Jerry Craft of Williams Fire & Hazard Control enjoyed a long, distinguished career in industrial firefighting. To say that setting fire to a 400,000gallon cargo of fuel oil aboard a grounded freighter ran counter to his personalphilosophy of life is an understatement.
"It was an unusual experience to light 'em instead of fight 'em," Craft said.
The circumstances leading to Craft taking up arson in a good cause made national news for weeks. On Feb. 4, 1999, a 639-foot Panamanian-registered bulk freighter named New Carissa ran aground in 20-foot seas and 20- to 25-knot winds at Coos Bay, Oregon. Aboard was the aforementioned cargo of No. 6 fuel oil and another 70,000 gallons of diesel. For days, the crippled freighter endured a terrific poundingin the rugged surf. Then the first signs of structural compromise became apparent.
Only one option remained to avert an environmentally devastating oil spill. U.S.Coast Guard Capt. Mike Hall, the federal on-scene coordinator for the New Carissaincident, explained it to the press in terms that made the advantages simple andclear. Destroying the fuel was preferable to having it foul the coast.
"Every gallon of oil burning is one less gallon on Oregon's shoreline," Capt. Hall said.
It would be six days before Williams Fire & Hazard Control was contacted. Dwight Williams, president of Williams F&HC, and Craft were in Lafayette, Louisiana, attending a meeting of the Louisiana Emergency Resources SupplyNetwork, a mutual aid group more commonly known as the Hired Gun Gang. Crowley Marine, a marine service organization with a Navy contract, is also a client of Williams F&HC. It was through Crowley that the request for assistance was made.
"A big part of our business is marine firefighting, as well as consulting andtraining to deal with these events," Craft said. "Our company is a marine firefighting company as much as it is an industrial firefighting company."
Officials made the decision to burn the cargo before contacting Williams F&HC. Initially, when the New Carissa ran aground, no oil had escaped. Ballast water taken aboard weighed down the vessel, keeping its double bottom hull firmly embedded in the sand. Aboard, the freighter's captain elected to keep his crew of 23 at their posts.
Weather quickly became the deciding factor. Forecasts called for gale-force winds to develop overnight. The winds moved the vessel to a position almost parallel to Horsfall Beach at Coos Bay. At 12:30 p.m. Feb. 5, weather forced the removal of the crew using Coast Guard helicopters, the only means of access to the vessel throughout the operation.
A salvage mission to refloat the New Carissa was considered in the early stages, ideally without removing the cargo first. That the freighter remained intact was encouraging. Still, the potential for disaster was obvious.
"The threat was that with the high seas and the expected storms with 70-mile-per-hour gusts, the vessel could crack up and release all of the fuel oil onto the beaches," Craft said. "Coos Bay is a very pristine area with a great deal of commercial fishing for oysters, shellfish and other types of seafood."
On Feb. 8 came the first reports of leaking fuel. An oil sheen on the water nearthe North Point Jetty in Coos Bay was traced to sporadic "blurps" escaping fromthe New Carissa. Two hundred cleanup response personnel moved into the area to support oil spill recovery and wildlife rescue teams already on hand.
Then came the news no one wanted to hear. Cracks appeared in the New Carissa's hull. At least two of the fuel oil tanks and one of the diesel tanks had been breached.
"Protecting the environment is our top priority," Hall told the press. "We'll behere until the job is done and the area is restored. From the beginning, we have planned for a worst-case scenario, and we have the best response team in place — one that combines local expertise with state-of-the-art technical knowledge."
The next day, Feb. 9, the situation grew worse. Two of the vessel's six cargo holds were taking on water. Two fuel oil tanks and two diesel tanks were now open to the sea. A port ballast tank was also punctured, allowing ballast water to escape.
On the starboard side, water in one of the ballast tanks was now contaminated with fuel from the vessel.
Wave action moved the bow seaward, causing the vessel to list from side to side about 15 degrees. The area affected by the small amount of oil spilled so far now extended two miles south and two to four miles north.
On Wednesday, Feb. 10, the weather finally forced action. New storms were headed for the area. Only a narrow window of opportunity existed before they hit. The decision was made to prepare for a controlled burn of the New Carissa's remaining fuel.
"Dwight wanted me to go up there," Craft said. "I left Wednesday about 6 p.m., flying out of Baton Rouge to Portland, overnighted in Portland, and then flew to Coos Bay Thursday."
What Williams Fire & Hazard Control brought to the New Carissa operation wasknowledge of marine firefighting and technical expertise on what it would take toachieve a continuous free burning fire. An attempt to ignite the fuel oil made before Craft's arrival failed. Part of the problem was the chemistry of the fuel oil involved.
"No. 6 fuel oil is very heavy oil with a high ignition temperature," Craft said."It's got a flash temperature of about 250 degrees Fahrenheit. So the flash and ignition point of this material is very high. It is not easily ignitable."
Coos Bay and its sister city of North Bend are small communities,but important to the Oregon economy, Craft said. The Port of Coos Bay is the only deep-water entry port between San Francisco and Seattle.
"It's beautiful up there," Craft said. "It's mountainous, yet with sandy beaches. Tourism, commercial fishing, and wood products are the biggest local industrial operations. The New Carissa had been at anchor waiting to come into port and take on a load of wood chips when it ran aground."
Williams F&HC's contract was with the Navy. Upon arriving in Coos Bay, Craft reported to Lt. Cmdr. Jess Riggle, in charge of Navy supply and salvage operations. Under the Unified Command structure set up to govern the New Carissa operation, the Coast Guard was in charge, with the Navy acting as a federal response team to lend support. Craft also met with Capt. Hall and Bill Milwee, a salvage expert with Gallagher Marine Systems, representing the owners of the New Carissa.
"We huddled up and reviewed the ship's plans," Craft said. "What they were asking me first was the characteristics of this fuel and what it was going totake to have a continuous free-burning operation. I told them we were going to have to load up the area with accelerant."
Ignition of a lighter accelerant covering the surface of the No. 6 fuel oil would heat it long enough to begin releasing flammable vapors. Once ignited, those vapors would establish free burning of the oil itself. The accelerant Craft had in mind combine 50 percent gasoline, 35 percent diesel and 15 percent soap flakes. Mixed together, the gelatinous solution is known as "homemade napalm."
"This gelatinous state gives you a more solidified base-fuel to burn, and it lastslonger," Craft said. "It doesn't burn off like a low-flash gasoline by itself would do."
A new plan to ignite the stubborn fuel cargo was formulated. Port and starboardof the freighter's six cargo holds, the fuel tanks or cells were arranged to evenly distribute their volume through the gunnels of the vessel. A Navy Explosive Ordinance Division team would board the New Carrisa and place explosive chargeson four fuel tanks containing nearly two-thirds of the cargo fuel. The charges, shaped to direct the force of the blast, would be detonated remotely to tear open the 5/8-inch steel tanks, dumping the fuel into two of the six cargo holds.
"The plan was only to set fire in two of them because of the condition of theother cargo holds," Craft said. "One was full of water, one was empty, and the otherwas tied into the day tanks where charges were set near the engine room. The forward compartment was strictly empty with no fuel tanks in it."
Once it was confirmed that the fuel oil had flooded the cargo holds, a secondstring of C4 charges would be remotely detonated. Those explosions would release the accelerant from a 55-gallon drum placed in the holds and ignite it.
"We estimated, based on the surface area of the two cargo holds, that wewanted to build a one-inch layer (of accelerant) by volume," Craft said. "The homemade napalm was pre-mixed at the Coast Guard station in Coos Bay and loaded into the holds using helicopters equipped with cargo nets. We ended upputting about 1,400 gallons of this product aboard with about 700 gallons in each of the two cargo holds."
The fire itself would be a long, slow process. The minimum time to burn off mostof the oil would be 36 hours, Craft said.
"Dwight and I discussed this by telephone throughout the whole operation," Craft said. "I would then discuss what we had talked about with the rest of the team. We expected to have a free-burning operation that would consume between 70 and 80 percent of the fuel at a rate of about four inches an hour once we filled up the cargo hold from the tanks."
The Navy EOD team members were the only personnel allowed aboard the New Carissa. Otherwise, the closest that anyone else could approach was about 200 yards away on Horsfall Beach. From there, Craft witnessed the fire of a lifetime.
"It was very impressive," Craft said. "It was pretty spectacular with thetremendous fireball rolling out of the two cargo holds into the atmosphere. It was ignited at 5:47 p.m., so you were right there at dusk with the skies darkening, which made it an even more impressive fireworks display."
Only hours after the cargo was set ablaze, the wisdom of the move was evident. At about 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, the New Carissa split apart between its two ocean-flooded stern cargo holds. The split was not the result of the explosions to ignite the fuel, Craft said.
"It was because of the rough wave action over the previous seven days," Craft said. "The ship already had a crack between the number five and six cargo holds.That was another reason why the decision was made to work the forward cargo holds, numbers two and three, to minimize the impact of the crack in the vessel. "The fuel oil, confined to the 420-foot bow section of the fractured vessel, continued to burn. After 36 hours, as predicted, the fire self-extinguished, leaving about 100,000 gallons of a heavy waxy residual that would have to be disposed of with the rest of the vessel.
"It went exactly by plan," Craft said. "The command operation was very pleasedwith the success of the ignition. It reached a point where it self-extinguished, because there was no more product or enough heat and oxygen to continue burning."
A minimal effort was made to relight the residue using flares. When that failed, it was decided that nothing more could be burned off. The next phase of the plan would be to tow the vessel out to sea and scuttle it. The cold water would take care of the rest.
"Even the water temperature where the vessel was grounded inhibited a lot of the oil from burning because of the cooling effect it had on the heavy residual," Craft said. "The north Pacific is cold water most of the year round but especially this time of year. Scuttling the vessel in the deep water about 250 miles off the Pacific coastline would solidify the oil, and Mother Nature would take care of the rest."
As for Craft, he was dismissed from the project on Saturday, Feb. 13, and returnedhome to Baton Rouge.
"We had made our contribution," Craft said. "Unified Command felt good about the success at that point, so I flew back home. They contacted me again Sunday night and Monday night to discuss where they were with their operation, but we concluded that even though there was about 100,000 gallons of heavy residual tar left after the burn, it would not be safe or productive to try to continue to burn that off."
The saga of the ill-fated New Carissa was far from over, though. While being towed out to sea in early March, the bow section broke free and drifted back toward the Oregon coastline, this time going aground in Waldport. Finally, with a Navy destroyer on hand to guarantee success, the bow section sank March 11 in more than 10,000 feet of water 282.5 nautical miles off the Oregon coast.
Several important lessons came out of the New Carissa incident, Craft said. First, it showed that a controlled burn is a workable alternative to minimize environmental impact in the right circumstances.
"There were some attempts like this with the Valdez and other incidents, but thecircumstances just weren't right," he said. "I think credit should be given to the ship's owners for making the decision to say 'Okay, we've lost this vessel, now we want to minimize the impact on the Oregon coastline.' It was a pretty big commitment on their part to give up a 639-foot vessel."
New Carissa also proved the benefits of a unified command structure in anemergency, Craft said.
"It was a total team effort, and that was advocated by the incident commander throughout the ordeal to accomplish this first-time task," he said. "I'll say this: I've worked in many command operations in my years, and this was one of the best that I have ever seen."
Craft said the common denominator that he shared with the command personneland his colleague Dwight Williams back home was the culture shock of being in a situation where lighting a major fuel storage fire was preferable to putting one out.
"It was alien to my being and my education," Craft said. "I had to turn my hat around and think about 'What do we do to light one off and keep it burning?' Extinguishing them is our real business. We had to laugh about that."
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.