Editor’s Note: On Dec. 19, 1982, a large crowd of power plant workers and local residents in Tacoa, Venezuela, gathered to watch a burning crude oil storage tank. Nearly eight hours had passed since the tank first caught fire. Had the observers better understood a devastating phenomenon known as boilover, the eruption of steam and hot oil that followed would not have claimed more than 150 lives. The firsthand accounts of those who witnessed the event emphasize the obvious — the potential for boilover must be treated with respect.
Café owner Benjamin Frontado remembers a national guardsman running down the street ahead of the burning oil. Frontado’s neighbor’s 10-year-old daughter stood against a wall, too frightened to move.
The guardsman scooped her up, carried her to safety, then ran back to rescue someone else. He never made it. They found his body in the sea three days later. Frontado himself turned and ran down the hill. The heat was indescribable, he said, the most agonizing pain he ever felt.
Draftsman Jose Marcano tried to reach the houses near the tank to help any victims trapped there. The heat and smoke were unbearable. Struggling forward he came upon two young firemen lying unconscious in a ditch.
“I pulled them out and began to drag them to safety when I realized that flames were coming toward us,” Marcano said. “With nowhere to run I jumped back to the ditch. When I turned to the firemen, they were not there anymore. They had been consumed by the flames.”
Police officer Carlos Antonio Vergara describes the tragedy as follows:
“It was the last Sunday before Christmas. Dawn was breaking over the sleeping seaside village of Arrecife, Venezuela, when three employees of the Electricidad de Caracas Tacoa generating plant drove up the hill to the foot of Storage Tank 8.
Two men climbed to the top of the 56-foot (17-meter) container to make a routine check of the fuel level. The third man, Alexis Alzaul, remained with the jeep below.
“Suddenly, at 5:45 a.m., the top of the tank blew off with a shattering roar. Only one-third full with 3.5 million gallons of heavy fuel oil, the tank burst into flames, sending dense black smoke hundreds of feet into the air. The two men on the tanker were killed. Alzaul, on the ground, barely managed to escape.”
The fire department was alerted and, within minutes, five trucks and 25 firemen from La Guaira fire station, 15 miles east, were clanging along the winding road to the Tacoa plant, followed by more than 50 firemen and equipment from neighboring fire stations and from Caracas, 30 miles (50 kilometers) southeast.
Over 300 police, national guardsmen, civil defense volunteers and other rescue groups also arrived throughout the morning. Newspapers and TV stations sent reporters, photographers and camera crews.
The police cleared the village of its residents and established a safety perimeter around the fire. However, some residents refused to leave their houses. The newsmen and photographers would not be kept out. Many of them got as close to the blaze as the firemen themselves.
The fire was very difficult to reach. The burning tank stood on a steep hillside 180 feet (55 meters) above sea level, surrounded by a 56-foot (17-meter) high earthen dike whose top could not be approached because of the heavy smoke and intense heat.
Assessing the situation, the firefighters came to the conclusion that the foam and water in the trucks were not enough to combat the inferno. The oil would have to burn itself out. Instead firefighters concentrated on controlling a burning oil leak coming from the dike of Tank 8, to avoid igniting Tank 9 nearby.
At 11:30 a.m. a report was radioed to Caracas that the fire was under control. The dikes near the burning tank were lined with firemen and newsmen. Almost the entire management of the electric company stood watching from a bluff less than 200 feet (60 meters) away.
The alleys between the nearby houses were crowded with fire equipment, ambulances, police cars, television vans and private automobiles. Plant workers, rescue teams, police and firefighters milled around with nothing to do. To one observer, the scene seemed “more like a fiesta than a fire.”
But inside the burning tank an ominous thing was happening. Mixed with the oil at the bottom of the container was a layer of water, which the fire had super heated to its boiling point.
At 12:15 p.m. the water suddenly flashed into steam, expanding 1,700 times in volume to create what petroleum fire experts call a “boilover.” The tank erupted like a volcano, shooting burning oil 1500 feet (450 meters) into the air, forming a giant fireball nearly 2,000 feet (over 600 meters) long and 800 feet (275 meters) wide.
This was the first time the phenomenon was ever known to occur in a fire of heavy fuel oil. Up to then it had been associated only with crude oil.
The eruption snuffed out the lives of some 20 firemen and an unknown number of newsmen on the dike. Descending in all directions the burning rain set fire to people, vehicles, houses, even boats in the water as much as 1,500 feet (1450 meters) away.
“This burning oil missed the electric company executives watching from the nearby bluff, but as they fled they were overtaken by a wave of heat estimated to have reached more than 1,500 degrees Centigrade,” said Electricidad president Oscar Machado Zuloaga. “It scorched the backs of their heads, necks and arms, singeing their lungs when they took a deep breath like a giant flamethrower.”
As the searing heat reached the vehicles parked on the hill, gas tanks exploded like bombs. Glass windshields dissolved and the melting aluminum engines of the fire trucks dripped to the earth in puddles. To escape the excruciating blast, people threw themselves into the ocean, including many who could not swim.
Carried by the wind, the wave of heat scorched people in the houses above the fire, including a baby sleeping on a hillside three kilometers away.
But worse was in store. Thirty seconds behind the heat blast came torrents of burning oil, which mingled with the melted asphalt of the roads to form molten rivers eight inches thick.
Following the contours of the hill, the blazing mixture ran down roads and alleys, poured over walls, through gardens and houses, igniting everything it touched. Thick black smoke turned day into night. At the bottom of the hill the lava flamed over beaches and into the sea, burning on the surface and killing many of the struggling swimmers.
Sitting in his helicopter parked on the beach, Metropolitan Police pilot Josg Paolucci was unaware of what was happening until he saw screaming children running along the sand with blistered skin and flesh “dripping from their bodies like wax from a candle.” Suddenly he felt the melted Plexiglas of the windshield falling on his hands. He dived into the bay just as the helicopter gas tank exploded.
“There was no time to think,” he said, “only to react.” Paolucci escaped by swimming underwater, using his arms to flail the fire away from his face each time he came up for air.
Freddy Garcia, of Radio Caracas Television was waiting for one of his crew mates to return with batteries for his camera when he noticed policemen fleeing. Turning toward the tank, Garcia saw a tongue of fire rushing at him. He began to run, the searing heat burning hotter and hotter into his back. When he reached a fire truck, he dived under it, breaking his arm. When other fleeing policemen yelled to him that the truck was on fire he scrambled out and ran with them.
With the sun blotted out by the dense smoke, the men groped their way along a hill by the light of exploding cars until they found a row of houses built into the hillside below. As Garcia and the policemen jumped down to the roof of the nearest house, one officer fell through the tiles to the floor below, breaking both legs. With the front entrance blocked by blazing oil, his comrades had to climb down through the hole, lift him back up to the roof and carry him from one rooftop to another.
At one point they were completely encircled by flames and smoke, not knowing which way to go.
“Panic began,” Garcia said. “One policeman put his revolver to his head, preparing to kill himself.”
Before he could pull the trigger, something exploded, Garcia said. The brief flash of light illuminated a clear path to the sea. The men jumped to another house, and then down to the beach. Fire still surrounded them. Circling around the generating plant, they met a group of firefighters. The firefighters chopped a hole through a wall, allowing everyone to crawl to safety.
Some people survived by desperate ingenuity. Jose Marcano saved himself by breaking into a house and standing under the bathroom shower. Chemist Jesus Alberto Marquis sought refuge in the water clarification plant, which he knew to be safe because water flowed through its roof and walls.
“It is difficult to describe how fast things happened,” Marquis said. “With the burning rain, the heat and the blazing oil following each other only seconds apart, there was no time even to think of helping others.”
Yet many people did. Marquis, himself, paused in the terrible heat to drag to safety a policeman who had collapsed of his burns. Other brave folks, whose names are not known, were seen staggering from the flames carrying people on their backs. Many died in the attempt to save others. Some were found still holding bodies in their arms.
Coordinated rescue attempts were possible only at the edge of the holocaust. At the landing dock, cafe owner Benjamin Tamakfin Frontado waited for the fiery rain to pass, then swam to a friend’s launch and made trip after trip through the flaming sea to pick up people struggling in the water.
Some were so badly burned that the skin slipped from their arms when he pulled them aboard. He and his son are credited with saving more than 30 lives.
On the beach, the men of the police special brigade (Spt Brigada Especial de la Polica Metropolitana) plunged into the smoke to bring out more than 150 men, women and children who emerged from the flames like ghosts, their feet and legs so badly burned that most of them had to be carried.
Pablo Jose Silva, 22, rescued seven victims before the soles of his heavy police boots burned through. One small boy’s hair was on fire when Silva found him. Others he carried out were so horribly burned that the memory of them still causes him to wake at night in a cold sweat. Silva and one of his companions were later decorated for bravery.
The victims, numb with shock or moaning in pain, were loaded into ambulances, trucks and cars. Drivers raced out of the danger area at high speed to keep their tires from bursting on the smoking roads. In nearby hospitals, doctors and nurses worked around the clock to save as many patients as possible.
“It was the worst day I ever expect to live through,” said Nurse Iris Salazar of the Jose Maria Vargas Hospital in La Guaira.
After the boilover, the burning oil flowed into the dike of Storage Tank 9. Several hours after the first blast, its contents ignited. Fortunately, it was a simple fire, with no boilover and no additional casualties. On Wednesday, three days after the fire had started, the last of the flames flickered out.
In terms of death and injuries the Tacoa disaster was the worst oil-storage fire in history. More than 150 people perished, including 53 firefighters, 14 electric-company workers, and ten journalists and TV crewmen. About 300 more people were burned or injured.
Of the bodies found in the vicinity of the burning tank, many charred beyond recognition, most could be identified only by their dental work and the metal objects they wore. Some could not be identified at all. Even the fillings in their teeth had melted. The remains of other people known to have been at the fire were never found. They either lie in the sea or were incinerated to ash.
Property losses reached more than $20 million. More than 60 vehicles and a helicopter were reduced to twisted heaps of melted metal. All that remained of the fire trucks were their asbestos hoses and the metal cleats of the firemen's shoes. Some 70 homes burned down or were badly damaged.
The fire shocked Venezuela. While the ruins were still smoking, a national commission was appointed to investigate the causes of the disaster. The Electricdad de Caracas also commissioned the U.S. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to conduct a further assessment of what went wrong at the Tacoa plant.
Fire experts are still trying to solve the two mysteries of the Tacoa fires — what started it and how the boilover occurred. After the fire, it was said that the plant workers who climbed to the top of the tank might have forgotten to bring a flashlight, striking a match to illuminate the interior of the tank.
“But there’s no way that heavy oil vapor could possibly have been ignited by a match, unless the oil was heated to an abnormal- ly high temperature, filling the air above it with combustible fumes,” Martin Henry, one of the NFPA investigators who visited the Tacoa plant, said. As to how, for the first time in history, sluggish fuel oil could boil over, he can offer even less explanation.
“Until this fire,” Henry said, “I would not have considered either event possible.”
It was ultimately determined that the heavy fuel had been blended from a wide selection of light ends. This led to the subsequent boilover.