Warehouses containing 90,000 barrels of whiskey burned out of control. - Photo by Michael E. Jones.

Warehouses containing 90,000 barrels of whiskey burned out of control.

Photo by Michael E. Jones.

After battling the largest distillery fire in Kentucky history, no one could blame the members of the Bardstown-Nelson County Volunteer Fire Department for temporarily losing any fondness for the rich bouquet of bourbon.

"You can still smell it out there," said First Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Mattingly more than two weeks after the spectacular fire that swept the Heaven Hill Distillery November 7, 1996.

"While we were fighting the fire, the smell was almost nauseating to me."

Seven warehouses at Heaven Hill containing 90,000 barrels of whiskey burned out of control, fanned by wind gusts of up to 75 mph, Mattingly said. Although the barrels vary in size, most contain about 45 gallons of bourbon. As the warehouses collapsed, bourbon poured out, spreading almost invisible flames across roadways and cutting access to much of the one-square-mile area involved.

With flames leaping as high as 35 stories, firefighters abandoned early attempts to extinguish the blaze and drew a defensive line to protect the other warehouses in the distillery complex, Mattingly said. Of Heaven Hill's 44 warehouses, 37 survived the fire.

"We just backed up, picked a spot and said nothing gets past here," Mattingly said.

Insurance investigators and the experts with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms have been unable to determine the cause of the fire, Mattingly said. Keith Steer, a spokesperson for Heaven Hill, said the investigation did rule out lightning and the ATF agents also stated there was no evidence to suggest the blaze was intentionally set. The cause of the fire was officially classified as "undetermined" due largely to the destruction of evidence by the extreme heat of the fire, Steer said.

About 150 firefighters, mostly volunteers, from 25 departments across a five-county area eventually responded. Bardstown Fire Chief Jim Akin named Mattingly as officer in charge of operations and responsible for the fire scene.

Heaven Hill Distillery is 1½ miles east of Bardstown, which is located about 40 miles south of Louisville. The first flames were reported about 2 p.m., Mattingly said. Heaven Hill boiler operator Scott Cederholm told Bardstown's home newspaper, The Kentucky Standard, that it did not take 15 minutes from the first shout of "fire" before the first structure to burn, Warehouse I, turned into a holocaust.

"You could feel the heat, and we were 400 to 600 feet away," Cederholm told the newspaper.

The warehouses, each seven stories tall, measure 100 feet by 200 feet. Each was a heavy timber structure with metal siding and a tar roof. None were equipped with a sprinkler system.

Warehouse "I", located on a hilltop, was 50 to 75 percent involved when the Bardstown firefighters arrived, Mattingly said. Making matter worse was a storm front moving through the area with strong northwesterly winds of 50 mph and gusts of up to 75 mph.

The flames proved too intense for the close application of foam, Mattingly said. Even though the warehouses in the complex were spaced approximately 400 feet apart, there was already direct flame impingement with the next closest structure downwind, Warehouse "J". Firefighters wet down the exterior and used handlines inside. Those trying to protect the outside of the warehouse were hammered by intense heat, Mattingly said.

"Four of the firefighters have helmets that distorted and melted while they were wearing them," Mattingly said.

A ladder truck stands silhouetted against the rapidly spreading alcohol flames. - Photo by Michael E. Jones.

A ladder truck stands silhouetted against the rapidly spreading alcohol flames.

Photo by Michael E. Jones.

When the metal siding on Warehouse "I" disintegrated, it sent an 80-foot wall of flames into the air, he said. High winds pushed much of the fire shooting toward Warehouse "J" low to the ground. Firefighters were forced to abandon the second warehouse when the tar roof ignited and, inside, fire began spreading beneath the single wooden staircase that gave firefighters access to the upper floors. The warehouse went from 10 percent involvement to 90 percent involvement in less than three minutes, Mattingly said. Left behind was much of the $17,000 worth of hose, nozzle and other equipment lost in the fire.

"When that fire started laying down on the ground, it was really a run for your life situation," Mattingly said.

The combined heat from the two burning warehouses made it impossible to save the next closest warehouse downwind, Warehouse "K", he said. Firefighters pulled back to protect the other hilltop warehouses nearby. As warehouse "I" collapsed, crushed barrels inside sent burning alcohol flowing downhill, spreading fire to Warehouses "C" and "D" below it. One Heaven Hill employee quoted in The Kentucky Standard described the spreading flames as a "river of fire."

The collapse of Warehouses "J" and "K" only added to the flaming runoff problem. Shallow drainage ditches filled with burning alcohol. An 18-inch deep flood of flaming bourbon covered the main road linking the warehouses with the distillery building downhill. Flames spread to the distillery, with radiant heat touching off two more warehouses downwind.

All seven warehouses caught fire within a four-hour period, Mattingly said.

"We only really fought the fire for about 25 or 30 minutes," Mattingly said. "After that, we were trying to protect exposures."

A limited supply of water at the site further restricted firefighting efforts, he said. Firefighters used a single hydrant in front of the complex's bottling plant to feed 1,800 feet of supply line. Later the firefighters began drafting out of a lake on a nearby golf course. In the end, the warehouses were allowed to burn themselves out, he said.

Seven other smaller buildings, including the shipping office, warehouse office and unloading facility, also burned. About 50 percent of the distillery building was destroyed, Mattingly said. However, company officials said the boiler, power systems, fermenting rooms and by-product removal facilities survived needing only minimal repair.

About 28 private and company owned vehicles were also lost in the fire, Mattingly said.

Burning whiskey also spilled into a creek feeding the Beech Fork River. However, the storm front finally opened up with a good downpour, diluting the escaped alcohol and reducing the pollution hazard, Mattingly said. The Environmental Protection Agency was called in to monitor the runoff and has found no ongoing environmental problem.

Media reports that two firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation were incorrect, Mattingly said. The two firefighters were given oxygen for heat exhaustion and returned to duty.

The Bardstown-Nelson County Volunteer Fire Department serves a county population of about 30,000. Staffing consists of a part time fire chief, three full-time firefighters, and 39 volunteers. Equipment includes five pumpers, a 100-foot quint, a 50-foot quint, two grassfire trucks, two tankers, and two rescue trucks. (A quint, or quintuple combination pumper, is a fire service apparatus that serves the dual purpose of an engine and a ladder truck.)

"We're pretty well equipped for a department of our size," Mattingly said.

Heaven Hill, the nation's largest family-owned distillery, does not maintain a fire brigade at its facility. Makers of Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbon, Heaven Hill lost inventory amounted to 13.9 percent of its whiskey holdings. The company owns the world's second largest inventory of bourbon.

Wind spread fire from warehouses I to J to K. Spilled liquor ignited the rest. - Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Standard.

Wind spread fire from warehouses I to J to K. Spilled liquor ignited the rest.

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Standard.

The day after the fire, all Heaven Hill employees reported to work as usual. The bottling, processing, shipping, and distribution facilities were operating at full capacity, said Max Shapira, executive vice president of the distillery.

"We fully expect to resume barreling newly produced bourbon whiskey at Heaven Hill by the first or second quarter of 1997," Shapira said. "In the meantime, we will rent another bourbon production facility so we can begin producing new whiskey under the Heaven Hill formula."

Mattingly said warehouses built to replace those destroyed will have to meet tougher state standards. Kentucky requires that whiskey warehouses built after 1994 be constructed of concrete, include sprinklers and have drainage systems.

That might put the minds of some concerned whiskey drinkers at ease. At least one worried Heaven Hill customer called the emergency dispatcher from out-of-state even before the fire was out.

"Before he hung up the phone, he said 'Heaven Hill bottles the whiskey I drink and I wanted to know if it was all burning up,'" Mattingly said.

Lessons Learned

  • It's fourth down and the ball is too far from the end zone. You punt. Firefighters at Heaven Hill had to decide what could be saved and what had to be sacrificed. The decision has to be based on available resources, not dollar loss.
  • Hose can be replaced. It's not cheap, but it can be replaced. People can't. When it came time to choose between hose and protecting personnel, the Bardstown firefighters chose correctly.
  • Same song, second verse. If the industrial facility you are trying to protect does not have adequate water on hand to deal with the potential emergencies, the outcome is out of the firefighters' hands.

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