Chasing an orange glow in the distance is nothing unusual for a rural Wisconsin firefighter, said Brownsville Fire Company's assistant chief Paul Hoff. Typically, it means some dairy farmer cut his winter hay too green and now, thanks to spontaneous combustion, his burning barn is lighting the night sky.
But the glow that Hoff chased on July 12, 2002, was peculiar in its intensity. At a massive printing plant complex in neighboring Lomira Township, nearly half of a 110-foot-tall mechanized storage system had suddenly collapsed, igniting tons of unfinished magazines and catalogues stacked inside.
As ranking officer of the first department on the scene, Hoff served as incident commander throughout the 10 days it took to completely extinguish the Lomira fire. Strangely enough, Hoff said he found fighting barn fires to be good training for this emergency.
"If a mound of hay catches fire in a farmer's barn you aren't going to put that fire out until you get rid of the hay," Hoff said. "This was no different except that we had to get rid of that mass of paper."
From across Southeastern Wisconsin, volunteer fire departments banded together to conquer an industrial disaster so unique that no pre-plan could ever hope to encompass it. These firefighters mastered a rapidly evolving once-in-a-lifetime situation that would prove daunting to the best paid, best equipped big city department anywhere.
The Lomira plant, located one hour north of Milwaukee, is a lonely outcropping of industry surrounded by corn fields. Opened in 1985, the plant eventually expanded to a sprawling 2 million-square-foot complex consisting of 14 buildings, most of them adjoining. By 2002, employment at the plant reached 1,800 jobs. It is reputed to be the largest printing facility in the Western hemisphere.
Save for the water tower, most of the Lomira plant is built close to the ground. Then came Building 15, also known as the ASRS (Automated Storage and Retrieval System). Shooting skyward nearly 10 stories, the ASRS dwarfed everything on the plant site. At its base, the ASRS measured 80 feet wide by 770 feet long. Along its length it adjoined almost the entire west side of the printing plant.
ASRS facilities are becoming increasingly common in industry. Basically, an ASRS is an automated, computerized system that minimizes floor space required for storage. Instead of a horizontal layout, these facilities operate vertically. A computer controls the inventory, moving it through the system by means of conveyors and lifts. Using the Lomira ASRS, an operator places a pallet loaded with unbound magazines or catalogs on a conveyor and 'shoots' a bar code attached to it. The computer then stores the pallet based on the coded information.
Inside the Lomira ASRS stood 12 scaffold-like racks, each standing as tall as the system itself. Using the wide aisle between the racks, automated trucks loaded and unload product. Human activity was limited to 30-foot bay sections at either end of the ASRS where pallets were placed on the conveyors.
"You could stand at the bottom of the ASRS and see all the way to the roof," Hoff said.
Outside, Building 15, like the protective sheet metal cover on a vacuum cleaner, served as a shell, not a shelter. The exterior metal skirting was attached directly to the racks of the ASRS with no visible supports. Building 15 and the ASRS were one in the same.
Computer-to-press printing introduced in the 1990s greatly streamlined the production of inserts, catalogs and magazines. With greater volumes of printed material to handle and store, the owners of the Lomira plant had invested in such automated racking systems at other locations. However, the 60,000 square-foot ASRS built in Lomira was larger than any of those previous systems.
By mid-July, the ASRS had been in operation three months. During that time problems surfaced with the ASRS construction, according to reports released by the Dodge County Sheriff's Office. The reports state that cracks in the welds of the racking system had been discovered and were under repair.
Fully loaded, the ASRS could hold 31,000 pallets of printed material. At the time of the collapse, it was estimated to have been about 75-80 percent full.
The first report to authorities about the collapse came not from the printing plant but from a neighbor about half a mile west. At 9:33 p.m. the Dodge County Sheriff's Office paged the Brownsville Fire Company with information that an explosion and building collapse had occurred at the plant. When that page came in, Hoff was standing in his kitchen across the street from the station.
"We're lucky in that a handful of our volunteers live within running distance of the station," Hoff said. "Our response time is pretty good."
Founded in 1912, the Brownsville Fire Company is a non-profit corporation that contracts to provide fire protection in Brownsville, population 450. In addition, BFC provides fire protection for 12 sections of surrounding Lomira Township, 12 sections of Leroy Township and eight sections of Byron Township in neighboring Fond du Lac County. (In Wisconsin, counties are subdivided into townships, usually consisting of 36 one-square-mile sections.) BFC membership is divided between the fire protection and first responder divisions. Of 38 active members, 20 are classified as fire protection, seven are first responders and 11 belong to both divisions.
As for equipment, BFC operates two 1,500-gpm pumpers with 750-gallon and 500-gallon tanks, respectively; two 3,500-gallon tankers and a 100-foot aerial with a 1,000 gpm pump.
"We got our first aerial about a dozen years ago when we were looking for an equipment truck," Hoff said. "The chief said 'Let's look at an aerial. We can store a lot of equipment on it and have the use of the aerial device, plus more ground ladders.'"
Uses for the aerial device itself are limited in a town as small as Brownsville, Hoff said. However, being one of the few small departments in the region with an aerial to borrow has its advantages. BFC usually has no trouble getting the loan of equipment it might need such as portable pumps and lighting generators, Hoff said.
BFC also uses a four-wheel drive pickup truck for a first responder rig complete with medical and vehicle extrication equipment. It has a 250 gpm pump with 300 gallons of water for use as a quick attack rig. It would be the first vehicle on the scene after the ASRS collapse.
"People were already at the station dressing in their turnout gear when I got there," Hoff said. "I said 'I'm going to drive up there first and let you know what we've got.'"
Before leaving the station, the Dodge County dispatcher reported a fire as well as a collapse at the scene. The three miles between the station and the plant is almost all uphill, Hoff said. About halfway there he noticed a glow that resembled a barn fire from a distance.
"That's when I started calling for mutual aid from our three neighboring departments, Lomira, Knowles and Theresa, even before I got to the plant," Hoff said.
When Hoff crested the hill, he was shocked by what he saw. Or, rather, what he didn't see.
"The call came across as a building collapse, but I didn't know what had collapsed," Hoff said. "From the top of the hill you should be able to see this 100-foot structure. I couldn't see it."
Only the south half of the ASRS had come down. Arriving nine minutes after the first page, Hoff was the first firefighter on the scene. Plant employees directed him to a parking lot at the south end of Building 15. Structural steel, metal skirting and burning paper stretched nearly 350 feet in a heap nearly 30 feet tall. Almost all of the estimated 25,000 pallets of printed material stored in the ASRS had come down in the collapse.
With Brownsville Chief Jeffrey Bloohm out of town, Hoff immediately took charge as incident command. Compensating for the lack of a formal pre-plan, several of the Brownsville firefighters, including Hoff, have extensive knowledge of the facility as employees there.
"Because I'm an electrician I'm knowledgable about the entire plant, not just one section," Hoff said.
The initial attack was defensive. The Brownsville aerial was positioned on the west side of Building 15 as far north as possible. This proved difficult because the parking lot was only 60 feet wide. Parked cars and debris further restricted how far north the aerial could be positioned. Beyond the parking lot were corn fields that would be impossible to cross with fire trucks. Worst of all, the danger of the still standing portion of the ASRS collapsing put anyone attempting an attack from the north in jeopardy.
"We could get at it from the south end, but we couldn't throw water far enough to do much good," Hoff said. "There were a lot of BTUs being given off and we couldn't faze it."
One of the 1,500 gpm pumpers laid 5-inch LDH from the aerial to the closest hydrant about 300 feet away. Firefighters raised the aerial and began flowing from the tower ladder. Another crew laid two 2½-inch lines from the other pumper north 250 feet to the northern most point of the collapse, careful to stay clear of any further collapse. Ground monitors were attached to the 2½ -inch lines.
Lomira Fire Department was the first mutual aid department to arrive. At this point Hoff had no idea what was happening on the north end of Building 15. He instructed Lomira VFD to take positions east of the north end, size up the situation, start whatever suppression they deemed necessary and report back. Knowles Fire Department was the next to arrive, staging on the south end to assist BFC. A crew from Knowles was sent into the adjacent building east of the ASRS to check for fire extension. Theresa Fire Department arrived shortly after Knowles and staged on the south end with BFC.
"It is important to point out that even though I was incident command, the chief officers of the first mutual departments to arrive, Lomira, Knowles and Theresa, assisted greatly to make the incident work out the way it did," Hoff said. "With their help and usually without my asking things just seemed to get done. It looked as if the officers involved got things done as if we have worked together for years. In some cases, we have. Everything was taken care of from accountability, safety, calling for more mutual aid, staging and rehab to taking care of the media."
In some places burning debris rested directly against the firewall protecting the adjacent building.
"It got so hot on the opposite side of that firewall that you couldn't hold your hand against it in some places," Hoff said. "I know because we monitored it closely."
Not wanting to compromise the firewall, firefighters had ground level access from the east at only one location — a doorway that once linked the ASRS to the rest of the plant. Firefighters dragged 1,000 feet of 4-inch hose through the plant to reach the location. The surviving portion of the plant was also threatened by flaming debris that had landed on the roof. Handlines established on the roof extinguished those fires, then were turned on the collapsed building.
Despite the fire, the first priority was rescue. Since the collapse occurred at night and in a highly automated area no reason existed to expect a large number of casualties, Hoff said.
"There was confusion at the scene but nothing that couldn't be controlled," Hoff said. "A lot of people who worked at the plant were concerned about people they knew but couldn't find after the collapse."
Hoff said he asked management to immediately evacuate the remainder of the facility in order to conduct a thorough head count. Anticipating the worst, BFC Lt. Mike Sterr, first responder coordinator, requested ambulances respond to the scene from as far away as Fond du Lac, 15 miles away. He also requested two medical helicopters from Milwaukee and Madison. Within an hour, management returned with the news that all 330 employees on the site at the time of the collapse had been accounted for.
However, the news was not entirely good. Eyewitnesses confirmed one fatality. A young man from nearby Fond du Lac working under contract as a janitor had just finished his shift when the collapse occurred. He was a passenger in a friend's car parked about 250 feet from the south end of Building 15. A co-worker had left a pack of cigarettes in the car and they were dropping them off at the co-worker's vehicle.
The janitor's friend, who escaped unharmed, told investigators that he leapt from the car when he heard a loud noise. The young janitor was still inside when the ASRS crashed down into the parking lot. Firefighters confirmed that the young man was dead, but the body was pinned inside the vehicle. Because of the danger of further collapse the body could not be moved for nearly six hours, Hoff said.
"This was a decision that was not taken lightly," Hoff said.
With everyone accounted for, full attention focused on the firefighting effort. Aerials from Brownsville, Waupun, Campbellsport and Mayville were on scene Saturday morning. On the plant roof, three crews of six firefighters began working eight-hour shifts. For each hour on the roof, each crew spent two hours in rehab.
"Early on we tried to fight the fire with ground monitors from the sides and from the inside," Hoff said. "The ground monitor we hauled into the adjacent building was only used Friday night. After that it was basically an aerial attack using three aerials and handlines from the adjacent roof."
Beginning Friday night and through the next 48 hours firefighters sustained a 3,000 gpm flow on the fire, Hoff said.
Three ground wells on site filled the plant's 150,000-gallon water tower at a rate of 1,400 gallons a minute. Two fire pumps, one electric and the other diesel, drew from another 800,000 in storage to feed the hydrants and sprinkler system. Relay pumping was established to draft water from several ponds on site.
Beyond that, 35 tanker trucks shuttled water from the municipal supply in the villages of Brownsville and Lomira, plus ponds in Lomira. The round trip from the fire scene to the fill sites was six miles. Of the 23 volunteer departments involved in the operation that first weekend most participated by hauling water. For the first 48 hours at least 50,000 gallons of water was moved on wheels.
Meanwhile, to maximize the water on site, firefighters took care to isolate the sprinkler system in portions of the ASRS that had already collapsed.
"I have always been taught that if at all possible, let your sprinkler system do its job," Hoff said. "Having said that, we did isolate those areas knowing that we were wasting stored water if we didn't. The facilities people at the plant knew exactly what risers to shut off."
People were needed to handle the fire and water. By the end of the 10-day operation more than 50 volunteer departments serving a 50-mile radius of Lomira had been involved. These departments maintain mutual aid contracts with other nearby villages, Hoff said. With regard to apparatus and communications, all equipment on scene was compatible, he said.
"An assistant chief from Theresa took charge of handling mutual aid," Hoff said. "When he heard we were running short of water he got a map out, drew a circle and started making calls. Every time we needed more water, he drew a bigger circle."
By noon Sunday, Hoff said he was satisfied that the fire, while still blazing, was under control. That afternoon production resumed in areas of the plant furthest from the fire. Owing partially to water damage, areas close to the fire could not resume production for several more days.
Learning of the fire, Chief Bloohm arrived in Lomira Saturday afternoon. Hoff was ready to temporarily surrender the incident command job.
"I wanted him to enjoy the opportunity to be in command of the biggest fire of his 35-year career as chief," Hoff said. "I also wanted to get some sleep."
The same was true of all the initial responders. Hoff realized that the emergency could keep firefighters on scene at least a week. A meeting of chief fire officers from Dodge and Fond du Lac counties was scheduled for Sunday evening.
"Our problem was explained, and we asked if the departments could each help out with six-member firefighter crews working eight-hour shifts," Hoff said. "Schedules were arranged and help called in. The word spread to adjacent counties. The response was amazing."
Some departments were specifically not called in, Hoff said. This was no reflection on those departments. They helped by taking over fire protection for areas whose firefighters were at fire or hauling water to the scene, he said.
"One of our local fire departments didn't even come to the site," Hoff said. "They spent the whole 10 days at our firehouse."
Yet, Hoff said, a call to nearby Milwaukee was never considered.
"We do use help from the cities of Milwaukee, Madison and Fond du Lac for hazmat operations, but there was no hazmat concern in the part of the complex involved," Hoff said. Since every Wisconsin firefighter is required to meet the same training standards, personnel available from the volunteer departments were as well trained as any big city responders, he said.
Also busy for the next 10 days would be the various fire department auxiliaries who, together with the Red Cross, kept the firefighters fed. The plant owners provided a refrigerated truck stocked with food and beverage. Owners also erected an 80 foot by 40-foot tent to give firefighter an area for rehab. (The company also covered the lost wages of the volunteer firefighters and made good on any repairs needed to vehicles.)
"The plant provided everything from socks to sunscreen," Hoff said.
But some problems were far outside the scope of small-town firefighting. News of the incident spread fast. Within two hours news helicopters were circling above.
"We knew that this was going to be the biggest thing to hit Dodge County and, for that matter, the state of Wisconsin in quite some time," Hoff said. "We also realized that we needed to do something to handle the media. Well, I was kind of busy to bother with them."
Hoff first approached Lomira VFD Chief Brian Ries about acting as public information officer. He offered to help but said it should be someone from the BFC who took charge of media relations. Next, Hoff turned to Bill Carter, a BFC EMT/first responder. Aside from his background as a responder, Carter was a fortuitous choice because he is pastor of Brownsville's St. Paul's Church.
"So, who better than someone who is used to public speaking could be chosen to be our PIO?" Hoff said. "Bill accepted the responsibility and did a terrific job. His only reservation was that he was not a firefighter. He would not be able to answer technical questions of firefighting. This is where Chief Ries filled in." The owners of the plant also participated.
The most arduous task during the lengthy fire operation was removing the fuel, i.e., the tons of paper waiting to burn. Large backhoes and clam grabbers were used to pull debris from the pile, uncovering smoldering mounds of magazines and catalogs. Slowly, over the course of the next 10 days, the unburned paper was removed to a nearby landfill. Several scrap metal and demolition companies handled the heavy wreckage.
To facilitate the safe removal of the paper, the remainder of the ASRS was leveled. That portion was mostly empty of paper, he said.
Meanwhile, water continued to flow. More than 20 million gallons of water would be used throughout the entire 10-day operation, Hoff said. The area of the plant closest to the fire suffered moderate water damage, but most of it drained across the parking lot into nearby retention ponds.
"Those ponds stank after we got through with them," Hoff said.
One of the most amazing aspects of the 10-day operation is that no responder reported an injury worse than foot blisters, Hoff said.
On July 22, the fire was officially declared extinguished. However, the responding departments did meet one more time for a debriefing and to determine how future operations of this type might be improved. Hoff said he came away from the Lomira fire with his own list of lessons learned.
"There were things we didn't have that would have helped," Hoff said. "It is wise to have maps of the plant readily accessible to the fire department. And those maps should be kept in at least two locations in case one set cannot be reached."
Those maps should detail the sprinkler system, gas lines, air duct and electric utilities, particularly where to shut these utilities off by sections if necessary. At least two or more employees should be well versed on these key shut offs as well, Hoff said.
Most of these lessons are for the benefit of others, however. In an area more rural than industrial, the chance that BFC will ever have to deal with a disaster of this magnitude again is slim.
"It was definitely the biggest thing to ever happen to me and will probably be the biggest thing that ever happens," Hoff said.
Rural firefighters excel at the art of shuttling water to the scene of fires using tankers. It's not a simple as it sounds. As firefighters exhaust supplies close to the fire the area, they draw from must be expanded, meaning longer hauls. The trucks must be staggered so that water is always en route without a traffic jam at either end.
Local firefighters refused to let the event overwhelm them. By training together often, the firefighters are familiar with their neighboring departments and better equipped to deal with an emergency that would have been tremendous in the biggest metropolitan area.
Firefighters scrambled the ambulances and helicopters immediately. Had there been mass casualties, help was on the way. Never be embarrassed about sending the ambulances home empty.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.