A log on the hearth is the only appropriate Christmas fire. On Dec. 24, 1989, a thunderous flammable vapor explosion at a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, petroleum refinery delivered a holiday event that no sane firefighter could want to make a tradition — 16 fuel storage tanks, plus various spill and pressure fires, all ablaze simultaneously.
Jerry Craft, fire chief at the refinery, missed being at Ground Zero by only minutes.
"When it ignited, we heard this loud blast, me and the guys that were with me," Craft said. "We turned and saw this large mushroom cloud climbing high into the sky, almost 1,000 feet."
Like the UK's Buncefield oil depot explosion in 2005, the blast in Baton Rouge resulted from a massive vapor cloud release. The Buncefield explosion registered 2.4 on the Richter scale. It devastated nearby office blocks and extensively damaged building more than half a mile away. Many of the 22 storage tanks burned for four days, finally exhausting the available fuel.
By comparison, the Baton Rouge blast registered 3.2 on the Richter scale. Yet , the refinery firefighters, joined by responders from other refineries, municipal responders and contract firefighters specializing in storage tank emergencies, extinguished the burning facility within 15 hours.
Local residents awoke Christmas morning to daylight instead of a city covered in smoke.
Before Craft's death in May 2008, he became senior lead firefighter for Williams Fire & Hazard Control, acknowledged experts in flammable liquid firefighting. He was also manager of training and consulting. On that terrible Christmas Eve in Baton Rouge, it was Dwight Williams, chairman of Williams F&HC, and Dwight's legendary father, Les, that Craft called upon for help.
The reputation of Craft and his fire brigade made the gravity of the situation immediately clear, Dwight Williams said.
"If somebody like Jerry Craft calls up and says 'bring everything,' I do," he said. "There wasn't a fire brigade anywhere that was better than his."
Besides providing contract firefighting, Williams F&HC thrives on technical innovation. Too bad its groundbreaking HydroChem technology still lay in the future. A HydroChem nozzle projects a dry chemical agent through the center of a water stream to give it far greater range than a standard fire extinguisher.
Before Baton Rouge, Dwight Williams had sometimes found it necessary to navigate deep fuel spills using a small boat as the only way to reach and extinguish isolated pressure fire. Such tactics worried Les. At Baton Rouge, he made his concern abundantly clear to Industrial Fire World publisher David White.
"David, I don't care what you have to do but don't let Dwight get in the (bleep)ing boat," Les told White.
The refinery Craft worked at, located on 2,100 acres along the east shore of the Mississippi River, is part of an industrial complex that also included a 1,000-product chemical plant. The refinery, the second largest in the U.S., produced 455,000 barrels-a-day, while its sister chemical plant turned out 350,000 barrels a day of various products such as olefins, methyl ethyl ketone and butadiene.
At the refinery, a three-tiered pipe band served as the main artery for most of the 90 pipelines bringing product to and from the docks. In the top tier of the pipe band was a pipeline dubbed "Garden City." An eight-inch line rated at 1,500 pounds per square inch, the Garden City line delivered the flow from a natural gas well 57 miles to the south. Once it reached the refinery, the gas was heated in a fractional distillation column to separate it into its chemical components and recover liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and other lighter products.
Natural gas became an unusually valuable commodity in south Louisiana that Christmas season. In Baton Rouge, the mean winter temperature in December is 52.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Thanks to the warm waters of the nearby Gulf of Mexico, ice storms and other cold snaps tend to be short lived. However, Christmas Eve 1989 marked the third consecutive day that the thermometer had not risen above freezing.
"The night before the event it was nine degrees," Craft said. "The high for that particular day was 15 degrees."
Further north than Louisiana, oil companies build refineries with cold weather in mind. Ample quantities of expensive insulation protect steam pipes, fire mains and pumps, and lines carrying water for cooling and process. That insulation comes complete with electrical heating elements that maintain the temperature of the pipes. In Baton Rouge, the refinery had none of that. Fire mains were not even buried, let alone insulated.
Because of the record cold, refinery personnel who ordinarily would have been at home enjoying the holidays were hard at work. Many, like Craft, had been working 16-to-20hour days since the beginning of the cold snap.
"Our philosophy at that time was 'Don't pull the plug – keep it running,'" Craft said. "This was to avoid hazards that can be created not only during the shutdown but from leaving these units cold with all kinds of elements inside them."
Yet, despite the effort to keep most of the refinery going, management made the fateful decision to shut down the Garden City line.
"Because of the shortage of natural gas due to wells freezing up in South Louisiana, the decision was made to shut down this particular process unit," Craft said.
It would prove to be a serious mistake. Standard procedure for such a shutdown is to leave the line "packed," which means full from the well to the refinery to allow production to resume in the shortest amount of time possible. As long as the temperature stayed below freezing, everything would be fine.
"On Christmas Eve, the temperature rose to 34 degrees," Craft said. "There was a check valve on the (Garden City) line. That check valve held, blocking the line from the nearby Mississippi River all the way into the plant. That meant that approximately 1½ miles of eight-inch line snaking its way through the southeast quadrant of the refinery was packed with expanding material."
At about 12:31 p.m. a 24-inch section of the line ruptured. Investigators later determined that due to thermal expansion, the pressure in the line exceeded 2,000 pounds per square inch. The force of the rupture kicked the line out of the pipe band, dropping it 35 feet to the street below.
"That alone should have brought a lot of attention, but most people were inside," Craft said.
No so lucky, Craft, his rescue captain Jimmy Williams (no relation to Les and Dwight) and several other firefighters found themselves outside about 1,500 feet north of the rupture, preparing to use a ground flare to liquefy the contents of a vapor-liquid separator. Also known as a knockout drum, the separator was filled with fuel gas and burner line products. The nearby Gulf States Utilities power plant used both as a substitute for otherwise unavailable natural gas.
"We were in the process of lighting that flare when I got a radio call," Craft said. "It was a member of my emergency organization. He said 'Chief, they've reported a steam leak – but it doesn't look like steam.' I said 'Okay Charlie, we'll be there in a minute to check it out.'"
About 90 seconds later, based on radio transmission recordings, the vapor cloud escaping from the Garden City line ignited in a devastating explosion.
"That section mission from the line 40 feet above grade was the epicenter," Craft said. "A third-party investigating committee determined that the cloud was about 1,500 feet in radius and almost 80 feet high. It released for at least 2½ minutes before it ignited. That was 230,000 pounds of hydrocarbon released."
The source of the ignition has never been determined. Thankfully, Craft and his team were at work in a recessed area similar to a small ravine that protected them.
"The pressure wave from the ignition literally went over us," Craft said. "It was sort of like being in a bunker. At the power plant about 1,500 feet to the north, the pressure wave took out the roof, glass and everything else."
Across Baton Rouge, including its many other refineries and chemical plants, electrical power died in unison with the explosion. At Craft's home 17 miles east of the refinery the sound of cracked and shattered windows accompanied the blast.
"When we started calling people back to the plant, we didn't have to tell them what was wrong. They heard it for miles and miles. Lots of people thought that one of our big high-pressure process units had blown up."
The scope of the emergency was much broader. Fire spread through 14 storage tanks measuring less than 60 feet in diameter. The remaining two were 134 feet in diameter, each containing 116,000 barrels of finished heating oil. In the main pipe band, more than 17 lines had ruptured, causing a spreading ground-spill fire fed by crude oil, benzene, gasoline, LPG, finished heating oil and other flammable products.
"The heat load from all the tank fires and the ground fire was incredible," Craft said. "I witnessed a 30-foot-tall, 40-foot-diameter slop tank blow completely off its foundation and land in the middle of a pipe band 500 feet away. I'd never seen a sight like that before."
With the power out, the refinery went into fail-safe mode, a safety feature build into all control systems. These systems defaulted to prearranged settings. The only means of control left to operators and emergency responders was to use manual valves, many of them now in the heart of the fire.
Before tackling those fires, the firefighters would have to find water. The severed lines included a 12-inch pipe providing water for firefighting. Even if the pipe had been untouched, the five hydrants in the immediate area of the fire had either been sheared away by the explosion, or the brass fittings inside were melted by the excessive heat.
Only one lucky break emerged in those early moments. Years earlier, the refinery wisely moved it main fire station to the southeast side of the facility. What had been the former location was now a no-man's land of tank fires, spill fires and pressure fires.
"All of our equipment and all of our ammunition would have been right there," Craft said.
Only two certainties stood apparent immediately after the explosion. Craft used his radio to articulate both. "I said 'This is the chief – we're had a major blast and we've got casualties.' I said that about casualties without confirming it because I knew it had to be true."
Physically reaching the most affected portions of the refinery was Craft's first major problem. Burning fuel 13 feet deep filled a vehicle underpass beneath the refinery's central rail line, trapping Craft on the wrong side. Also complicating the issue was a 20-inch high-pressure natural gas line running parallel to the track.
"It ruptured and went up like a big flare," Craft said.
With scattered wreckage blocking the road, Craft abandoned his truck and proceeded on foot. He had earlier predicted casualties. Finding fatalities was almost as likely. He and Williams soon found the first of two fatalities, a contract worker trapped inside a burning pickup truck.
"We tried to open the door but we couldn't get to him," Craft said. "It was an extended cab Ranger that just collapsed like an accordion. We almost burned the gloves off our hands."
Farther along the railroad track, Craft discovered a potential threat far greater than any of the burning tanks. Parked in a five-track-wide staging spur were 151 rail cars, none belonging to the refinery. Among them were tank cars containing everything from LPG to vinyl chloride.
Demanding attention first were three "candy strippers," a designation respected by anyone familiar with hazardous materials. "These are the only cars that the Association of American Railroads ever elected to color-code," Craft said. "If the tank car is white with a red stripe down the sides and around the ends, the contents are hydrocyanic acid, which becomes hydrogen cyanide when released."
Moving the threatened rail cars required intense negotiation with the rail yard personnel. The yard master finally agreed to personally operate the locomotive as long as a 15-car buffer was maintained between him and the hazardous material. He did not stop until the cars were 1½ miles from the refinery.
"There was enough hydrogen cyanide gas in those cars to kill half the population of Baton Rouge," Craft said. "At that time, the population was 300,000 people."
With the hydrocyanic acid removed, railroad workers proceeded to pull the remaining cars out of the yard one string at a time. All were safely removed save for one string, which derailed. Thankfully, those cars were empty.
Within the first hour of the emergency, the plant manager reached Craft to ask what he needed. Craft requested immediate assistance from Williams Fire & Hazard Control, then associated with Boots & Coots. In particular, Craft needed access to the ample supplies of specialized firefighting foam Williams F&HC could provide.
Dwight Williams got the word about Baton Rouge just as he was finishing 12-hours straight on another job in East Texas.
"I think I only slept about an hour and a half the night before," Williams said. "Les called and said Jerry had requested we attend and bring everything. That meant he had a barn-burnin' son-of-a-gun."
It would be 4:30 p.m., four hours after the blast before Williams F&HC reached Baton Rouge. Until then, Craft and his emergency responders struggled to cope.
With the rail yard secured, Craft next concentrated on the fires. He divided his firefighters into four 12-member teams. One team was assigned to find water. Two clarified river water tanks at the waste treatment plant provided several thousand gallons each. Using two fire engines or pumpers, that water was used on fires in the battery of small tanks
Another water source was a 12-inch valve in the northeast corner of the refinery. Unfortunately, the valve was frozen solid.
"When they asked me how I wanted to thaw that valve, I said 'Be creative!'" Craft said. "So they took three cardboard boxes, strapped them around the valve and set fire to them. It worked."
Firefighters used that connection to feed a 2,000-gpm Hired Gun monitor. A monitor is a nozzle so large that it operates from a fixed position rather than being carried by a firefighter. The Hired Gun was the largest monitor then available for industrial firefighting. But in 1989, large-diameter hose measuring five-inches in diameter or bigger was still relatively unknown in industrial fire protection. The largest available at the Baton Rouge refinery was 2½-inch hose. Again, firefighters had to be creative to make the necessary connection, resorting to a device known as a "Siamese" used to split one hose into two.
"The measured down from the 12-inch valve," Craft said. "They made connections that came out to a six-inch draw and then a five-inch, then siamesed it and went into the truck with several 2½-inches. It was enough to get the truck up to three-fourths capacity."
Firefighters brought in an aerial truck with a 1,000-gpm nozzle, moving the stream back and forth to battle another small battery of burning tanks. Using nozzle rated as small as 1,000 to 500 gpm amounted to hand-to-hand combat with a fire of this magnitude, Craft said.
Ordinarily, a lot of hose would have had to be laid in advance to operate these devices. At Baton Rouge, there was no time for anything nearly that elaborate.
"I told my guys to just keep walking with the fire," Craft said. "Add another section of hose to the end and keep advancing. Don't take time to move hose."
Just as firefighters searched for more water, the fire searched for more fuel. Finding it was easy. Fuel from broken pipelines and ruptured process piping readily spilled into the plant's sewer system.
"It was a constantly moving, running fire," Craft said.
Also feeding the fire were four API separators, which separate oil and suspended solids from wastewater. The separators measured about 100 feet wide and as long as a football field. Fuel oil continued pouring into them, then igniting. While firefights fought that, fire broke out almost a mile away in a reformer, a unit that makes lighter hydrocarbons into higher octane molecules and hydrogen.
"They breached a tube when the unit crashed and had gasoline components pouring out of the furnace on fire," Craft said. "We had to separate a team and go put that out. Then I got a call that a seal had failed in a big pump at the chemical plant, causing a fire there. We had to take resources and go put that out."
The ongoing ground fire attack developed its own complications. Four 60-foot-diameter tanks burning in one area contained lube oil. A docile product most of the time, lube oil can ignite at high temperatures. The heat it produces when it does is staggering, Craft said.
"We could literally see through the tanks," he said. "They were burning in depth and it was so hot we could see the level through the walls of the tanks."
Les and Dwight Williams arrived from Texas that afternoon with a team of seven people. With a career in industrial firefighting stretching more than 40 years, Dwight Williams said Baton Rouge ranks among the worst fire he has ever witnessed. His team saw the glow from the burning refinery from more than 50 miles away.
"You've got to remember that I saw five tanks boil over at the Magpetco fire near Beaumont in 1974," Williams said. "At one time, that fire was as big as the Baton Rouge fire. Thank God a boil-over burns out real quick."
Up to that point, the refinery firefighters had been doing a good job of playing defense.
"Basically, they were hold the fire in check," Williams said. "They were applying foam to the tanks from the ground from the upwind side, knocking down some of the radiant heat. They hadn't put any tanks out yet, but they were knocking down some ground fire."
By this point, Craft said he found himself working more and more from the refinery's emergency operations center (EOC), also known as the "war room," where management waited to be briefed. Increasingly, Craft would adopt an impromptu incident command structure, monitoring progress from the EOC by radio. An array of outside agencies lending support – the EPA, Coast Guard, the Baton Rouge Fire Department and the Louisiana State Police hazmat division – were also on hand. However, Craft retained ultimate authority.
"The Baton Rouge Fire Department has no jurisdiction inside our refinery," Craft said. "They will only bring equipment and that's all."
David White arrived at the refinery after the Williams crew. The frigid temperature gave him reason to reconsider his invitation.
"I had never seen Les Williams wear a bunker coat on the job before," White said. "Instead of wearing it to keep the heat out, he wore it to keep out the chill."
White brought his Nikon with him. He sought out Craft at the EOC for permission to take photos.
"The answer was no," White said. "He wasn't rude, just adamant. When visiting at a secure facility with guards and locks, I find it always best to ask."
Instead, Les Williams gave White an assignment. The Williams team needed at least 2,000 gallons of water a minute to tackle the two biggest tanks burning. White teamed with a lieutenant in the Baton Rouge Fire Department and set out to find a source. They found it at a delayed coker unit on the northeast side of the refinery. Delayed coking further processes what remains of crude oil after every bit that can be used for gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, diesel or feed stocks is extracted.
Using heavy equipment, firefighter broke through the wall of a containment dike that surrounded the coker's cooling tower to reach 50,000 barrels of water.
"Water stood six feet deep in a large, above-ground basin," White said. "the overhead fin fans (of the cooling tower) had been blown away. All we had to do is crack about two-inches of ice on the surface."
That was not the only ice White encountered.
"I remember at one point thinking my fire coat was getting awfully heavy," White said. "Looking over my shoulder I found about an inch of ice on my back. The only thing you could do is fine a tank that was still burning and walk along the dike wall until the ice melted."
Taking action at the coker unit also gave firefighters access to the well water system, powered by an independent diesel turbine that kept the tower filled. Moving the water to where it was needed was now the issue. It would require multiple pumpers and an abundance of five-inch diameter hose. Owing to the cold snap, Baton Rouge municipal firefighters were busy with numerous fires across town related to poorly maintained heating systems. Getting enough pumpers meant calling in favors from surrounding cities.
As mentioned before, the plant fire brigade still used 2½-inch hose. Fortunately, municipal firefighters who often scrounge for water kept lots of large-diameter hose on hand. Aside from hose, the Baton Rouge Fire Department provided 40 members of its rookie class at the Louisiana State University Fire & Emergency Training Institute to help stretch that hose for the tandem pumping operations.
With the help of nine 1,000 gpm municipal pumpers and the first five-inch hose to arrive, firefighters relayed water 3,500 feet to a second 2,000 gpm monitor borrowed from another plant. Hours earlier, White, making top speed down Interstate 10, passed a monster pump in route to Baton Rouge from a Texas refinery. This pump now took the initial role in moving the big water needed.
"First, we laid hose to the pump," White said. "From there we established a relay between the various pumpers until the water got back to Les and Dwight."
Volunteer firefighters unfamiliar with relay operations found it hard to ignore the pressure gauges and simply move the water, White said.
"I told them 'When the hose gets soft, ease your throttle off and just pump at that pressure," White said.
Still, nothing approaching the amount of water needed was being delivered.
"A Baton Rouge Fire Department pumper was the first in the relay, taking a 2,000-gpm draft out of the tower," White said. "However, the maximum pressure we could get coming off the second truck in the relay, the refinery's own pumper, was only 40 psi. What could be wrong? We had both trucks wound up like nine-day clocks."
A major design flaw became painfully apparent in the refinery's own pumper. As requested, the manufacturer had installed a five-inch discharge. But inside the truck, only a 2½-line connected to a two-inch ratio controller fed that discharge. The best pressure was the maximum that the two-inch source would allow. One the brigade pumper was taken out of the relay, pressure went up 20 pounds, White said.
That was not the only example where the laws of hydrodynamic worked against the firefighters. Most refineries are built to be interchangeable with any other refinery owned by the same company, right down to the threads on the fire hose. That other local refineries or municipal responders may use a different thread is rarely taken into consideration. Because of non-standard hose couplings, firefighters in Baton Rouge could not connect to two key pieces of equipment, the foam educator and the jet ratio controller, using the available three-inch line.
A foam educator introduces foam concentrate into the nozzle's water supply. Adding a jet ratio controller means the source of that concentrate can be placed much further away from the actual fire. To self-educt, at least 600 gallons per minute of water/foam needs to reach the nozzle. Sucking enough, water/foam through 1,000 feet of 2½-inch hose to self-educt was physically impossible.
Les Williams solve the solution issue. Nearly 80,000 gallons of 3M ATC (alcohol type concentrate) arrived from stockpiles across the Gulf Coast in 55-gallon drums. Using a small pump, Williams moved the foam concentrate into a tank truck one drum at a time. Then, using a 500 gpm pump and a 2½-inch hose he pumped to the nozzle under pressure, allowing the self-educting nozzle to correctly proportion the foam.
At the working end of this arrangement was the latest in Williams F&HC Big Gun monitor nozzle technology. Today, these monitors come trailer mounted. Back then, a Big Gun was a lot closer to permanent than portable. To move a Big Gun meant taking it apart, hauling the pieces to a new location, then bolting it back together. From a fixed position, its range of operation was only 15 degrees in either direction.
Firefighters trained the Big Gun on two 134-foot diameter tanks surrounded by a 200-foot diameter containment dike flooded with burning hydrocarbon.
"Those 134 footers were delivering by far the most heat and black smoke," Williams said. "They were the most destructive."
Taking on the toughest job is standard for a contract firefighter. It usually means working downwind while the plant fire brigade works upwind, Williams said. That was the case at Baton Rouge when the responders combined to attack the two largest burning tanks.
"Herschel Stafford and his crew were working on the upwind side of the fire," Williams said. "We had a plan where he was going to hit his tank, then within about 10 minutes we would hit ours. We had a big ground fire in front of us, probably 200 feet worth, and another 150 feet of ground fire downwind of us."
The worst of the heat bore down on the Williams team.
"It was so hot it burned the handles off the fire truck and burned the first hose we put on it," Williams said.
By the time Williams replaced the hoses, Stafford had eliminated the bulk of the ground fire. That gave Williams and his personnel more room to operate.
"Going by the book, you're supposed to extinguish the ground fire first," Williams said. "We didn't do that."
Instead, firefighters attacked the burning contents of the tanks with foam. Once those flames collapsed, the remaining foam was applied to the ground fire. A handful of firefighters known as the react team then moved in to put out anything left on the ground.
Strange as it seems, Craft said that ground fire was soon missed. Darkness was already falling, bringing another plunge in temperature.
"Even firefighters in Canada aren't used to fighting fire in sub-freezing weather, but they're better at it than us firefighters in South Louisiana."
White said he had never seen firefighting foam freeze. Minutes before, the burning heating oil had been so hot it had thermal cracked into lighter hydrocarbons. Now a crusty three-foot layer of frozen foam floated atop the extinguished fuel.
Not all the fire was out yet. Even with the containment dike and storage tank extinguished, some flanges continued to burn. On one in particular, a containment dike flooded with fuel blocked Dwight and his crew from reaching a flange fire 75 to 100 feet away with dry chemical agent. The only possible option – using the boat – had already been forbidden by Les Williams.
Dwight asked David White to keep his father busy on the other side of the tank while the 14-foot aluminum skiff was placed in the dike.
"I took Les aside on some pretext," White said. "Meanwhile, Dwight set sail. Thankfully, he got away with it again. That didn't save me from catching the unvarnished dickens from Les, though. 'I told you not to let him in that boat!' he hollered."
A voyage about the S.S. Weenie Roast is something Williams would not even consider today.
"But those were the days when there wasn't any rule book on tank fire extinguishment," White said. "Les and Dwight were still writing it, one fire at a time, each one teaching them something new. Out of that on-the-job research came the Williams F&HC methodology, a technique that revolutionized flammable liquid firefighting. Another result was HydroChem technology that allowed delivery of foam, water and dry chemical through the same device from a greater and safer distance."
Throughout the night, firefighters slowly regained control, using 45,000 gallons of foam to extinguish the refinery fires. That amount exceeded the supply normally kept on hand at the refinery, but proved far less than the quantity shipped to the site during the emergency.
"The book tells you we should have used about 70,000 gallons," Craft said.
Not one firefighter suffered an injury. Besides the contract worker who died in the burning truck, a second refinery employee died in the initial explosion and fire. Identification was made from dentures found in a burned out two-story office building. The body itself was completely consumed by the flames. Today, such office space has been moved further from the process area to eliminate potential ignition source in a vapor release.
"This was a general work area with offices, Coke machines and coffee makers," Craft said. "Since then they've moved the control room, the pipe band and changed the policies and philosophies about what it allowed in these work stations."
On Christmas Day, the refinery manager treated the firefighters to a hot breakfast in the cafeteria. Every window in the place was broken, White said, so neither the meal nor the diners stayed warm for long.
Then came Craft's biggest disappointment of the entire emergency. Catching sight of White, Craft asked if he had gotten any good photos of the refinery fire brigade.
"You told me not to take any," White replied.
"David," the crestfallen Craft replied, "You don't have to pay attention to everything I tell you."
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.
See all comments