 1980s. At that time the American Petroleum Institute was on record that no tank bigger than 125 feet could be extinguished with product saved. Dwight Williams and his father Les Williams proved that wrong in 1983 by extinguishing a 150-foot diameter gasoline storage tank in Chalmette, LA, the biggest successful extinguishment on record.
Disregarding the accepted "surround and drown" philosophy of indiscriminately throwing as much water as possible into the tank, the Williams' concentrated a massive foam attack on a single spot, gaining a foothold and expanding extinguishment from there. This became known as the "Footprint" methodology, patented by Williams F&HC.
Norco is only 32 miles west of Chalmette on the other side of New Orleans. The fire at Orion offered Williams the long-awaited opportunity to prove the Footprint methodology against a record-size jumbo storage tank. The successful extinguishment of a 270-foot tank would be the biggest in history. Another important hurdle in industrial firefighting would have been surpassed.
Until Williams could arrive, Orion's ERT would need more immediate help. That help came from mutual aid partners in Norco and the surrounding St. Charles Parish. Arriving with personnel, specialized equipment and foam were Dow Chemical, Exxon, LOOP, Marathon, Murphy Oil, Motiva and Tosco. Those ERTs that belonged to the Louisiana Emergency Resources Supply network, a statewide association of facilities using Williams F&HC equipment, brought their Williams' designed large volume "Big Gun" nozzles.
Nor were the local volunteer fire departments left out. Responding were departments from Norco, St. Rose, Hahnville, Luling, LaPlace and the parish-wide St. Charles fire district. Most noticeable was the Norco Area Volunteer Fire Department, moving its 50-foot Telesquirt into a position on the south side to help cool the tank shell.
County and state agencies participating included the St. Charles Sheriff's Department, the St. Charles
Inside the refinery, the chain of command as per the Orion emergency plan moved into action. Plant manager Eric Bluth took charge as the incident commander. Shift supervisors Jim Schulz, Blackie Roussell and Gerald Boudreaux took turns acting as on-scene incident commanders. Chidester remained in charge of the actual firefighting, maintaining direct control over all the responding brigades and departments.
Other provisions of the Orion emergency plan were put into effect. One of the most important was setting up a "war room," a central location away from the fire scene where the overall situation could be closely monitored.
"In the war room, we had all the necessary ICS (Incident Command System) charts, site safety plans and a flow chart of the positions out on the fire ground and who was in charge," Chidester said. "All of this was being tracked."
Being able to account for every firefighter would become crucial if any were suspected of being lost or injured. The war room also took charge of that and the required air monitoring, under way since the early hours of June 7.
Orion's emergency plan also called for establishing a rehab area. A school bus was adapted to provide shelter from the rain, giving responders the chance to sit, relax and even grab a sandwich. A rotation that was closely adhered to give every responder an opportunity for a break. It also gave company nurse Terry Meyer and other medical personnel the chance to examine them individually and determine if they were physically fit to return to work.
"We brought in dry socks for them because people were getting their feet wet," Chidester said. "Being wet like it was I guess you could say we had some redness coming on, so we had powders and other rash medications brought in."
With so many responders at work over such a broad area, another two rehab center were later opened for more convenience.
"The main thing was to keep their fluids up and make sure nobody had a problem," Chidester said. No injuries or other health problems were reported.
Racing to Norco
Based in Baton Rouge, Jerry Craft with Williams F&HC arrived in Norco within two hours. Chidester and Craft, friends and former Exxon fire chiefs, conferred on the operation plan as implemented. They agreed that the best course was to continue cooling operations until the Williams team arrived.
"We talked at least three or four times about the fire and what I might have to do if any other tanks became involved," Chidester said. "Doing this I was better prepared to utilize my site management and site safety plans. We also started putting together a real good attack plan."
The weather found still another way to hinder extinguishment. En route from Mauriceville, the Williams team found Interstate 10, the most direct route to Norco, closed due to flooding. Escorted by the Louisiana State Police, personnel and equipment were forced to make time-consuming detours around the high water. The trip took more than six hours, at least two hours longer than normal.
When Williams arrived at 7:30 p.m., Chidester immediately gave him an up-close inspection of the tank. Beside the Telesquirt, fixed monitors surrounding the tank applied cooling water to the tank shell. A truck equipped with a nozzle had been driven into the flooded dike to get the best position. On the northeast side of the tank, a portion of the shell that could not be reached with cooling water was beginning to sag.
On the scene of one of the biggest challenges of his career, Dwight Williams said he took it all in stride.
"You get focused on what you have to do," Williams said. "Any fear you have is simply the fear of failing. If there is a fear that motivates you it is that you might not be able to kill the giant."
Williams said he had complete faith in the Footprint methodology and its ability to end this emergency. All that was needed was enough room to work and enough foam to do the job.
"The biggest factor holding the operation back was the bottlenecks along the road, preventing us from getting access where we needed to be," Williams said. "Foam trucks could not make the tight turn. You had to stage one piece of equipment at a time. Of course, the ground was so wet it eliminated any cutting across the terminal."
Reopening the dry road north of the tank was suggested. To prove it was safe, Chidester, Williams, Craft and Boudreaux set off down the road in a pickup truck, Chidester and Craft riding in the bed. Despite flames roaring overhead, they determined it would be safe for foam tankers to use the road with the aid of several water curtains.
Even with the dry road back in service, setting up for the foam attack was a damp, laborious process. The five-inch hose used to bring large volumes of water to the fire stretched everywhere, often underwater. To get the correct angle, nozzles and pumps had to be placed off the road in the mud. Two cherry pickers were brought in to help place the equipment and move the foam to where it was needed, one tote at a time.
Restricted access eliminated the chance of using fire trucks for drafting, Chidester said. Instead, firefighters relied on the plant's own 18-inch firewater line utilizing five fire pumps. To further stabilize the water supply, the Motiva plant next door opened valves to feed water from their firewater system into Orion's using Motiva's pumps. Altogether, the system provided at least 140 pounds pressure from the fire mains. Chidester also drafted from a nearby recovery pond.
Stretching hose at the Orion fire was particularly difficult. Muddy conditions prevented the use of vehicle-mounted hose reels. Every inch was laid by hand. Particularly difficult was dragging hose up the slope of a 10-foot-tall muddy dike.
"Four of my team members laid out more than 3,500 feet of 3-inch hose by themselves," Chidester said.
That hose was expendable. Personnel were not. When the tank shell on the northeast side continued to sag, folding in on itself, Chidester did not hesitate to order responders to immediately leave the area, abandoning the hose on the ground.
"I wasn't worried about the shell because the fire was so deep down and hadn't done anything for several hours," Chidester said. "But no one had ever fought a 270-foot tank fire before and I didn't want to take the chance of losing anybody to that fire."
The last essential was foam. At Orion, Williams agreed with Chidester's recommendation to use 3M AFFF/ATC at three percent in attempting to extinguish the fire. With roofs sunk all along the Gulf Coast, many refineries were in need of foam. Williams F&HC itself was working two other weather-related jobs involving sunken roofs or failed pumps.
"I used every bit of foam that was brought to me," Chidester said. While most of it was from emergency stockpiles in Louisiana, some came from as far away as the 3M plant in Alabama.
Despite 3M's phaseout of AFFF, due to be completed by the end of the year, nearly 60,000 gallons were located. Williams F&HC's own Thunderstorm-brand ATC, brought on the market after 3M decision, was not yet in full production and was unavailable.
At 1:30 a.m. Friday responders were ready for their first foam attack. Chidester and Williams' plan used classic Footprint methodology. Think of the burning tank as a clock face with 12 o'clock directly north. A Williams F&HC Big Gun would shoot 8,000 gpm of foam into the tank from the 4 o'clock position. From 8 o'clock, a Williams F&HC 1X6 nozzle would shoot 4,000 gpm of foam. Together, the two nozzles would hit the same spot with 12,000 gpm from different angles. Add to that an extra 1,000 gpm from the Norco Area VFD's Telesquirt.
At full capacity these two nozzles can deliver as much as 20,000 gpm. Why not hit the fire with everything you've got? You have to understand the nature of foam, Williams said. One important aspect is the foam run, or how far the foam will flow across the fuel from the point of impact.
"Shooting one 12,000 gpm stream into the center of the tank gives you a 95-foot foam run," Williams said. "On gasoline I believe that to be too long. The 8,000 and 4,000 gpm combination gave us a maximum foam run of 85 feet. That brought us 10 feet we didn't have to run on burning liquid surface and then heal up against hot steel."
Ideally, a foam run should not exceed 100 feet on combustible liquid, Williams said. On gasoline, the preference is no more than 80 feet.
"It just so happened that the best we could do with what we had was an 85-foot foam run," Williams said.
Chidester and Williams took positions on the dike wall. Since local aviation authorities had denied Orion's request to use a helicopter as an observation post, Chidester placed a spotter with binoculars atop a tall catalytic unit. Foaming would continue until there was no sign of flames in the tank.
Foaming began. With the roof in the bottom of the tank, responders had a clean target. Within 10 minutes, the foam application was gaining a "bite" on the fire, Williams said. Flame collapse followed within 20 minutes of initial application. Then, working from the 6 o'clock position, the Telesquirt applied foam on the inner tank shell at the 5 o'clock position.
"That was a small amount, but it happened to give us foam in a more stubborn part of the fire where the foam run had to come back from the inner wall," Williams said. "So by dropping a little bit there it enriched the foam blanket."
There is a difference of opinion as to the correct application rate when foaming a burning tank. NFPA sets the ideal rate at .16 gpm. A tank the size of one at Orion would require about 18,000 gallons of foam concentrate. However, many companies recommend .25 gpm as the application rate on large tanks. Williams, who has always insisted that the NFPA rate is too low, used an application rate of .21 gpm. (Revamping the application rate standard is under study by the NFPA 11 standards committee.)
Consumed at a rate of 400 gallons per minute, two tanker trucks filled with foam concentrate were quickly exhausted. The rest of the 3M AFFF supply was loaded on five flatbed 18-wheelers in totes containing 305 gallons each. Seven teams of people armed with jet ratio controllers began moving from foam tote to foam tote, each one sucked dry within seconds.
Beyond flame collapse, responders continued to apply foam for another 40 minutes, extinguishing small fires at the 4, 6 and 8 o'clock positions. A heavy coke buildup on parts of the inner shell continued to burn. Also, vapor escaping at the edge of the foam blanket caused "ghosting," sending small flames racing along the tank wall.
"Dwight decided to cross the patterns with a light mist that put the ghost out," Chidester said. "That's why I wanted that kind of expertise there to help me. It's not a bad idea for a fire chief to get specialized people to help him."
Throughout the final phase of the attack, Williams turned the technology of firefighting into an art. Calling on years of experience, he would "read" the fire and adjust his equipment accordingly. Armed with the 1X6, he moved the stream pattern to the right or left, wider or narrower, up or down. The last persistent fire burned on the east side of the tank, shielded by the fold in the tank shell. A small amount of foam and burning gasoline flowed through the fold and into the dike.
Williams carefully swept the last flames with the 1X6, trying to angle the foam into the burning crevice. Sixty-five minutes into the attack, the spotters atop the catalytic converter and the Telesquirt reported no flames visible in the tank. The fire was declared dead.
"I got in some dry clothes, got the ants off of me and went home," Williams said.
Lightning was still being reported in the area. For two hours following extinguishment, Chidester and the Orion ERT continued to flow foam into the tank at 12,000 gpm, then an additional half hour at 4,000 gpm. A pump-down procedure was initiated to drain the tank. Meanwhile, Orion management ordered that the tank be foamed 15 minutes every hour until it was empty. To give his exhausted ERT a rest, Chidester brought in Industrial Emergency Services of Corpus Christi to maintain the foam blanket on 325-4.
"The Williams team debriefed us on what they had done, what equipment was set up and what the plan of action was, after which they departed," said IES Deputy Chief Daniel Garcia.
With 11 firefighters and command personnel on site at all time, IES made its first application to replenish the foam blanket at 6:14 a.m. That application lasted 21 minutes with 1,650 gallons of foam concentrate used. From this point on Orion provided IES with various brands of foam concentrate to use, with 37,000 gallons eventually used. IES made 24 additional foam applications over a 65-hour period while refinery operators drained the tank's contents. The last foam application ended at 4:03 p.m. Sunday.
On Sunday afternoon, Chidester called a halt to the foam operation. Tank 325-4 was empty enough to no longer present a danger. IES then turned its attention to assisting Orion personnel in the inventory of firefighting supplies and equipment used during the event.
For Dwight Williams, the battle to save Tank 325-4 ended Friday morning. When he arrived home in Mauriceville, he got as far as the living room couch before falling asleep exhausted. He did not stir for a long time.
"When I opened my eyes, I heard my wife say 'You finally waking up?' I said 'Honey, I had quite a dream. I dreamed we put out a huge tank fire down in South Louisiana.' She picked up the newspaper and said 'Well, here's a picture of it.'"
Prognostication is the power to predict the future. It would be a tremendous asset to any emergency responder. Unfortunately, if such a faculty exists in human beings, including firefighters, it is rare almost to the point of non-existence. Preparation, not prognostication, is what a fire chief relies on when the unpredictable threatens to consume his facility.
"If the ERT hasn't sat down and pre-planned, walked through simulations and contacted resource people they may need, they are in trouble," Chidester said. ""You have to rehearse and train to have your people ready to go to battle against a tank fire."
In the case of Tank 325-4, Chidester said he and his sector captains were familiar with the specific tank and the special problems that would have to be dealt with in the event of a fire. He had also met with his shift superintendent to review fire pre-planning on 325-4, he said.
"We all had a good idea of what could happen if it caught fire," Chidester said.
Orion's frontline responders knew what to expect too. The refinery's firefighters train off-site at the Mississippi State Fire Academy in Jackson and at the Texas A&M University's Emergency Safety Training Institute in College Station. Chidester himself serves as an instructor for the
For years to come the Norco storage tank fire will be written about as an enormous breakthrough, an event that proved all the theories and set a new standard for industrial firefighting. The two names most likely to be mentioned will be Chidester and Williams.
But no matter how much expertise one person contributes, it was a team working together that established the new record for the biggest storage tank fire to be successfully extinguished, Chidester said.
"Make sure that it's not just you who knows how to face a major crisis but that every link under you has the proper training to be able to handle their job from staging to accountability to managing the parking."
The Jerry Craft Award for 2001 was presented to J.R. Chidester at the 17th annual Industrial Fire World Conference and Exposition held in Houston.
- Applying foam to a full-surface storage tank fire is equal parts scientific calculation and artistic skill. Williams F&HC brings decades worth of real-world experience to the scene. Any plant brigade that has experience comparable to Williams F&HC must be working on the shores of hell.
- It takes times to put together the resources needed for a foam attack, most importantly the foam. Foam concentrate is not cheap. It also has a limited shelf life. Much like mutual aid agreements, plants and refineries should work out deals among themselves to share foam supplies when needed. This is not the sort of thing that can be left until the refinery is burning.
- Dwight Williams is not afraid to challenge accepted practices when they have no legitimate basis in fact. If the fire goes out sooner, is the plant manager likely to complain about the foam application being 0.5 gpm richer than the NFPA standard requires? Probably not.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.