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Terminal disaster

THE LARGEST fire in England since World War II was ignited in the early-morning hours of December 11, 2005, at a gasoline terminal facility near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire and swept through the surrounding area, causing $2 billion in damage. The blast that preceded the fire registered 2.4 on the Richter scale, but miraculously no one died in the disaster.

“If this had been a bomb, I think it would have looked the same,” said David White of Fire and Safety Specialists Inc. He detailed the disaster, and efforts at controlling it, and discussed lessons learned that can benefit US storage and terminaling facilities. He made the remarks at the Independent Liquid Terminals Association International Operating Conference June 5-7 in Houston, Texas.

White voiced concern of the firefighting ability in the United States to contend with a similar disaster, particularly in situations where there would be multiple terminal fires. He advised storage and terminaling facilities to plan for the worst-case scenario when they consider emergency response procedures. He recommended that companies train not only their own employees, but firefighters in nearby communities. He said city water systems should be upgraded to produce 1,000 gallons per minute.

“Now is the time to be proactive,” he said. “Do an analysis of firefighting ability that is available. Backup systems are essential.”

At the blaze in England, firefighters were overwhelmed by the situation. They arrived at the scene to find most of the firefighting equipment at the facility and others in the area either destroyed or damaged. Storage tank roofs had been blown off, landing in nearby parking lots. Adjoining office buildings received heavy damage, some were destroyed, so much so that 4,000 employees still have not been able to return to work, White said.

Further complicating the firefighting were English environmental authorities who prevented foam from being used for the first 24 hours, and after that the product had to be obtained at high cost. At one point, water was shut off by officials because of environmental concerns.

“These things, when they happen, are really going to challenge you — and you had better be ready,” White said.

In investigations after the disaster, officials determined that the fire was caused when a storage tank was overfilled, spilling 100,000 gallons of product into a dike. Vapors from the product were ignited.

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