Warehouses are a firefighting nightmare. The interior can be an unforgiving combustible maze stacked stories tall. If firewalls exist, they have long since been compromised by plumbing or electrical additions. Blocked exits, blocked aisles, damaged sprinkler systems, missing or neglected fire extinguishers and exit lights and accumulations of flammable debris further complicate the situation. A warehouse fire can challenge any fire department, big or small.
A strange wind moving with near hurricane force began rushing past city firefighters struggling with a five-alarm warehouse fire in east Houston. What made it so strange, said Houston Fire Department Captain Bob Royall, was that this wind didn't blow.
It sucked. So did the whole situation, Royall thought.
"It caused an old knee jerk gut reaction in me," Royall said. "This isn't normal. If it's sucking wind down here like this, we've got a major problem."
A piercing 30-second horn blast signaled firefighters that it was time to leave — now! They scrambled to maneuver 13 pieces of heavy motorized equipment out of a tight area between the buildings in a warehouse complex. One vehicle, a $300,000 ladder truck, went up in flames before it could be moved.
That left Royall and four other firefighters on foot in no-man's land. Concrete tiltwalls came crashing down. Fifty-five-gallon steel drums rocketed into the sky. Acetylene and propane bottles exploded. Shrapnel flew through the air. With their exit route cut off, the firefighters survived the incredible havoc by diving for cove runder non-emergency vehicles parked nearby.
"That's an experience I hope I don't ever have to go through again," Royall said in a September 1996 interview.
All this escalated the June 24, 1995, Market Street warehouse fire from five toseven alarms, making it one of the biggest conflagrations in Houston history. To add insult to injury, a second massive fire 15 days later destroyed the neighboring warehouse in the same complex. That no responders died battling either of these infamous fire was miraculous given the complicated layout of the nearly seven-acre facility and the volatile materials stored there.
The first fire destroyed most of a 178,000-square-foot warehouse located at 8560 Market Street. Bringing it under control took more than 18 hours and nearly two-thirds of the 625 Houston firefighters on duty during the shift. With so muchmanpower and equipment dedicated to the fire; volunteer companies were called infrom surrounding communities to furnish routine city fire protection.
The second fire, reported July 9 at 8550 Market Street, went to four alarms, destroying an adjoining 198,000-square-foot warehouse also stocked with an unregulated material that burned quickly. It took nearly 19 hours to bring it under control. Both fires taught the Houston Fire Department some hard new lessons about industrial firefighting, Royall said.
"When you're with a huge municipal department like Houston, you might thinkyou have all the answers to every possible scenario in your city," Royall said. "We found out that's not the case. We found out that there are holes in our operating plan. Fortunately, with an incident such as Market Street we were able to identify some needs — we like to call them areas for improvement — and some lessons learned."
The biggest lesson learned applies to all firefighting, industrial or municipal: Doeverything possible to protect the lives of the firefighters.
"The incident commander, Chief David Bonds, told me personally several times that he wishes he made the decision to order an emergency evacuation about 10 minutes earlier because then we wouldn't have had to scramble," Royall said. At 8:33 a.m. Saturday, June 24, an automatic alarm reported a fire in a warehouse at 8560 Market Street. Firefighters arrived to find the warehouse fully charged with heavy black smoke, Royall said. No information was available at that point on thecontents.
The cause of the fire remains undetermined, Royall said. Because of litigation then pending involving many insurance companies, he refused to specify for publication any of the industrial agents stored in the warehouse other than to say they were "bad actors." However, of the nine recognized classes of hazardous material, seven were present in the warehouse. All that was missing was radiation and explosives.
Firefighters found themselves confused by the street address. Both 8560 Market Street and 8550 Market Street shared the same office and the same Market Street facade. A curving railroad spur entering from a siding at the rear of the warehouses separated the two buildings behind the facade. Construction was tilt wall concrete with a flat roof. The inside was typical of general mercantile warehouses — a lot of wide open space with no fire walls or fire doors.
Armed with handline hoses, firefighters entered 8560 Market Street near the office and pushed through the smoke into the warehouse. They reported very little heat buildup, Royall said. When the first entry team located the fire, flames wererising about three feet off the floor along one of the horizontal storage racks crossing the building. The firefighters put water on it and it died immediately. Asecond entry team replaced the first inside the building. Surprisingly, the fire was back. Water was put on the fire, and, again, the flames died down only to return. Hazmat responders on the scene of the first warehouse fire in June 1995.
Thinking that the fire might be bigger than first supposed, the firefighters began searching for any extension possibility. Disoriented by the smoke, they thought they had reached the back wall of the warehouse. However, it is believed that the firefighters had reached the point where the building curved back to the left with the railroad spur on the other side of the wall.
As the firefighters opened more doors and started introducing air to the area, the fire grew in intensity, working its way through the warehouse's volatile inventory. Despite the building's sprinkler system running wide open and a large number of handlines committed to the interior of the warehouse; the fire broke through the roof.
"Just before we lost this whole warehouse, someone with one of the enginecompanies came out and said, 'Hey, chief, I think if we can get one more handlinein there, we can put this baby out.,'" Royall said. "And for a second, firemen believing in firemen, you want to say, 'Okay, what size line and how many people do you need?'"
Within a few minutes, reason took hold. Firefighters went on the defensive,pulling out the interior forces and setting up two aerial ladders with piped waterways pouring 1,000 gallons a minute from each line. It was not enough. The flames jumped the defensive lines and took off through a fresh supply of stored material.Royall, a senior captain and assistant coordinator for the Houston Fire Department Hazardous Materials Response Team, said he was notified of the fire as it went to second alarm just before 9 a.m. Before he could reach the scene only12 minutes away, it had gone to a third alarm.
Together with Chief Bonds and Senior Captain Bill Sheffield, Royall became part of a three-member incident command team, serving as adviser on safety regarding hazardous materials. Bonds served as incident commander and Sheffield supervisedfirefighter safety.
"Chief Bonds never made a single decision without consulting us aboutfirefighter safety," Royall said. "It was the number one priority."
Royall's expertise in hazardous materials would be much needed. No one knew what the warehouse contained until a building representative showed up holdingfour Material Safety Data Sheets.
"He said 'Look, y'all got this kind of stuff in that part of the warehouse,'" Royallsaid. "'If we can keep it right there, we can stay in pretty good shape.'"
A light bulb went on over Royall's head, he said. This fire was already at threealarms. How can things get worse?
"'Well,'" the representative said, "'if it gets away from that stuff, it's going toget in a bad area and burn a lot faster.'"
Houston firefighters did catch at least one big break in averting further disasterthat morning. Six railroad cars were parked on the siding between the burning warehouse and an adjoining residential neighborhood called Pleasantville.
Firefighters learned that one of them was an LPG tank car hooked to two other cars filled with burning wood. Making matters difficult, the available engineer refused to hook the cars to an engine.
"There were no hazmat personnel qualified as engineers who could move the train," Royall said. "Finally, we talked the engineer into going down there with the firemen. He hooked up the cars and drug them away. Thank heaven the railroad had the insight to come tell us it was there."
The fire was now at five alarms. Firefighters had taken up a positionbetween the burning warehouse and a separate warehouse at 8570 Market Street. In his role as hazardous material liaison to the incident commander, Royall inspected the scene to make sure the firefighters were all wearing air packs and bunker gear.
"You'd be surprised that knowing there was a possibility of chemicals in thebuilding and that we were in an exterior attack there were still some firefighterswho didn't have on bunker gear or air packs," Royall said. "So, in my best fire department terminology and language, I stressed the importance of personal protection and safety. They put their gear on pretty quickly."
Suddenly, the fire began sucking wind down through the corridor between the warehouses. Inside the building the fire was traveling through the flammable inventory faster than most people walk. Shortly before 11 a.m., an air horn sounded the evacuation signal and the firefighters scrambled to rescue their trucks. In the rush to evacuate, ladder trucks were leaving with their ladders and outriggers still extended.
"The smoke had completely darkened out the sun and it was dark as midnightdown there," Royall said. "You really couldn't see very well."
One thing Royall saw he couldn't believe. Firefighters put down jack plates as support for the outriggers on ladder trucks. Standard operating practice calls for firefighters to rinse them off in the course of putting away equipment. Oblivious to the imminent danger, a rookie firefighter with one ladder crew was standing in knee deep fire water runoff and dutifully rinsing off the jack plates.
"I told him, again in my best fire department terminology, to forget the protocol and let's get this thing out of here," Royall said. "I'll leave it to your imagination what else I told him."
Royall turned to helping move Ladder 19. Burning liquid from the warehouse had flowed underneath the front half of the vehicle, igniting its tires. One of the departing ladder trucks twice used water from its aerial ladder pipe nozzle to push the fire off Ladder 19. When that truck left, Ladder 19 was defenseless.
"I told the young man who was on the turntable 'Time to go, son,'" Royall said. "He said 'A couple more minutes and we can drive it out.' I looked at the cab, which was totally involved and said 'No, it's time to go.'"
Royall was not able to rescue Ladder 19, but firefighters were able to save Engine 45, a 1986 Seagrave engine worth $240,000. It had run over a four-inch hose coupling that had lodged between the rear dual tires. The crew tried to beat out the coupling with a fire axe but to no avail.
"When they couldn't pull the coupling out, a pocketknife was used to cut acharged four-inch hose so they could drive the truck out," Royall said.
Engine 45 pulled away, leaving Royall and four others on foot. That's whenthings started getting "a little bit hairy," Royall said. The warehouse's concrete walls began to collapse, cutting off the firefighters' exit. A series of explosionsfollowed. Jagged debris filled the air. To save themselves, the firefighters dove beneath some nearby warehouse trucks and waited for the fury to subside.
After the emergency evacuation, at least an hour passed before the Houston Fire Department could account for every firefighter at the scene. Meanwhile, theincident command team regrouped and reevaluated the situation.
At 12:25 p.m., the Market Street fire went to seven alarms. One of the hardest ofthe hard lessons that the Houston Fire Department learned thatday was that its incident command system could not handle an event of thismagnitude, Royall said.
"We were quite capable of handling an incident of up to four alarms, but thiswas a seven-alarm fire with an emergency evacuation in the middle of it," Royall said. "When we jumped from five to seven alarms, there was quite a bit of chaos inthe middle of it."
One immediate priority became protecting the neighboring warehouse at 8570Market Street when it was learned that it contained dangerous materials that mightdetonate if exposed to fire. Three pieces of unmanned fire equipment were used tosupply the sprinkler system and pour a continuous water curtain across the endwall of the yet untouched warehouse. Otherwise, all firefighters were pulled back to positions no closer than 600 feet to the fire.
"Perhaps a little divine intervention helped keep the fire out of that building,"Royall said.
Adding to the pressure on the incident command structure was the high-profilenature of the disaster. Houston is the largest city in America with no zoningordinances. All that separated the burning warehouse from a residential area knownas Pleasantville — soon dubbed Unpleasantville by the press — was a UnionPacific railroad siding.
During most of the day there was only a slight easterly breeze. Smoke from thefire rose straight up instead of straying into the nearby neighborhood. Still, residentswatching the Market Street disaster unfold from their front yards could not helpbut be concerned.
After meeting with the fire chief, command staff and members of city government,the incident command team determined a new plan of action. The fire would beallowed to burn for the next few hours. Only enough water would be used toprotect 8570 Market Street, thereby limiting the danger of polluted runoff.
"There were a lot of special interest groups represented — civic groups, specialentities from Washington, local politicians and environmental groups," Royallsaid. "They all had their special agenda they needed satisfied. It's extremely difficultfor an incident commander to satisfy all those desires and wishes."
With weather forecasters predicting a wind shift to the south, protectingPleasantville became the primary concern that evening. At about 6:30 p.m., Houston firefighters requested help from Channel Industry Mutual Aid (CIMA), an association of industrial fire brigades including companies such as Arco, Dow, Exxon, Phillips, and Shell.
Within an hour CIMA was on the scene with an assortmentof foam engines with high flow capacity. With the fire no longer spreading, the foam engines began delivering a one percent foam concentration on the fire. As feared, life in Pleasantville turned ugly that night. A front moved in andPleasantville residents started choking on the smoke from the fire after midnight.
"The warehouse had been up there 25 years without a single fire incident,"Royall said. "The people in the community, like the firefighters, didn't know whatwas in it."
Finally, at 3:06 a.m., June 25, with the help of trailer-mounted heavy-flow gunsand 8,000 gallons of concentrate mixed in a one percent foam application, the firewas brought under control. Firefighters stayed on the site the next two weeks toprotect against any new fires. Waste Control Service, a private contractor retainedby the warehouse owners early on to manage the water runoff, stayed on to dealwith hazardous material control.
Then, two weeks and one day after the original fire, a second fire broke out inthe neighboring warehouse at 8550 Market Street owned by the same company.The first alarm was sounded at 1:19 p.m. Sunday, July 9. Beginning in the rubblenear the office area, the fire spread into the warehouse area not touched by thefirst fire. It was the first day since the June 24 fire that no Houston Fire Departmentpersonnel were on site.
Within an hour and 15 minutes the fire reached four alarms. Again, the ChannelIndustrial Mutual Aid Association was called in to assist, providing nine extraengine companies — this time much earlier than before. The fire was broughtunder control at about 6 a.m. Monday with the help of 12,000 gallons of foam usedat a 1 percent application rate.
Today, the Houston Fire Department is busy putting the hard-won wisdomgained from the Market Street fires into practice. HFD. has enlarged its hazardousmaterials inspection staff and put the new inspectors through a rigorous course oftraining. Under federal law, companies that handle or store specified quantities ofhazardous materials are required to file a report with local emergency agencies andsupply them with 24-hour contact telephone numbers in case of emergencies.The problem with the federal law is that compliance is based on the honorsystem, Royall said.
"While there are penalties built into the law, there are few investigators knockingon doors saying, 'Should you be complying?'" Royall said.
With so many companies failing to file these reports, it is important for municipalfirefighters to know their response district and ask questions about what is behindthe factory or warehouse walls, he said. Too many companies roll the dice and taketheir chances on not getting caught.
Last year, the Texas Department of Health issued some 77,000 reporting bookletsto people and companies located in the Houston area that might have hazardousmaterials to report, Royall said.
Fewer than 3,000 companies have volunteered that information to the firedepartment, he said.
"I think that's only a very small percentage of the companies that should report,"Royall said.
The Market Street fire inspired a complete change in thinking as to howincidents involving hazardous materials are handled in Houston, Royall said. Undera massive training initiative, all HFD. suppression firefighters have now receivedfirst responder operations level hazardous materials training.
As far as firefighting technique is concerned, Royall said the key to coming outon top in battling a fire like Houston's Market Street incident is to always stayflexible.
"Don't get locked into one concept or idea without the flexibility to change,"Royall said. "Don't be afraid to admit that, hey, things are not working with thisparticular approach. Let's reevaluate and come up with another game plan. I thinkChief Bonds is excellent in that respect.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.