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Refinery Fire Forces Improvisation

Traffic thinned to almost nothing on Interstate 10 heading east on that terrible Christmas Eve in 1989. Holiday or not, people in Louisiana had better sense than to drive in the freakish sub-freezing temperatures that had descended on their typically tropical state.

Not that Louisiana looked cold on TV. An explosion and fire at Fire Chief Jerry Craft's refinery in Baton Rouge led the news nationwide, including Texas. All that rippling heat made Louisiana look real snuggly. I called Dwight Williams to find out if Jerry had extended us an invitation. He said yes. I might have sent my regrets if I had understood that the state was colder than the fillings in a dead walrus' teeth.

Flames visible from an astonishing distance terminated the long, empty corridor I was traveling. En route I passed John Williams, a fire chief with Texaco, towing a monster pump at a top speed of 50 mph. It was obvious we were heading to the same place but my load was lighter. I zipped past faster than a squirrel dodging traffic at Daytona.

As fast as I was going Les and Dwight Williams still beat me to the scene. That frigid day in Baton Rouge was one of the few times I saw Les wear a fire coat on the job. More than the heat, he wore it to keep out the chill. Even if he did forget to bring a comfortable jacket, Les soon proved he was still a man of considerable foresight.

"David," he said, "I don't care what you do but don't let Dwight get in that (bleep)ing boat."

Nobody was particularly fond of the S.S. Weenie Roast, including Dwight. The 14-foot aluminum skiff made its introduction in August 1983 at a storage tank fire in Chalmette, LA. Flames spewed forth from an open manifold at the base of the tank. The only way to reach it was to negotiate the gasoline flooded dike in the small boat. A rope line tied to the bow was the only safety margin if the gasoline flashed.

Les already suspected that using the boat might have to be considered before this job was done.

Firefighters were just starting to get a handle on the calamity facing them. Fire rose from a 15-acre stretch of burning petrochemicals that included 16 storage tanks. Worse, the initial blast had wrecked the emergency fire water system. Since the mains were above ground, any water left was quickly frozen. Either way, the responders had nothing to put on the fire. Eventually, firefighters established one or two hoselines running uphill from a fire boat on the Mississippi.

Visiting Jerry Craft's command post, I asked an important question for a magazine publisher.

"Jerry, do you want me to take pictures?"

"No," he said. He wasn't rude, just adamant. When a guest at a secure facility with guards and locks, I find it always best to ask. Jerry then turned back to any of a dozen more important issues at hand. I would have to find some other way to make myself useful.

Les had a job for me. He needed at least 2,000 gallons of water per minute to tackle the two biggest of the burning tanks. I got together with a Baton Rouge Fire Department lieutenant and started looking for a source. We found it in a cooling tower damaged by the blast. Water stood six feet deep in a large, above-ground basin, the overhead fin fans having been blown away. All we had to do is crack about two inches of ice on the surface.

Next we needed 15 to 20 pumpers equipped with five-inch hose to move the water. Owing to the cold snap, Baton Rouge firefighters were busy with numerous fires all across town. Getting enough pumpers meant calling in favors from the surrounding municipalities. As for the hose, this was the era before five-inch hose became commonplace. The plant fire brigade itself was still using 2?-inch hose.

That pump I passed on I-10 came in handy when it arrived. First, we laid hose to the pump. From there we established a relay between the various pumpers until the water got back to Les and Dwight. The hard part was teaching the responding volunteer firefighters to ignore their gauges and simply move the water. "When the hose gets soft, ease your throttle off and just pump at that pressure," I said.

A Baton Rouge pumper was the first in the relay, taking a 2,000 gpm draft out of the tower. However, the maximum pressure we could get coming off the second truck in the relay, the fire brigade's own pumper, was 40 psi. What could be wrong? We had both trucks wound up like nine-day clocks.

Never take anything for granted when drawing specifications for a fire truck. What might seem obvious to you might not seem so obvious once the work is divided between a half dozen assembly line workers on the factory floor. As specified, the manufacturer had installed a five-inch discharge in the brigade's pumper. But beyond that discharge was a two-inch ratio flow controller feeding into a 2?-inch line. Good intentions aside, the best pressure possible was what that two-inch line would allow. Once we took the brigade truck out of the relay we gained more than 20 pounds more pressure.

That wasn't the only example of where the laws of hydrodynamics were against us. Because of non standard couplings, we couldn't connect to the jet ratio controller foam eductor using 3-inch hose. We needed at least 600 gpm for the nozzle to self educt. There was no way to suck enough water/foam through 1,000 feet of 2?-inch hose to make it work.

Les Williams proved his genius once again. His solution involved filling a tank truck with foam concentrate. Remember, this was back when foam came in 55-gallon drums, not totes. Using a small pump, he moved the contents of the drums into the truck one drum at a time. Then, using a 500 gpm pump and 2?-inch hose he pumped to the nozzle under pressure, allowing the self educting nozzle to correctly proportion the foam. We had an 80,000 gallons supply of 3M ATC arriving from across the Gulf Coast.

At the working end of this arrangement was the latest in Williams Fire & Hazard Control Big Gun technology. Webster's Dictionary defines portable as something "capable of being carried or moved about." In those days, a Williams F&HC Big Gun monitor was a lot closer to permanent than portable. It wasn't even mounted on a trailer. To move it required taking it apart, hauling the pieces to the new location, then bolted it back together. From a fixed position its range of operation was only 15 degrees in either direction.

Typically, if a storage tank and surrounding dike are fully involved, the order of extinguishment is to put out the dike first. When we tackled the 135 foot diameter storage tanks we somehow reversed the order and had the tank out before the dike. Of course, the foam kept flowing until the dike was out too. Then we had to disassemble the big gun, move it to a new position and do it all again.

Some tanks presented an extra degree of difficulty. With the dike and tank out, the flanges continued to burn. On one in particular, Dwight and his crew were some 75 to 100 feet away and unable to reach the three-dimensional flames with dry chemical. The only possible option - the boat -- had already been forbidden by Les.

Dwight asked me to keep his father busy on the other side of the tank while he got the job done. I took Les aside on some slim pretext. Meanwhile, Dwight set sail on a sea of flammable hydrocarbon. 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.

That's something Dwight wouldn't even consider today. But those were the days when there wasn't any rule book on tank fire extinguishment. 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 fire fighting. Another result was HydroChem technology that allowed delivery of foam, water and dry chemical through the same device.

At one point during the fire I remember thinking that my fire coat was getting awfully heavy. Looking over my shoulder I found about an inch of ice on my back. Getting rid of it was simple enough. I simply walked out on the dike wall, the tank burning on one side and the dike on the other, and waited for the ice to melt.

Once the fire was gone you immediately began missing the heat. Baton Rouge was the first time I'd ever seen frozen foam. About three feet of it sat on top of the extinguished fuel, cold as a well digger's britches. The plant manager treated the firefighters to a hot breakfast in the refinery cafeteria. Of course the blast had broken every window in the place, guaranteeing it didn't stay warm for long.

Wouldn't you know that the first thing Jerry Craft asked me was whether I'd gotten any good photos.

"You told me not to take any," I replied, jaw dropped.

"David," he said, disappointed, "You don't have to pay attention to everything I tell you!"


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