Nebraska City, Nebraska, Mayor Jo Dee Adelung raced to the localemergency room upon learning that 13 volunteer firefighters responding to a stubborn fire at the EnTire Recycling Inc. tire recycling facility had been injured in an explosion.
"It was the phone call that a mayor never wants to get," Adelung said. "It was the chief of police who called to tell me we had firefighters down. I hate to think of how quickly I drove from my office to the hospital."
What she found at the emergency room gave her even greater reason for concern. From head to foot, the firefighters were completely black.
"I can't even describe that emotion," Adelung said. "They were just bringing them in. I thought they were burned."
Then one of the firefighters gave her a smile and a thumbs-up. No one had been burned. What gave that impression was a course black grit the consistency of gun powder — pulverized rubber from the recycling center.
The fire and explosion at EnTire sent a shock through this community of 7,200. In the midst of an ongoing emergency beyond any local experience, the active duty roster of the 45-member Nebraska City Volunteer Fire Department had been suddenly, if temporarily, reduced to 32. That emergency would last more than 10 days.
Fortunately, Nebraska City found friends who were just as concerned. The federal Environmental Protection Agency under the National Contingency Plan has the authority to mobilize experts and resources to immediately respond to critical, hazardous substance and oil threats or releases. EPA's goal is to make the responsible parties clean up their own spills. But when a responsible party does not have adequate resources available or is not willing to respond in a timelyfashion, the EPA has the authority to respond without delay, with liability issues addressed later.
The insurance company representing EnTire paid to have Williams Fire & Hazard Control brought in as consultants on the fire. But to better address the many issues arising from the unusual fire, the EPA decided to contract directly with Williams F&HC.
"It was a real concern for all of us here because one of the alternatives wouldhave been to let it burn," Adelung said. "Then you really would spend day after day worrying about the wind direction."
At 2:54 a.m. on Jan. 23, 2002, a 73-year-old woman living on the fifth floor of a retirement center noticed what appeared to be fog. Then she spotted flames rising from the four 64-foot tall storage silos at the nearby recycling facility.
Originally, these silos were built for the same reason as many such structures across Nebraska — to hold grain. These particular silos had been converted to industrial use when the facility overlooking the Missouri River became a tire recycling center in 1995. Instead of grain, the EnTire silos were filled with used tire rubber cut into pieces two inches square and some ground into a 20-mesh powder form. In turn, this was used to make artificial turf for sports stadiums.
These silos were different in another important way. Modern silos are built from corrugated metal. But these, typical of those built in the 1940s and 1950s, were constructed from 4-foot by 8-foot sections of solid steel plate. That steel would require special tools to penetrate when the time came, said Larry Wiles, a 32-year veteran of the Nebraska City VFD. He is also a fire resource manager with the Nebraska Forest Service.
Sub-freezing temperatures were reported all 10 days of the emergency save one. On Wednesday the 23rd, the weather was a brisk 26 degrees Fahrenheit at its coldest. Factor in the wind chill, and the temperature on exposed skin plunged to 11 degrees F. The northwesterly winds were blowing away from the town and across the Missouri River at 11 to 19 miles per hour. The temperature never climbed higher than 50 degrees the entire 10 days.
Nebraska's oldest fire department, established 1856, faced its biggest fire in 1860 when 60 downtown buildings were destroyed. The initial response to EnTire Recycling was two engines, an aerial tower, a heavy rescue unit and an EMS unit. Mutual aid assistance was immediately summoned from the nearby towns of Syracuse, Dunbar and Plattsmouth. About 25 area fire departments provided mutual aid assistance during the long-term emergency.
Firefighters had responded to small fires at the recycling center before, Wiles said. While this fire gave reason for concern, it was hardly dramatic. Gray smoke rose from the complex of four 28-foot-diameter silos topped by a small building known as a head house. Some flames were showing at the top and at the base. One of the first steps was to place a temporary dike between the silos and the Missouri River to catch any runoff. Meanwhile, calls went in to state officials and, by 6 a.m., three deputy fire marshals were on scene as well.
"Our attitude throughout the operation was 'Let's analyze this and see what thebest way is to approach it,'" Wiles said.
Wiles was out of town but heard about the fire on the morning radio news. What he found when he arrived at noon did not resemble an active fire scene as much asan after-the-fire overhaul. Plant workers used a Bobcat to remove rubber from asilo a bit at a time, then wet it down. Figuring out a way to reach the flames still inside the filled silos was proving difficult.
"That was one of the most frustrating things about this fire," Wiles said. "You could look in the access at the base of the silos and see the fire, but you couldn't reach it to put it out."
Consulting with the plant owners, firefighters drafted a plan. As part of the production process, liquid nitrogen was used to freeze the tires to make it easier to cut them into small pieces. The owners advised pumping nitrogen vapor into the silos, rendering the atmosphere inside incapable of sustaining combustion. No oxygen, no fire. The southeast tank was first to be tackled.
According to Wiles, concern about strange activity in the silo led to an order to pull back from the fire.
"It belched some flame, then sucked it back in," Wiles said. "Then it did it a second time. The chief (incident commander Alan Viox) didn't like the looks of it and told everybody to pull out. The hose crew standing beside the silo entrance turned to back out. The blast blew them across the ground."
A cold explosion of rubber pieces and particles burst from the access opening,showering a 350-foot area. Soft rubber projectiles splattered and stuck to the fireequipment. The firefighters were struck by two-inch pieces, some with wire from shredded steel belted radials still embedded in them. Of the 25 responders on thescene, half were sent to the hospital for treatment. Three required admission.
"One firefighter had a compound fracture of his right leg," Wiles said. "Another had a fractured ankle. A third one was wearing his SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) when he was hit in the face. It broke his face shield and gave him a fractured cheekbone." None of the firefighters were burned.
Black pulverized rubber covered everyone, Wiles said. It reminded him of the days when fire departments wore black fire coats, he said.
Upon word of the explosion, the local hospital administrator called the Lincoln, Nebraska, Fire Department to line up extra ambulances if the local fleet of four was overwhelmed. He also notified the state's leading burn trauma center in Lincoln.
"It just happened that the state Department of Health was conducting an inspection as to the hospital's disaster preparedness," Wiles said. "The hospital passed with flying colors."
Wiles called Omaha himself to request that the medical helicopter service be puton standby if needed. Instead, Omaha dispatched the helicopter immediately for the 18-minute trip to Nebraska City.
"Their policy is they don't go on standby," Wiles said. "They would rather have the helicopter on its way and recall it in flight if necessary." The medical helicopter in Lincoln, also 18 minutes away, was also alerted.
The silos continued to burn. Worse, the two south silos were beginning to lean. From a gradual shift of inches per hour, the increasing angle was now apparent to everyone.
"That ruled out putting anybody on top to fight the fire," Wiles said. "The head house on top of the silos was even shifting out of position."
People identify the Environmental Protection Agency with air and water quality. However, the Nebraska City fire illustrates a lesser known area of authority for the agency — its responsibility under the Oil Pollution Act to address oil releases into a waterway. A tire can generate at least one gallon of oil when it burns. The EnTire facility stood very close to the Missouri River. Therefore, EPA responded to the threat.
At 6:37 p.m. officials with the Region 7 office of the EPA in Kansas City, Kansas,arrived in Nebraska City. In touch with local emergency management officials since the fire was first reported, EPA officials were concerned about runoff polluting the Missouri River, said federal on-scene coordinator (OSC) Janice Kroone. EPA also brought an air monitoring contractor assigned to test the air quality.
With a dike in place to protect the Missouri and favorable winds blowing away from residents, attention turned to financial issues. The cost of emergency operations at the recycling center would soon exceed the maximum insurance coverage. The owners had no other monetary resources to assist with the response beyond that. With the need for specialized help to extinguish the fire, the price tag was still going up.
"It was determined that the cost for this response would far exceed funds available to the local fire department," Kroone said.
As early as Jan. 24, EPA's emergency response cleanup contractor, IT Group, had been in touch with Williams F&HC in Mauriceville, Texas. Then the insurance company contacted them.
"When it became apparent that the EPA needed to take the 'whole fight' responsibility, we hired Williams under EPA auspices to do the firefighting," Kroone said.
Williams F&HC made its mark in fighting tire fires when its successfully extinguished flames sweeping through seven million tires stored in a canyon near Wesley, California, in September 1999 (see page 146). Williams F&HC extinguished the fire in 27 days when experts predicted it might take as long as a year.
The fire in Nebraska City would be much different. Dwight Williams, president of Williams F&HC, said he has great respect for any fire burning uncontrolled in a confined space.
"Fighting fire is always dangerous, but anytime you have confined spaces such as warehouses or silos, then the notch goes up about three or four times as far as risk," Williams said.
Before Williams could arrive, events transpiring at EnTire continued to affect the community. The EnTire complex consisted of four silos in the center and two steel buildings measuring 300 feet long and 100 feet wide extending north and south. The south building served as receiving for used tires, which were immediately ground up and shipped to the north building by conveyor belt. There the rubber was ground down further into black powder.
Fire spread along the conveyor belts into the north building. On Friday afternoon, a change in the wind direction caused a smoldering fire under a conveyor belt at the south end of the north building to reignite. A fireball resulted that spread flames throughout that portion of the building. Officials chose to evacuate part of the town for nearly five hours.
Williams and associate Chauncey Naylor arrived at 1 p.m. Saturday. At this point, Williams F&HC was only consulting on extinguishing the fire. Still, Williams followed his established procedure of first walking completely around the fire ground.
"What I saw was a lot of black smoke and rubber," Williams said. "There were flames around the bottom of the silos and burning out the top. The silos were pretty much intact at that point, but it was obvious that their structural integrity had been damaged to some degree."
Once the EPA engaged Williams F&HC to extinguish the fire, Williams's first action was to stop the spread of fire into the north building. He and the Nebraska City Fire Department tackled the fire with hand-held hoses and a fresh supply of 1X3 Thunderstorm ATC fire foam, pushing the fire out of the building.
"We basically played defense until our equipment arrived," Williams said.
The Williams F&HC equipment list included a 3,500-gpm pump, a 2,500-gpm pump, 3,000 feet of five-inch hose, 3,000 feet of three-inch hose, 3,000 feet of 1¾-inch hose, a five-inch monitor with a 2,000-gpm foam nozzle, six 2½-inch monitors with foam nozzles and 3,200 gallons of "Class B" AFFF foam. Williams F&HC brought in eight firefighters together with logistics control and document specialist Randy Williams.
Local firefighters had pushed their own equipment as far as it would go, Wiles said.
"Then we switched to using Dwight Williams's equipment because it was just bigger. Typically, one of our firefighters works with a 1½-inch or 2½-inch hose. Dwight brought in nozzles fed with a five-inch hose."
While waiting for that equipment to arrive, the fire operation at the recycling center fell into an aggravating routine, Wiles said.
"We'd have a day of excitement, then a day where nothing happened, then aday of excitement and the next day nothing," Wiles said.
On the fifth day, the winds shifted from northwesterly to west-by-northwest,sending smoke into the town. Of principle concern was a six-story apartment complex catering to elderly residents. Officials issued a warning that the elderlyand those with upper respiratory conditions should stay clear of the smoke. "Some people were out of their residences up to a week," Kroone said.
The location and layout of the burning facility created other problems for officials. Union Pacific, with tracks running past the EnTire facility, checked the status of the fire on an almost hourly basis. When trains were allowed through, it was noticed that the rumbling caused the silos to lean even more. Depending on what direction the silos fell, important power lines were threatened. On the bright side, for once Williams F&HC did not have to stretch far to reach water. The plant site was on top of one of the city's biggest mains. Williams had access to three hydrants that each flowed more than 3,000 gpm.
On Jan. 28, before any of the new equipment could be put into service, two of the four silos toppled. Strangely enough, that worked to the firefighters' advantage, making the burning product inside more easily accessible. Environmental Solutions, Inc., an EPA contractor, used its own heavy equipment to pull out the twisted metal. The firefighters then dampened the burning rubber with a foam/water solution. After that, it was moved to a nearby concrete foundation where it was spread out and allowed to cool overnight. Finally it would be removed for safe disposal in a landfill.
"Of course, now you had to go in to empty the fallen towers and hope the other towers don't fall on top of you too," Williams said.
By Feb. 1, Williams F&HC and ESI were in a position with manpower and equipment to move in on the silos still standing. Breaking through the metal shell was the first order of business. ESI used a trackhoe that was specially adapted by replacing the bucket with a rake. Long metal teeth protruding from the rake punctured the silos, then were dragged down the side to tear a new opening.
"ESI (under the direction of Williams F&HC) cut a hole right down to the product level, and the burning tire pieces poured out of the silo," Naylor said "We found we could dump the top of the pile to the atmosphere and quench it as it came out."
What also poured out was a "river of fire," Naylor said. But sometimes that rubbery powder bound together to make what Williams called a "klunker," a big hard ball of rubber. Once outside, the rubber was drenched, flattened, removed to the concrete foundation, then drenched and worked again before being removed for disposal. The EPA estimates that at least 2,000 tons of ground or pulverized rubber was removed from the silos and taken to landfills.
Adding a further degree of difficulty to the operation was a two-day snowstorm that dumped more than 10 inches on Nebraska City. The recorded low temperature for Feb. 1 was 1-degree Fahrenheit with a wind chill factor of -24 degrees. The high for the day was 14 degrees.
"We'd never seen water freeze into ice so close to a fire," Williams said. A Daspit Tool is a portable monitor designed to be mounted on the shell of a burning storage tank. Using a land stand version of the Daspit Tool spared the Williams F&HC personnel from crouching on the frozen ground. Nothing could spare the hose and pumps, though. If the flow of water stopped for any length of time it would freeze solid. The only recourse then was to let it thaw out inside the heated fire station.
"Standard fire hose would just bend and break when you tried to move it," Naylor said. "Hose with a polyester woven jacket on it just folded right up. We just took it to the fire house, hung it up and thawed it out."
Local volunteer firefighters more experienced in handling the icy conditions were temporarily hired by Williams to supplement his own crew. "They did a good job," Williams said.
At 10:50 a.m. Feb. 3, the fire was officially declared extinguished. After four days on the scene setting up operations, Dwight Williams was already back at his Mauriceville headquarters.
"My big concern throughout the whole operation was that we have so manycompanies in the oil business that depend on us to respond quickly," Williams said. "I only have three teams and two of them were in Nebraska City."
For the EPA, the job was far from over. Throughout the emergency the agencyhad trucked collected runoff water to Omaha for treatment. During the emergency,runoff had also collected in an underground portion of the silos. That runoff would also have to be transported to Omaha.
In Texas, those tall structures that farmers fill with grain are called silos. In Nebraska, the same structure is often called a bin. Throughout the operation this was the only disagreement between city officials, the EPA and Williams F&HC. "The people who do this work and the people who rely on them are starting toget more comfortable with each other," Williams said. "There is a new level of respect."
Both Mayor Adelung and Williams had positive things to say about the EPA. Adelung said the EPA was cooperative and genuinely concerned. The safety and well-being of the community was its primary concern. Williams said the EPA kept a tight rein on the entire emergency. Meetings to discuss proposed action were well planned and made people feel comfortable to put their ideas on the table.
As for the community, Nebraska City and the neighboring towns that responded to the EnTire fire all showed a positive spirit throughout the emergency, Williams said. In particular, local firefighters were well trained and enthusiastic to help.
Although relieved by the decision to bring in outside experts, Adelung said she was apprehensive about how well they would work with local firefighters. That concern quickly fell by the wayside.
"It was very apparent that Williams was impressed with our firefighters and thejob they had done up to that point," Adelung said. "They wanted our input and they wanted our firefighters to be involved in extinguishing the fire — to finish the job they had started. Williams handled the situation wonderfully.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.