As a news story, the disaster that befell a 162,000-square-foot chemical plant in Waxahachie, Texas, might have remained local to the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex save for one factor – dramatic video of a tower ladder fire truck being consumed by flames in less than five minutes.
A rush of burning liquid suddenly swept through several open loading dock doors, spilling down an incline, said Waxahachie Fire Chief David Hudgins. The tower ladder was positioned at the bottom of the incline.
"The liquid just went under the truck and set it on fire," Hudgins said.
Video from a news helicopter showing flames engulfing the truck made the national news and went viral on the Internet. Fortunately, the firefighters onboard the vehicle made good their escape, including two riding in the extended bucket only moments before.
"That was close," Hudgins said.
On Oct. 3, 2011, a series of explosions rocked the Magnablend, Inc., chemical plant on the U.S. Hwy 287 bypass in Waxahachie, about 36 miles south of Dallas. The blasts were triggered by the preparation of a 2,500 gallons batch of a wastewater treatment product designed to remove heavy metals, Hudgins said.
"They had made it about 15 or 16 times before, but always in small batches of 500 gallons," he said.
It took firefighters 3½ hours to bring the massive fire under control, Hudgins said. Still, stubborn spot fires continued to burn at the site for the next four days.
Anybody who has seen the 1984 Sally Field Depression-era epic "Places in the Heart," filmed in Waxahachie, knows the town at its most scenic. Waxahachie is famed for one of the most picturesque county courthouses in the state. A number of other movies and television shows have used the town as a location as well.
In 1984, Hudgins, an engine driver for the Houston Fire Department, quit after 16 years with the department. Two years later he took charge of the Waxahachie Fire Department, which traces its roots back to the 1870s.
"It didn't take long to learn that the name is pronounced Wōk-za-hatch-e, not Wāx-a-hatch-e," Hudgins said.
Back then, Waxahachie had a population of about 17,500, slightly more than half of its population today. The paid department had two stations, two engines, a Quint and an ambulance. Minimum staffing per shift was eight people.
Today, Waxahachie is building its third fire station. The department has 15 personnel per shift, three more than required for minimum staffing. Apparatus includes four Pierce engines, a Pierce aerial and two booster trucks (A fifth Pierce engine on order for the new fire station arrived after the Magnablend fire). The ambulance has been replaced with a paramedic squad vehicle.
The Magnablend fire was only the latest in a rash of big fires that the department had dealt with in 2011. In February, a restaurant fire broke out in a historic downtown area dating from the 1800s. Four buildings were destroyed by the time firefighter gained control.
"The roof of the restaurant caved in, taking down part of the firewall," Hudgins said. "The fire got into the next business, then went through another firewall. A lot of the mortar between the bricks just turned to sand over time."
Two nasty hotel fires followed during a scorching summer that reached record setting triple digits throughout the state. Then, just when the temperature dipped to something livable, Magnablend happened.
For many years the massive plant located in a thinly populated area on the town's northside manufactured plastic pipe. When that business shut down, neighboring Navarro College bought the sizable property, reselling the plant and its immediate parcel to Magnablend.
Founded in Waxahachie in 1979, Magnablend specializes in powder and liquid blending for oil field and agricultural markets. The former pipe plant became the third local facility operated by the company.
Magnablend is hardly the only industrial concern for the Waxahachie F.D. The city also boasts plants making fiberglass products, packaging materials, building products, plastics and foam cups.
"Each plant is totally different and has its own little problems," Hudgins said.
Raw material stored on site at the affected Magnablend plant included anhydrous ammonia, urea, potash, nitric acid, diammonium phosphate, phosphorous and phosphoric acids, used in the manufacture of fertilizers and other products.
"This plant did so many different things," Hudgins said. "A large portion of the plant made high protein chicken feed that used a lot of sulfur dioxide."
The Magnablend site that caught fire employs about 40 people. On the morning of the fire, workers were occupied with the first attempt to scale up the manufacture of a wastewater treatment product from a routine batch of 500 gallons to an amount five times greater.
"This product generates hydrogen gas when it is made," Hudgins said. "Workers started getting what they described as a steam cloud off the product that scared them." True, previous batches had produced the same effect, but this cloud was overwhelming.
"That steam contained a lot of hydrogen gas, which is flammable," Hudgins said.
Hydrogen, like alcohol, burns very clean, making flames that are all but invisible.
"The workers could not see the ceiling for the rising cloud," Hudgins said. "Pieces of ash like burned paper started falling on them."
At least one escaping eyewitness observed flames that activated the sprinkler system. At about 10:45 a.m. the fire department received an automatic alarm from the plant simultaneous with numerous calls from Navarro College reporting smoke rising next door, Hudgins said.
"With an automatic alarm your first thought is always 'Yeah, right … ," he said. "Then, immediately, we received a call reporting that, yes, we do have a fire in the building."
Waxahachie's closest fire station to the Magnablend plant is less than five minutes away, Hudgins said.
"They raised their front doors and the next thing we heard on the radio was 'The sky is gray,'" he said.
Strangely enough, Chief Hudgins was acting as a battalion chief that morning.
"One of our captains was scheduled to take his Fire Officer II test, meaning he would be gone for about an hour and a half," Hudgins said. "To save paying overtime for a temporary replacement, his battalion chief suggested that he ride the engine as captain and that I take his place at battalion chief."
The captain taking the test was not gone 20 minutes when the Magnablend fire alarm sounded, Hudgins said.
In Waxahachie, the standard response for an automatic alarm is a single engine. Once confirmed, the Magnablend fire merited a box alarm including three engines, a ladder truck, battalion chief, assistant fire chief, fire marshal and battalion chief inspector.
Upon arriving at the fire, Hudgins' first action was to make a complete 360 degree reconnaissance of the plant site by car.
"I did notice a small opening around the back of the building that had fire shooting out like it was under pressure," Hudgins said. "On the metal wall of the south side of the building was a big circle that was glowing cherry red." Worse, the wind from the south was pushing flames out the large loading dock doors on the building's west side.
Hudgins joined one of his engines on the west side and established incident command. Following standard procedure, he designated the main entrance side of the building facing north as Division A, the east side as Division B, the south side as Division C and the west side as Division D.
"I told one of my engines to set up an unmanned monitor to aim through a loading dock doorway about 10-to-15 yards east of what had been the cherry red spot," Hudgins said. "That spot was now gone, with flames coming through the wall."
Within six minutes of Hudgins' establishing incident command, the gray smoke rising from the building began turning black. He grew concerned that the fire was spreading into different products, he said.
Putting firefighters inside the building was out of the question, he said. His first plan was to combine the unmanned monitor with a ladder pipe in the open doorway and hopefully confine the fire to the 20 percent of the building already affected. However, water issues immediately arose.
"We had no engine hooked up to a hydrant yet so we were only able to operate the ladder pipe," Hudgins said. "By the time we did get set up, an automatic fire door on the far side of the building had come down and we were not able to cut off the fire."
Meanwhile, Hudgins ordered firefighters on another Waxahachie engine to connect to the building's sprinkler system and pump into it.
"Due to the smoke, the firefighters had to use SCBA to reach the connection," he said.
Responders maintained 150 psi pumped into the sprinkler system, but only temporarily. Less than 10 minutes into the fire, the roof and part of the plant's back wall in Division C collapsed surrounding where flames had broken through that cherry red spot.
"About the time the back wall caved, the truck engine started to race to its maximum, telling us we had lost the sprinkler system," Hudgins said.
Among the first mutual aid firefighters to arrive were engines dispatched from nearby Midlothian and Red Oak.
"I assigned the Red Oak engine to set up a ground monitor in Division D," Hudgins said. "I sent the Midlothian engine to the A-B corner to prepare for a tower ladder en route from Ennis."
Despite the heavy smoke pouring from the building across Division A and a small portion of Division D, no smoke or flames were visible in Division B.
"I was working from a spot in the back of the building where I couldn't even see Division B," Hudgins said. "I was nearly a quarter mile away." Hence, a Waxahachie assistant chief took charge of Division B operations.
Two open loading dock doors faced east at the top of a gradual incline designed for fork lifts. Midlothian moved into position first, setting up their deck gun as a ground monitor. Firefighters decided to connect the supply line to the Ennis tower ladder when it arrived.
With Ennis on scene, the plan was to start sweeping through the open doors from the extended bucket of Ennis' Tower 9, a 22-year-old Sutphen TS100. The truck was affectionately known as "Doll" by the Ennis firefighters.
The 104-foot tower maneuvered into position perpendicular to the doors. Care was taken to point the truck toward Division A so it could drive straight out in the event of trouble, Hudgins said.
Not long after the aerial extended its bucket with two firefighters aboard a Midlothian assistant chief serving as safety officer noticed something unsettling, Hudgins said.
"Fire was visible at the far end of the building," he said. "Inside the building we had a bunch of mobile totes, anywhere from 300 to 500 gallons each, made from plastic," Hudgins said. "The radiant heat began to melt the plastic, dumping the mineral oil inside."
Although the oil did not immediately ignite, it began moving toward the Division B doorway in a wave, Hudgins said. Events moved so quickly that Midlothian never got the chance to charge its ground monitor..
The safety officer immediately ordered the firefighters to lower the aerial and evacuate the alley between Division B and an outdoor storage area for even more plastic totes.
Firefighters managed to rescue the bucket's occupants. The tower ladder itself could not be saved.
"By the time they could get the firefighters out of the bucket the liquid ignited," Hudgins said. "Luckily we got the firefighters out with no injuries."
With Doll enveloped in flames, the burning liquid continued flowing east. Immediately beyond the burning truck was a storage area filled with bucket-shaped totes. Two aluminum tank trailers were parked next to the totes. Beyond that were 10 railroad tank cars parked on a siding.
Now about 30 minutes into the fire, Hudgins ordered an area evacuation. Waxahachie police, the Ellis County Sheriff's Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety took charge. Police had already shut down U.S. Highway 287 and other roads surrounding the plant to give full access to emergency vehicles.
Lawmen cleared an elementary school, an assisted living facility, several apartment complexes, two factories and various businesses and residences, with more than 700 people removed.
"When the fire rolled out of the building toward those tank cars it was no longer manageable," Hudgins said.
It was later determined that the tank cars contained various flammable products that were flammable, including more mineral oil, Hudgins said.
"As far as toxicity, none of them were too bad," he said.
Further complicating the situation, not long after the fire reached Doll a wind shift began pushing the heavy smoke in Division D to the west. Firefighters were forced to quickly reposition two engines and a ladder truck.
"To get my engines and ladder out of there meant driving through a low water crossing, a drainage ditch about three or four feet deep, filled with product pouring out of the building," Hudgins said. "I told them to just cut their lines and go. They took a five-inch hose clamp, cut the water off just enough that they could disconnect and drove away."
One of the lines dropped to the ground somehow caught on the axle of one of the trucks.
"They just kept backing out with it," Hudgins said. "We just got over there and cut it off the axle with a knife."
Hudgins now found himself severely limited as to direct action possible against the fire.
"We couldn't attack from Division A because of the smoke and heat," he said. "We had lost Division B to the fire. We had moved our trucks out of Division C and were cut off from going back because we didn't know what was in the drainage ditch.
"All we could do now is attack from Division D and a small portion of the A-B corner."
In Division B, the fire continued to spread. First it reached the two tank trailers. But before it could spread beneath the railroad tank cars, most of the burning product collected in a drainage ditch parallel to the siding.
"It made the fire look a lot worse than it really was," Hudgins said. "Most of the flames were rising from the ditch."
Using a road beyond the railroad tracks, two engines opened up on the fire using their deck guns. Firefighters also positioned ground monitors to cool the tank cars. The water served to push the burning liquid down the ditch and away from the cars.
"You could tell that a fire had been impinging on the cars but they were only scorched," Hudgins said. "None of the cars ever vented. I had the railroad inspect them that night and all were approved to be moved."
Firefighters caught another break regarding the tank cars. A ladder truck from the city of DeSoto moved into position to cool the tank cars had surprising success extinguishing an intense but confined fire nearby.
"I was to the point of saying 'Hey, let's get an engine over there and see if we can put that out using foam. But the ladder truck already there managed to put it out easily. This stuff just went out with the water alone."
Hudgins turned down a company that offered to bring a trailer of foam and a nozzle to use it.
"By the time they could have set up operations it would have been a mop up stage," Hudgins said. "You're dealing with a building more than the size of two football fields. A ladder pipe would barely go halfway across. To try and get enough foam on the building would mean shutting down your other water operations."
Undermining the available water supply from two 12-inch mains was water pouring from the compromised sprinkler system inside the building, he said.
"We later found two giant pipes sticking up, water gushing out," Hudgins said. "That robbed our water and pressure."
Firefighters were not able to find the cut off valve for the sprinkler system for nearly two hours..
"We ended up having to call the water department," Hudgins said. "It turned out it was located on the B side near the railroad track. So we were finally able to kill that, but it was hours into the fire."
With off duty personnel ordered to the scene, Waxahachie had 45 firefighters responding. That allowed Hudgins to employ all three of his main fire engines, plus his reserve engine.
"We even had both grass trucks in service using off-duty firefighters," he said. Drought conditions made the risk of grass fires high. "We had grass fires breaking out all over the place."
Assisting Hudgins' own officers were chief officers from Midlothian, Red Oak and DeSoto.
"My vehicle served as the command vehicle," Hudgins said. "When the Red Oak chief got there I told him I wanted him to stay in command with me. Our two cars became command vehicles." Later, the DeSoto Fire Department brought their command van, complete with conference room, closed circuit television, radios and computers.
The unified command structure included the police, city manager, city public information officer and, eventually, Dallas hazmat. Even Waxahachie's public works department played a vital role.
"I had them go over to Navarro College," Hudgins said. "There is a deep ditch with two pipes that run under the road. I told them to dam that up. They got busy with their front end loaders."
The cities of Forreston and Ovilla also arrived with engines. Ovilla also supplied a rehab truck equipped with an air compressor. Still, Hudgins said he could have used even more help.
"If I had it to do all over again I would have started getting more help and a few more engines from cities like Duncanville and Cedar Hill," he said.
Also responding was the Dallas Fire Department hazardous materials unit.
"They were testing the water to see if we had any vapors that required foam," Hudgins said. "I also put them in charge of directing the public works people in damming and diking operations. They worked on identifying the contents of the rail cars too."
Representatives of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were on hand to monitor environmental impact.
"The EPA let me know that they were already monitoring the air 360 degrees around the site and were bringing in a plane to fly through the smoke plume to take samples," Hudgins said.
Even more hands on in dealing with hazardous materials were responders with the Lancaster Fire Department who took charge of personnel decontamination.
"We had people that had to be deconed after going through that flooded ditch," Hudgins said.
With the railcars safe and the fire in the ditch extinguished, Hudgins ordered firefighters to begin working the fire from the D side and the A-B corner.
"We set up master streams on the D division to knock down the fire from that side and moved the DeSoto ladder to the A-B corner," Hudgins said. "There was no way to get to the B-C corner and that's where all the runoff was going. We never felt safe putting anybody in that corner after that."
By 2:30 p.m., most of the fire was out except for some totes near the front of the building. However, extinguishing intense spot fires continued to be an issue for the rest of the week.
Early in the emergency Hudgins asked the plant manager if Magnablend had an environmental cleanup company on retainer. By 4 p.m. environmental specialists ES&H were on site, with mobile steel storage tanks known as frac tanks. Two vacuum trucks arrived the first day with more to come.
Putting out the spot fires became ES&H's problem, Hudgins said. Waxahachie did keep a fire engine on site for the rest of the week in case of flare ups.
"Among other things this plant made chicken feed," Hudgins said. "It had turned into a bubbling, mush-like stuff that just kept burning. They tried to use foam on it but as the stuff bubbled it would reignite. You had to rake off the top, foam it, and keep doing it over and over."
The sulfur content of the chicken feed lent a pungent odor to the fire ground that lasted many days, he said.
"It's still there," Hudgins said in mid-November. "Every time it rains it smells like a mildewed sack of feed."
Another problem was reaching the spot fires through the metal wreckage, he said. Nearly 600 tons of metal was removed from the site for recycling after the fire.
"You had to have heavy equipment to move the metal and get to the fire," Hudgins said. "It was very time consuming and you had a lot of voids where the building had collapsed."
A press release issued by Magnablend reports that nearly 630,000 gallons of runoff had collected in drainage ditches adjacent to Navarro College. Aggravating the runoff situation was a sudden break in the summer long drought affecting the region.
"We were doing real good and got all the water picked up," Hudgins said. "We had started cleaning the runoff areas, taking the soil out, and got hit with a monsoon that went from Saturday to Sunday."
With the drainage ditches filled again, the clean up crews started over.
"We got all the water out and then, Tuesday night, we got about an inch of rain again," Hudgins said. "So every time we made progress we had to go back and do it again." Rain continues to be a problem at the site.
By the end of October, Magnablend had removed nearly 1.3 million gallons of water using licensed waste disposal companies and municipalities. A majority of that water had been stored awaiting permanent disposal.
"At this point, once the water is tested and treated, it can be disposed of by placing it in the sewer and letting the water treatment plant handle it," Hudgins said.
The company also removed nearly 1,000 tons of solid waste from the site, including impacted soil.
"We're still trying to move dirt, but the landfills will only take so much of it at one time," Hudgins said.
Much of the ditch system on site was remediated to mitigate the unpleasant odors caused by biodegradation and sulfur-containing materials.
More than one person has put the following question to Hudgins – "Did you ever think about backing off and getting out?' "No," he said, because of how rapidly the situation at Magnablend evolved, forcing an ongoing change of tactics.
"We went from thinking that we could cut the fire off and only lose part of the building, then fighting to keep it confined to the building because of those railcars outside," Hudgins said. "When it got to the railcars we had to deal with that. Then it started down the ditches toward Navarro College."
On Side D, firefighters were able to make progress against the fire. Unfortunately, those firefighters were cut off from assisting on Side B where responders continued to chase the fire, Hudgins said.
"If one of those rail cars had begun to vent and my division officer said 'I have nothing else to put on it,' at that point I would have had everybody get out."
In the final analysis, firefighters found themselves overpowered by the staggering amount of fire they faced, Hudgins said.
"We just didn't have enough guns to do battle with that fire," he said. "Where we could hit it we could knock it down, but there were so many flammable liquids we just didn't have enough power."
Editor's note: Industrial Fire World editor Anton Riecher was editor of the Ennis Daily News when Tower 9 first saw service there in 1989.
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