Explosion in San Juan, Puerto Rico, shows importance of knowing emergency responder limitations and utilizing skills of experts

Aug. 1, 2010
WHEN a fuel-air explosion ignited the Buncefield fire in December 2005 at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal and destroyed 20 large storage tanks

WHEN a fuel-air explosion ignited the Buncefield fire in December 2005 at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal and destroyed 20 large storage tanks in the United Kingdom's largest peacetime blaze, they said it was a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.

But that lifetime lasted less than four years, as a similar explosion rocked the Gulf Terminal in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on October 25, 2009, consuming 22 tanks and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of nearby residents.

Once in a lifetime? How about three times in less than four years? Just a week after the Puerto Rico disaster, a fire broke out in 11 oil tanks at the Indian Oil Corp (IOC) terminal in Jaipur, India, killing 11 workers and injuring 45. Eight months later, police arrested nine senior company officials on charges of criminal negligence.

A report cited IOC personnel for failing to observe “normal safety procedure.” It concluded there was gross negligence during transfer of fuel from the storage tank, resulting in a fountain of gasoline spreading vapors over a 300-yard radius for 75 minutes before a spark triggered the fire that engulfed the entire depot.

In the San Juan incident, the fire initially involved 11 tanks. With the fire burning for two days and local resources unable to extinguish it, the call was finally made to Williams Fire & Hazard Control, a US-based firefighting response company that protects petrochemical facilities around the world and even US military assets and foreign governments.

Williams workers were on the scene within seven hours of the call, but much of the damage had already been done.

“They waited forever to make a call,” said Chauncey Naylor, vice-president of emergency-response services for Williams Fire & Hazard Control, who discussed terminal incident response during the International Liquid Terminals Association's 2010 Annual International Operating Conference. “Like just about every place, they tried to utilize local resources. By the time they realized that local resources were not meeting the challenge as far as capabilities and energy, four tanks were burning. When we arrived, only one tank was left of the 22 that were fully involved.

“With the equipment we brought with us and the foam chemical they acquired from one of our customers in St Croix (US Virgin Islands), we were able to set up and extinguish the fire. It took a few hours to set up using their resources for water, and we plugged in our equipment and put the fire out in 20 minutes. At that point, they turned around and said, ‘We should have called you two days ago.’ I was kind of like, ‘Yeah.’

“The lesson learned is the same lesson we've been preaching for years. That is, if you have a large exposure or potential target hazard that goes beyond the scope of your normal duties, you ought to have a contingency plan to fall back on. That, in this case, would be a contractor with the experience and ability to help you. It would be prudent to have that as part of your initial plan. If you call them and don't need them, the worst-case scenario is you send them home. If you get involved early, maybe you have an opportunity to preserve the assets on fire.”

Overfill event

Naylor said the cause of the incident was overfill of a storage tank. While the fuel was being pumped in, “somebody fell asleep at the wheel,” he said.

“Eleven storage tanks caught fire, which is beyond the capacity of every municipal fire department in the world, let alone an industrial fire department. They were overwhelmed from start. They did what they were trained to do. It just wasn't quite a match for the fire they faced.”

Multiple government agencies were there when Naylor arrived, including the US Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), and local National Guard, police and fire officials.

The terminal had staged a tsunami drill the week before and had not dismantled the building and setup, so it served as the perfect command post for the fire operation.

Williams' equipment included: throw-down Daspit tool with 4" waterway monitor and 1.5 Ranger nozzle; section 5"×10' fire hose; portable hydrant 5"×5" Storz X; four 2.5" NH inlets and portable 1500 WATP foam proportioning systems.

Local authorities were trying unsuccessfully to extinguish the blaze with a small water stream surround-and-drown method. Williams' advice was to shut down all of the water streams and use resources to mount a successful FootPrint attack.

Crews supplied 2.5" hose lines into the WFHC portable hydrant and Daspit tool delivery system, then connected the WATP systems to two pumpers just outside of the containment area to proportion the ThunderStorm ATC foam at 1%.

“They had been using a very small diameter hose, which meant a small volume of water,” he said. “They actually were complaining about access to water early on, and my response to that was, ‘How can you have a problem with access to water? You're on an island surrounded by water.’

“They got overwhelmed, and that was the problem. It took them a long time to recognize that. They had some contractors in there not suited for the job, and that didn't really help them.

“When we arrived, it was kind of a mess. Once we got a little bit of organization and cooperation, which didn't take very long, the National Guard supplied us with manpower to rearrange the hoses on the ground and fire trucks, and establish a water supply. Within a couple of hours, we were ready to pull the trigger. Within 20 minutes, the fire was out. We used less than 600 gallons of foam concentrate.

“It proved that the system works when you use it. And the equipment works when you have it. And chemical works when you have it and apply it. Our old saying here is, ‘Make your friends before you need them. And when you need them, call them in early.’ That's even if it's just us looking over your shoulder saying, ‘You're doing fine.’ Or, ‘It's not working, don't waste your resources.’ ”

Williams incorporated the local firefighters in the extinguishment to give them a sense of ownership, accomplishment, and pride.

“Under our direction, their employees finished the job,” he said. “It's their community. They can raise their heads up, saying, ‘We finished it.’ ”  ♦

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.