Firefighters mount a foam attack on the blazing aftermath of an industrial reactor explosion. - Photo by Mark Treglio.

Firefighters mount a foam attack on the blazing aftermath of an industrial reactor explosion.

Photo by Mark Treglio.

A voice pleading on a cell phone forced firefighters to risk entering the blazing T2 Laboratories complex soon after a reactor processing six tons of gasoline additive blew apart, said hazardous materials responder Kurt Wilson.

"He said he was trapped by the fire," Wilson said. "We had people trying to find him but they couldn't."

Only one option remained -- mount a quick attack with foam, not to extinguish the fire but to open a window through the flames to locate the badly injured worker, said Wilson, a captain with the Jacksonville (FL) Fire and Rescue Department's hazardous materials team.

Debris from the December 2007 reactive chemical explosion at T2 Laboratories landed up to a mile away, a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report states. Businesses within a quarter mile radius were badly damaged, including four buildings that were ultimately condemned.

Four T2 personnel died. Four other T2 employees and 28 workers at nearby businesses were also injured.

Responders arriving at a disaster scene such as T2 usually depend on personnel on site to gain a quick grasp of the hazards involved, Wilson said.

"When we arrived 100 percent of the workers were killed, trapped or en route to the hospital," he said.

Come Together

The explosion is captured by an infrared camera more than four miles away. The cooling towers to the right of the blast belong to a nearby power station. - Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

The explosion is captured by an infrared camera more than four miles away. The cooling towers to the right of the blast belong to a nearby power station.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

Covering 840 square miles, Jacksonville is the largest city in land and water area in the contiguous United States. The Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department is the country's 14th largest fire department. A staff of 1,200 firefighters and emergency medical personnel protects a population of 850,000. Jacksonville, a major transportation hub, is home to a wide variety of industries.

"Jacksonville is an industrial city," Wilson said. "There is no way to keep up with every process in use."

The St. Johns River that splits the city also divides the JFRD into two battalions. Battalion 1 is east and south of the river while Battalion 2 is northwest. Nine district chiefs administer the city's 53 districts, each with its own station and engine. JFRD also has 12 ladder trucks and more than 30 ambulances, referred to as rescues.

Each battalion also has its own hazardous materials team, Wilson said. Station 21, located on Jacksonville's south side, serves Battalion 1, while Station 7, located in northwest Jacksonville, serves Battalion 2.

"On the small stuff like gasoline spills at car accidents we operate separately," he said. "On the big stuff we come together. T2 obviously qualified for that."

On the afternoon of Dec. 19, T2 Laboratories and JFRD Station 7 personnel found themselves working with radically different recipes.

 At T2 Laboratories, workers closely monitored a batch of specialty gasoline additive being processed in a 12-foot high reactor vessel. Since January 2004, the refurbished batch reactor had been used 174 times to make the same additive.

Meanwhile, on the fifth floor of the Wolfson Children's Hospital the Station 7 hazmat team prepared to serve ice cream to the patients and staff in the cancer ward. Organized by a retired firefighter, the quarterly ice cream social had been a tradition for the haz mat responders for nearly four years.

 At 1:33 p.m., the reactor vessel at T2 exploded. Light from the blast was so intense that it blanked out video captured by an infrared surveillance camera four miles away for nearly 12 second. Then a slow, steady mushroom cloud is seen rising on a column of smoke that soon dwarfs the 640-foot tall cooling towers of a nearby power plant.

Neither the sound nor concussion reached the children's hospital 15 miles away. A rush of confused traffic on the haz mat team's radios was the first indication of trouble. First reports linked the explosion to a transformer at the power plant. Another report involved an airplane crashing into the cooling towers.

Finally, an off duty district chief nearby responded to the scene, tracing the blast back to T2.

"He told the dispatcher 'This is going to a second alarm real quickly,'" Wilson said. "He said 'I'm at a chemical plant with multiple BLEVEs and explosions. I've got people injured." He also asked for a haz mat response, Wilson said.

Since T2 is in Batallion 2, Station 7 caught the call. The haz mat team, including Lt. Todd Smith and Lt. Chris Woods, made hasty apologies at the hospital and headed for their emergency vehicles.

"We were downtown and T2 Laboratories is on the northside," Woods said. "It was probably a 15 to 20 minute response easily."

Station 7 arrived at T2 to find the five-acre facility divided into three main bodies of fire, he said. No water was being applied because of concern about the water reactive nature of chemicals known to be on site.

Reactors used to blend solvents were venting to the atmosphere. However, the reactor that was the source of the blast was now scattered over a one mile radius.

Two large steel support columns traveled about 1,000 feet in opposite directions. A 2,000-pound section of the three-inch thick reactor head damaged a building 400 feet away. The four-inch diameter agitator shaft from the reactor imbedded itself in a sidewalk 350 feet from the reactor.

Pressure fires were apparent throughout the facility. BLEVEs involving trapped product continued to take place.  

"We had a couple of tractor trailers on fire," Woods said. "We had a stack of conex shipping containers with fire and smoke coming from them. We had flame impingement on two MC-306 tankers. We also had a tube trailer on fire with the pressure release device going off." Private vehicles in the parking lot were also burning.

Smoke from the fire carried an extremely acrid odor, Woods said. Haz mat responders broke out air monitoring equipment and weather stations to track wind direction. Firefighters donned full bunker gear complete with self-contained breathing apparatus.

Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act

Flames at T2 Laboratories threaten tankers and tube trailers parked at the site. - Photo by Steve Gerbert.

Flames at T2 Laboratories threaten tankers and tube trailers parked at the site.

Photo by Steve Gerbert.

No one was sure what various chemicals were involved, the haz mat responders said. Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) annual reporting from facilities storing or processing substances listed as extremely hazardous is required. These facilities must submit annual reports, known as Tier II reports, to the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) and local emergency planning committees (LEPCs), listing the substances and quantities on site.

Other than the gasoline additive involved in the blast, T2 Laboratories, Inc., a small privately-owned corporation, concentrated primarily on blending solvents used in the printing industry. Other than issues of inherent flammability, these solvents remained non reactive when blended into solution as needed.

Manufacturing methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MCMT, also known as MMT), an organomanganese compound used as an octane-increasing gasoline additive, was T2's sole reactive chemical process. Of the chemicals on site at T2, only MCMT is listed as an extremely hazardous substance under EPCRA.

"We pulled up T2's web page and all we got was MSDSs of what went into their end product," Wilson said. "It was like looking at a bunch of LEGOs and trying to figure out what it looked like when it was put together."

A U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board report issued in September 2009 states that T2 had not yet filed its annual Tier II report for the 2007 reporting year. T2 failed to list MCMT on its previous Tier II reports, despite producing thousands of pounds per batch and storing thousands more pounds prior to shipment offsite. The incomplete report failed to warn responders that MCMT is toxic by ingestion, inhalation and skin absorption.

Smith said that only one of the workers at T2 was in any shape to be interviewed by responders after the blast. He talked while being treated in the back of an ambulance.

"He kept saying the name of the product was MMT," Smith said. "He never told the full name. So we used Google to search for MMT." The NIOSH pocket guide revealed that MMT was a Class IIIB combustible liquid with a flash point at or above 200 degrees F.

Also stored in large amounts on site was water reactive sodium used in the manufacture of MCMT. Based on the chemicals that T2 reported storing, JFRD conducted hazardous materials response drills for emergencies involving sodium metal since it requires specialized fire fighting strategies.

"We keyed on these 50 pound bricks of sodium more because of the Tier II reporting," Wilson said. "There were tons of this stuff packed in 55-gallon drums with mineral oil. We were looking at that more than the end product." Large quantities of chemical solvents were also stored on site.

While the main end product at T2 remained a mystery, many JFRD responders were far too familiar with the location. Under previous ownership, the chemical manufacturing facility was site of a chemical explosion and fire in June 1998 that forced an area evacuation.

"The stuff they made back then was ten times worse," Wilson said. "They were making pesticides. The owner met the first arriving engine at the gate and said 'Don't enter -- it's not worth your life.' He said 'Whatever it's going to do, let it do.'" Firefighters took the owner's advice and let the fire burn itself out.

It soon became clear that a full haz mat response would be necessary, bringing Station 21 to the scene as well, Wilson said.

Full Response

Billowing flames dwarf the woods near the T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville. - Photo by Steve Gerbert.

Billowing flames dwarf the woods near the T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville.

Photo by Steve Gerbert.

"When we got there the incident commander had basically declared the fenced area of the property a hot zone," he said. "They basically handed it over to us – 'Here's what we've got, so handle it.'"

A better reconnaissance was needed. Smith led a small group through the gates and into the flames. Hose lines protected the responders from the fire. Fortunately, the nearly windless day allowed the smoke to rise straight up, aiding visibility. Woods armed himself with a 30-pound extinguisher filled with Purple K. Another responder sketched out the location of tanks and building, in particular noting the markings on the tanks.

The firefighters made a clockwise circuit of the property, walking in a semi-crouch. Around them, the explosions continued. Fifty-five gallon drums of chemical would suddenly launch themselves high into the sky.

Of primary concern was the injured survivor using his cell phone to communicate with responders from somewhere in the heart of the fire. He had been one of three outside operators ordered away from the overpressurized reactor moments before the explosion.

"He said he was next to the office surrounded by fire," Wilson said. "We were thinking he had to be trapped where all this fire was coming from."

After about 10 minutes, the reconnaissance team backed out. Firefighters now had a better concept of the complex and the chemicals involved. However, the injured operator was still missing.

Firefighters formulated a rescue plan. Using a quick foam attack, firefighters hoped to open a path into the burning facility long enough to reach the injured worker. Jacksonville haz mat units are equipped with 240 gpm foam nozzles and eductors, Smith said.

Alcohol-resistant foam was used because of the polar solvents involved. To back up the JFRD supply, a crash truck from the U.S. Naval Air Station Mayport Fire Department was dispatched. The Jacksonville International Airport Fire Department responded as well.

"Initially, we drove the fire back to the reactor site," Woods said. "We got the exposures under control first. We had two foam lines established and used water and foam to protect the MC-306 trailers. Once those were under control, we went up the center of the yard, turned around and came back down the middle to get to the core reaction that was burning."

Aside from the 2½-inch hose lines, the firefighters used Purple K extinguishers to handle various pressure fires from damaged flanges and ruptured gas lines. Runoff from the hose lines mostly drained into a large retention pond on site.

"When water got into a conex box containing sodium the pop always got your attention," Woods said. "Those 55-gallon drums of dry sodium bounded off the inside of the containers."

Responders finally located the injured operator, but nowhere near where he was thought to be, Wilson said.

"He was blown about 200 feet away from the reactor out into the woods," he said. "Because he was losing blood he went into shock. Although the fire was advancing on him he was not near the office as he thought."

The operator lost both legs due to the explosion. Two fellow operators moving away from the reactor were killed, cut in half by the blast. A company co-owner and a process engineer died in the control room about 50 feet from the reactor.

A plant mechanic also suffered injuries in the explosion. A shipping container shielded T2's other co-owner from the blast, but he suffered a non-fatal heart attack during the incident.

With the dead and injured accounted for, the operation at T2 turned into a fire fight, Wilson said. In about 45 minutes firefighters knocked down the bulk of the fire. As a final precaution, foam was injected into the boilers to extinguish internal fires.

"Fortunately, the fire went out rather quickly," Wilson said. "After that, it became a much more manageable haz mat event."


A 2,000-pound portion of the three-inch thick reactor was hurled 400 feet. - Photo by Steve Gerbert.

A 2,000-pound portion of the three-inch thick reactor was hurled 400 feet.

Photo by Steve Gerbert.

Three hours after the blast a company representative was finally located who could address the specific material on site.

"The wife of one of the co-owners was Christmas shopping and showed up because she heard there had been a chemical plant explosion on the north side," Wilson said. "She was also one of the plant's chemical engineers. That was the first time we started getting some answers."

SWS First Response, an environmental services company, contracted to take charge of remediation at the site the following day. JFRD turned responsibility for the site over to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office who conducted an investigation to determine the possibility of foul play.

"We maintained an incident command presence for the next five days," Wilson said. "Our big chore was to get the investigators and evidence technicians trained and suited up in Level A."

After the T2 explosion and fire, JFRD decided to convert its entire stock of fire fighting form to an alcohol resistant brand, he said. The only exception is an 8,000 gallon foam tanked containing AFFF.

Wilson often addresses the T2 accident when asked to speak to process safety engineering committees and other industrial safety organizations.

"I ask everybody to give me a worst case scenario," he said. "Somebody will say 'Well, this tank could blow up.' That's not worse case, I tell them. Keep going. If somebody says 'Everybody is dead, trapped or gone and there is nobody on scene to give me any information,' that's a worse case scenario."

The solution Wilson proposes is for management to compile all Tier II reports, MSDSs and a site safety plan to be downloaded onto a thumb drive. That drive is then placed in a rapid entry or KNOX-BOX accessible to the fire department.

"Most places have ordinances stating that if your business is behind a locked gate you have to install a KNOX-BOX to which the fire department has a key," Wilson said. "Most fire departments now have laptops available on their vehicles."

 No proprietary information need be included. The information on the drive can be password protected so that it is only available to the fire department, he said. It can also be regularly updated.

"The problem with CHEMTREC is they can't tell me what is in this particular atmospheric tank or what is in those conex boxes over there," Wilson said. "I had two tube trailers burning with no idea of the product inside. It turned out to be carbon monoxide, which can still be toxic."

Today, T2 Laboratories exists only as a web site that has never been taken down. The remaining owner who survived a heart attack after the blast died only weeks before the final CSB report was issued.

"It's kind of a sad story," Wilson said. "All the workers at T2 said they were treated like family."

Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.