Firefighters approach a 10-story rack system warehouse. - Photo by Woody Spencer/Kinston Fire Department.

Firefighters approach a 10-story rack system warehouse.

Photo by Woody Spencer/Kinston Fire Department.

EDITOR'S NOTE: January 29 is the 18th anniversary of the fatal Kinston, North Carolina, rubber components factory explosion and fire.

Kinston, N.C., population 23,688, is no stranger to massive emergency response. In the past seven years the city has suffered direct hits from three very unwelcome visitors — Hurricanes Bertha, Fran and Floyd.

"Floyd took out a major part of our city," said G.S. "Greg" Smith, Kinston's director of operations for fire and police. "We had 300 homes affected by flood waters."

It was a different kind of disaster that captured Smith's attention on Jan. 29, 2003. An explosion followed by fire at a local plant resulted in 44 casualties, six of them fatally injured. Nearly two weeks after the blast, nine people were still listed in critical condition at a burn center in Chapel Hill.

Smith, formerly known as 'fire chief' before management of police and fire were consolidated into one post in early January, said despite the magnitude of the incident and the many harrowing rescues involved he was surprised how smoothly the emergency operation went.

"Overall, the incident went so well, better even than some of the drills we've run," Smith said.

Kinston, located about 70 miles southeast of Raleigh, is a city with deep industrial roots. The local manufacturing base ranges from gas pumps to golf bags. DuPont built its first plant devoted to commercial production of polyester fiber there in 1953. After the production line closed in 1998 a major portion of the local economy focused on warehousing and distribution.

At the heart of this industrial cluster is North Carolina's Global Transpark, a merger of air freight and trucking facilities. Located only a half mile outside the city limits, the Transpark is only one day's trucking distance from two-thirds of the country's manufacturing and commercial facilities. The Transpark, formerly the Kinston Regional Jetport, boasts one of the longest airport runways in the Southeast U.S.

Had the plant been located inside the city limits a more stringent standard would apply regarding preplanning, Smith said. Shortly after he became fire chief in July 1998 the city hired a disaster and emergency planner who began working with industry inside the community to establish preplans.

"We are going to industry and helping them write their disaster and emergency plans," Smith said. "We are trying to make sure their plans dovetail into our emergency response plan for deploying fire apparatus and coordinating things such as evacuating the plant while trying to lay five-inch hose."

All that information is merged into one resource that is easily accessible to all firefighters, Smith said.

"We are very heavy into the use of the GIS system and we run laptops on all of our trucks," Smith said. "All of our preplans are on our trucks."

Among the industries neighboring the Transpark is a company specializing in small molded rubber parts for disposable medical equipment such as syringes and intravenous supplies. With 255 people on the payroll, it ranks as one of the area's largest employers. About 130 people were on duty when, at 1:27 p.m., an explosion heard as much as 25 miles away tore through the plant.

Because of the plant's nearness to the Transpark, initial 911 calls to the Lenoir County Communications Center reported a suspected plane crash. That mistaken impression would work in Chief Smith's favor. By arrangement with the Transpark, Kinston is the first responder to the airport. When the true emergency was determined, Kinston immediately lent mutual aid assistance to the plant's first responder, the North Lenoir Volunteer Fire Department.

"Because the first calls reported a plane down, we were initially at alert level three, which is our maximum alert level for an aircraft crash," Smith said. "All city units were responding to the airport which is adjacent to the plant."

Responding from the city public safety building only three miles away, Smith arrived at the plant ahead of the first engine companies. What remained standing of the 50-foot tall two-story plant building was mainly structural steel, its covering of insulation and corrugated metal stripped away by the blast.

The explosion occurred in an area of the plant where synthetic rubber compounds were processed and dried. Investigators with the federal Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms pinpointed the explosion as having occurred in the Automated Compounding System (ACS), a unit of the plant where the rubber known as polyisoprene is mixed, rolled, coated and dried. Oils and filters are added to the rubber during this process.

The death toll might have been far greater had any other type of construction been involved, Smith said. Because the blast blew the walls out so easily, much of its energy was dissipated. But the blast was directional enough that another plant behind it had the metal doors protecting its loading dock torn away. This was despite several acres of woods between the facilities.

"If it had been a concrete block building or any kind of reinforced concrete, I think that the loss of life would have been drastically different," Smith said.

What Smith found when he arrived was bad enough. The fire suppression portion of Smith's department consists of three engine companies, one ladder company and a squad company. The initial response included two Quints (a combination pumper and ladder truck), two full Class A pumpers and a rescue unit supported by 18 personnel. Smith's first act was to order all off-duty personnel in the 65-member professional department to report to the scene as well. It was immediately apparent that a large number of casualties would be involved.

"There were dozens of people burned and laying on the grass, and in the driveways," Smith said. "The EMS units were very aggressive, responding quickly."

The extent of the injuries in many of the cases made accurate accountability for the survivors all but impossible, Smith said. While the facility was sizable, it was not the kind of major complex that requires guards and sign-in sheets, he said.

"There was also contract labor there that was difficult to account for," Smith said. "The plant manager gave us an estimate of 130 people he thought was in the building and that number proved to be fairly accurate. That was maybe four or five less that were actually on the site."

Even before firefighters arrived, several rescues were executed. National Guardsmen from a neighboring armory ran into the burning building to save people. The state Highway Patrol keeps a helicopter at the nearby airport. One trooper immediately went up into the air to provide aerial reconnaissance on fires spreading through the woods behind the plant. Two other troopers, like the guardsmen, raced into the building to affect rescues.

"What they found was a lot of people who were shell-shocked," Smith said. "People were kneeling down next to walls, not moving, not trying to get out."

Two city policemen who were only a block away also entered the building to rescue injured. When they came out their uniforms had melted, Smith said.

"One officer got to a woman who was alive and trapped under a beam," Smith said. "He stayed with her as long as he could, but he couldn't lift the beam to save her."

There was still plenty to do for the first firefighters to arrive. Two 7,500-gallon plastic tanks of mineral oil collapsed from the heat, further fueling the blaze. One survivor was found hanging 20 feet in the air from a steel beam. In one of the most harrowing rescues executed three firefighters walked across elevated steel beams carrying a 16-foot ladder. The position of the fire and wreckage made it impossible to use aerial ladders to reach survivors heard screaming from the upper levels.

"They used the ladder to climb level by level," Smith said. "They would place it straddle of a cross beam, then two would hold it in place while the third climbed up. They found the people but there was no way back down. They declared an emergency by radio because they ran out of air. We had to put all resources into rescuing them. We entered the building, suppressing the fire underneath them and then raised a 28-foot extension ladder to get them and the burn victims out."

A field hospital was established to triage the burned and otherwise injured survivors. Finding medical staff was not difficult, Smith said.

"Many doctors in town closed their offices and brought their entire staff to the scene," Smith said. "The hospital implemented its own disaster plans. We also had eight helicopters including one brought in by the Marine Corp. We were transporting people from the field hospital within minutes in some cases."

While North Lenoir Fire Chief Deral Raynor took charge of incident command, Smith's role became operations chief dealing directly with the fire suppression effort. Along with Kinston, another ten departments responded either directly to the scene or into Kinston to provide backup as municipal fire protection.

The fire was worst at the rear of the building. Liquid propane tanks there suffered direct flame impingement, Smith said.

"We put a monitor on those real early," Smith said. "They never did relieve. Then we had a natural gas leak from debris that hit a line. You could hear it. We kept a stream over there, and we never had an ignition. The gas company cut it off from the main road but the plant is well back from road and with 150 psi to bleed off it took a long time."

Although injured in the blast, the plant manager met with Raynor and Smith within minutes. Unfortunately, there was little he could bring to the fire and rescue efforts. The plant had no internal fire brigade. There was no copy of the plant's emergency plan available. All that the manager could produce was a half dozen manuals containing Material Safety Data Sheets rescued from the plant's demolished offices.

"Some sheets were marked 'active' and others 'inactive,' which was confusing," Smith said. "In a facility that size not having a plan that could document the areas where chemicals are stored is not very useful. They were telling us where acid was and things like that, but it was very difficult to get an actual understanding of what was in the plant and where it was"

Another setback was the facility's sprinkler system. The firefighters were soon delivering 4,000 gpm on the fire. However, damage to the building's sprinkler system was draining away much of the local water supply with no effect on the blaze.

"The systems in the building were completely compromised," Smith said. "We could hear the water free flowing. That was hurting us. We had an above ground city water tank little more than 1,000 feet away. It was at 20 feet when we got there and within a few hours had only six feet of reserves left."

However, Smith said he was leery of shutting off the sprinkler in the early minutes of the fire.

"I didn't know if people were trapped in their offices," Smith said. "I didn't want to shut down the sprinkler system until I knew that it wasn't helping anybody out."

The distance to connect to the municipal fire water was also a problem. The water lines ran along the main road, Rouse Road Extension, but the plant itself was located far back from that road.

"We were laying from two hydrants on either side of the road, but the lays were substantial," Smith said. "We ended up relaying, putting some 1,500 gpm pumpers in line to push the water." Aiding in that was the fact that all city and country rigs carry at least 1,200 feet of five-inch hose, Smith said.

As for runoff, the Environmental Protection Agency was soon on scene to make sure it did not leave the plant site. EPA contracted with an environmental cleanup company, HEPACO, Inc., to set up a water treatment and filtration system just downhill of the firefighting, blocking any discharge into nearby surface water. The EPA also took charge of air monitoring at the site.

The fire on site was not the only cause for concern. The blast had strewn burning pallets through the woods behind it. Flames were now spreading through woods and fields almost a full two miles downwind. Once again Smith caught a lucky break regarding resources.

"We just let it go," Smith said. "The state forestry service is located in Kinston. They have all types of planes, helicopters and even a firefighting brigade. They told us immediately that they would take the brush fire. They started at the furthest point downwind and worked their way back to us."

Radio communications, often a weak point during massive mutual aid operations, held together well, Smith said.

"We have an 800 mhz trunk system," Smith said. "The county does not operate on 800 mhz but we have a mobile communications unit that responded to the incident command center and was located so that it linked us together right away. The dispatchers at the 911 center did have to work off two different frequencies. We have four operational channels that we used to segregate some of our sectors."

Accountability issues lingered even after the fire was brought under control. Entries were being made into the shattered building even after structural engineers advised against it, Smith said.

"The structural engineers told us 'Boy, it's just not a good idea to go inside with this steel cooling,'" Smith said. "But when they are telling you there might be as many as 20 people left behind you just can't stand out on the road and wait."

Much of the continued searching proved fruitless, he said.

"Accounting for all the contract labor was a problem," Smith said. "We spent hours late at night trying to find two people we had names for. It turned out that one of those names wasn't even a legitimate person. When we finally got the contractor, he said 'I don't employ anybody by that name.'"

Reports about the number of missing and dead fed a media frenzy that gathered at the scene, complete with circling news helicopters. The plant's distance off the main road worked in Smith's favor in that regard.

"We had a very secure scene," Smith said. "We had two intersections as control points and both were closed early on. The media, other than by helicopter, couldn't get in, couldn't even get a view of the building."

However, that did not keep them from speculating out loud.

"Just about anybody that could talk to them did," Smith said. "There were reports that as many as eight people were dead. That was reported as a confirmed number. AP ran it. The county has a public information officer and I know he began briefings. But the media went wherever they could for sources."

Finally, the death toll stabilized at three. In the weeks that followed three more casualties died. Thirty-eight workers were injured in the blast.

A final report issued by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board states that a dangerously large accumulations of polyethylene dust above the plant's acoustic ceiling set the stage for the explosion and fire. That explosion dispersed other dust accumulations into the air around the production area and ignited them, causing a devastating cascade of fires and explosions. Two 7,500-gallon plastic tanks of mineral oil collapsed from the heat, further fueling the blazes.

The company relocated its plant several miles away but did not resume rubber compounding, resulting in a loss of jobs in Kinston, the CSB reports.

For Kinston, the explosion and fire at the rubber manufacturing plant was one more calamity to overcome. Unlike a hurricane, no satellite orbiting above gave warning of the disaster to come. But, as with a hurricane, preparation and planning by emergency responders determined the effectiveness of rescue efforts.

"I would be afraid that if we did the whole thing again, we couldn't do it as well," Smith said. "In the 24 years I've been in the fire service I don't think there is another incident I would have said that about."

Lessons Learned

  • Combustible dust is any finely divided solid such as flour, wood dust or coal dust that will burn when dispersed in air and ignited. Investigators found that as much as a ton of polyethylene dust from the manufacturing process had been drawn into the ventilation system and accumulated above the production area where it ignited.
  • Fire departments like Kinston often find that although an industrial facility may be outside their technical jurisdiction, when the chips are down, they will be called to respond. This often complicates the issue of pre-planning.
  • Accounting for the employees after a disaster like this will always be a hardship. In this case, confusion about people presumed missing led firefighters to re-enter the building even after it was declared dangerous.
  • It's almost classic. All the essentials paperwork such as the pre-plan went up when the manager's office was destroyed. Why does the plant manager always presume that his seat of power will survive even if the rest of the plant is flattened?

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