Article Archive
Christmas 1989 Fire Hits Baton Rouge Refinery

No sane fire chief wants what Jerry Craft got for Christmas in 1989. A devastating explosion and fire at his Baton Rouge, LA, refinery ignited 16 storage tanks and set ablaze 15 acres of the facility in one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history.

"When it ignited we heard this loud blast, me and the guys that were with me," Craft said. "We turned and saw this large mushroom cloud climbing up high into the sky, almost 1,000 feet."

The blast registered 3.2 on the Richter scale nearly 75 miles away in New Orleans. By comparison, the Buncefield oil terminal explosion in December 2005 which destroyed or damaged buildings and homes as far as half a mile away registered only 2.4. Like Buncefield, the Baton Rouge explosion is blamed on an escaping vapor cloud.

Craft, who today is the senior lead firefighter and Training and Consulting manager with Williams Fire & Hazard Control, gave an extensive presentation on the Baton Rouge emergency at the Industrial Fire World Conference and Exposition held in March 2006 in that same city.

Today, Dwight Williams, chairman of Williams F&HC, is Jerry Craft's boss. In 1989, Dwight and his father Les worked as contractors for Craft in putting out his fire.

"If somebody like Jerry Craft calls up and says 'bring everything,' I do," Williams said. "There wasn't a fire brigade anywhere that was better than his."

Despite the mammoth size of the emergency, firefighters in Baton Rouge were able to extinguish it within 15 hours. That outcome was far better than Buncefield, where 20 flaming storage tanks burned for 3? days.

On Christmas morning in Baton Rouge people who went to bed worried about the catastrophic situation at the refinery woke up to daylight instead of a city covered in smoke.


Located on 2,100 acres along the east shore of the Mississippi River, Craft's petrochemical refinery was part of an industrial complex that also included a 1,000-product chemical plant. The refinery, the second largest in the U.S., produced 500,000 barrels-a-day, while the chemical plant produced 350,000 barrels-a-day.

Running through the refinery like a main artery was a three-tiered pipe band carrying 90 lines, most of them bringing product to and from the docks. One of the lines in the top tier of the pipe band was dubbed the Garden City line. An eight-inch pipeline rated at 1,500 psi, the Garden City line delivered natural gas from a well located 57 miles south. When it arrived at the refinery the gas was fed into a debutinizer recovery operation for fractionation and recovery of C3 and lighter products.

Natural gas had become an unnaturally valuable commodity in south Louisiana that Christmas season. In Baton Rouge, the mean winter temperature in December is 52.4 degrees. Thanks to the nearby Gulf of Mexico, ice storms and other cold snaps tend to be short lived. However, Christmas Eve 1989 marked the third day that the thermometer had not risen above freezing.

"The night before the event it was nine degrees F," Craft said. "The high for that particular day was 15 degrees F."

Because of the record temperatures, special measures were being taken at the refinery. Employees and emergency responders who ordinarily would have been enjoying the holidays at home were on duty. Many, like Craft, had been working 16-to-20-hour days since the beginning of the cold snap.

"Our philosophy at that time was 'Don't pull the plug, keep it running,'" Craft said. "The reasoning behind that was to avoid the hazards that can be created not only during the shutdown but from leaving these units cold with all kinds of elements inside them."

Despite the effort being put into keeping the rest of the refinery going, the decision was made to shut down the Garden City line. It would prove to be a serious mistake.

"Because of the shortage of natural gas due to wells freezing up in South Louisiana, the decision was made to shut down this particular process unit," Craft said. " ... Moon Mullins, who today is the fire chief at that refinery, suggested strongly that they not do that."

Standard procedure at that time would have been to leave the line "packed," which means full all the way from the well to the refinery so that production could be resumed in the shortest time possible. As long as the temperature stayed below freezing, everything would be fine.

"On Christmas Eve, the temperature rose to 34 degree F," Craft said. "There was a check valve at the battery limits on the (Garden City) line. That check valve held, blocking the line from the river all the way into the plant. That meant that approximately 1? -miles of 8-inch line snaking its way through the southeast quadrant of the refinery was packed with expanding material."

At about 12:31 p.m. a 24-inch section of the line failed. Investigators later determined that pressure in the line exceeded 2,000 psi as a result of thermo expansion. The line itself kicked out of the pipe band and fell more than 35 feet to the street.

"That should have brought a lot of attention from people, but most of them were inside doing other things," Craft said.

About 1,500 feet north of the rupture, Craft, his rescue captain and several other firefighters were outdoors trying to deliquify the contents of a knockout drum filled with fuel gas and burner line type products. The fuel was important because the nearby Gulf States Utilities power plant used it as a substitute for natural gas.

The plan was to ignite a ground flare to generate the necessary heat, Craft said.

"We were in the process of lighting that flare when I got a radio call," Craft said. "It was a member of my emergency organization and he said 'Chief, they've reported a steam leak at such and such location -- but it doesn't look like steam.' I said 'OK Charlie, we'll be there in a minute to check it out.'"

Radio transmission recordings determined that approximately 90 seconds after this conversation the vapor cloud escaping from the ruptured Garden City line ignited in a massive explosion.

"That section missing from the line 40 feet above grade was the epicenter," Craft said. "A third-party investigating committee determined that the cloud was about 1,500 feet in radius and almost 80 feet high. It released for at least 2? minutes before it ignited. That was 230,000 pounds of hydrocarbon that was released."

The source of ignition has never been determined. Fortunately, Craft and his team were protected in a recessed area that amounted to a small ravine.

"The pressure wave from the ignition literally went over us," Craft said. "It was sort of like being in a bunker. At the power plant about 1,500 feet to the north the pressure wave took out the roof, glass and everything else."

Across Baton Rouge, including its many other refineries and chemical plants, much of the electrical power died simultaneously to the sound of the blast. There were other sounds too. As far away as Chief Craft's home 17 miles east the blast shattered and cracked windows.

"When we started calling people back to the plant on Christmas we didn't have to tell them what was wrong. They heard it for miles and miles. Lots of people thought that one of our big high pressure process units had blown up."

The scope of the emergency was much broader than a single process unit. Fourteen of the 16 burning storage tanks were small with a diameter under 60 feet. But two of the tanks measured 134 feet in diameter, each containing 116,000 barrels of finished heating oil. More than 17 lines in the main pipe band had ruptured, causing a spreading ground spill fire fed with crude oil, benzene, gasoline, LPG, finished heating oil and other flammable products.

"The heat load from all the tank fires and the ground fires was incredible," Craft said. "I witnessed a 30-foot-tall, 40-foot-diameter slop tank blow completely off its foundation and land in the middle of a pipe band 500 feet away. I'd never seen a sight like that before."

With the power out, the refinery went into fail-safe mode, a safety feature built into all control systems. These systems now defaulted to pre-arranged settings. The only means of control now left to operators and emergency responders was use of manual valves.

Only one positive note emerged in those early moments. In 1982, the refinery moved its main fire station to the southeast fence line of the facility. The old location was now in the middle of a no-man's land of tank fires, spill fires and pressure fires.

"All of our equipment and all of our ammunition would have been right there at the epicenter," Craft said.

The first step taken by Craft after the explosion was to get on the radio and establish immediate order.

"I said 'I'm the Chief. We've had a major blast and we've got casualties.' I said that without confirming it because I knew it had to be true."

Fatalities were almost a certainty too. Soon Craft discovered one of two fatalities this emergency would claim, a contract worker trapped inside a burning pickup truck.

"My captain, Jimmy Williams, and I tried to open the doors but we couldn't get him," Craft said. "It was an extended cab Ranger and it just collapsed like an accordion. We almost burned the gloves off our hands trying to get him out."

All that was found of another fatality who was in a destroyed two-story office building were dentures. The body itself was completely consumed by flames.

"This was a general work area with offices, coke machines and coffee makers," Craft said. "Since then they've moved this control room, the pipe band and changed the policies and philosophies about what is allowed in these work stations."

Within the first hour of the emergency the plant manager reached Craft and asked him what he needed. Craft requested immediate assistance from Williams Fire & Hazard Control, then associated with Boots & Coots. In particular, Craft needed all the foam resources Williams F&HC could provide.

Dwight Williams was on the scene at another job in the Texas Golden Triangle when the call from Baton Rouge arrived.

"We had been at work since about 1 a.m.," Williams said. "I think I only slept about an hour and a half the night before. Wes called and said Jerry had requested we attend and bring everything. That meant he had a barn burning son-of-a-gun."

Williams and his team returned to their headquarters in Mauriceville near Beaumont to gather the necessary equipment before setting out for Baton Rouge. It would be at least 4:30 p.m. before Williams F&HC would arrive. Until then, Craft and his emergency responders struggled to cope.

Craft's first major problem after the explosion was being cut off from most of the refinery. A vehicle underpass beneath the central rail line serving the refinery had filled with burning fuel 14 feet deep, trapping Craft on the wrong side. Scattered debris forced him to abandon his truck and proceed on foot.

"There was a 20-inch high pressure natural gas line that ran parallel to the track," Craft said. "It ruptured and went up like a big flare."

The railroad line included a staging spur measuring five tracks wide. Parked at the site were 151 rail cars, none of which belonged to the refinery. That staging area became an immediate area of concern, Craft said. Contents of the various tank cars ranged from LPG to vinyl chloride.

Demanding attention first among the rail cars were three 'candy stripers,' a designation well known to those familiar with hazmat.

"These are the only cars that the Association of American Railroads ever elected to color-code," Craft said. "If the tank car is white with a red stripe down the sides and around the ends, the contents are hydrocyanic acid, which becomes hydrogen cyanide when released."

By this time, hazmat chief Herschel Stafford had raced to the scene from his home 20 miles away, gathering other key hazmat personnel on the way. Moving the threatened rail cars required negotiation. The yard master finally agreed to personally operate the locomotive as long as a 15-car buffer was maintained between him and the hazardous material. He did not stop until the cars were 1?-miles from the refinery.

"Investigators later determined that there was enough hydrogen cyanide gas in those cars to kill half the population of Baton Rouge," Craft said. "At that time, the population was 300,000 people."

With the hydrocyanic acid removed, railroad workers proceeded to pull the remaining cars out of the yard one string at a time. All the cars were safely removed save for one string which derailed. Those cars were empty.


Receiving attention next were the fires. But before tackling them the firefighters would have to find water. One of the most important lines breached in the main pipe artery was the 12-inch line providing fire water across the refinery. Even if the line had been untouched, the five hydrants in the immediate area of the fire had either been sheared away by the explosion or the brass fittings inside melted from the excessive heat.

"We had no fire water," Craft said. "Zero."

Craft had divided his firefighters into four 12-member teams. One team was assigned to find water. Two clarified river water tanks at the waste treatment plant provided several thousand gallons each. Using two pumpers, that water was utilized on fires in the small tank battery, Craft said.

Another water source was a 12-inch valve in the northeast corner of the refinery. Unfortunately, that valve was frozen solid.

"When they asked me how I wanted to thaw that valve I said 'Be creative!'" Craft said. "So they took three cardboard boxes, strapped them around the valve and set fire to them. It worked."

Firefighters used that connection to feed a 2,000 gpm Hired Gun monitor, the largest monitor then available for industrial fire fighting. But in 1989 large-diameter hose was still largely unknown in industrial fire protection. The largest available at the Baton Rouge refinery was 2?-inch hose with New York Corporation thread. Again, firefighters had to be creative to make the necessary connection.

"They measured down from the 12-inch valve," Craft said. "They made connections that came out to a six-inch draw and then a 5-inch, then Siamesed it and went into the truck with several 2?-inches. It was enough to get the truck up to three-fourths capacity."

Firefighters brought in an aerial truck with a 1,000 gpm waterway, moving it back and forth to work another small battery of burning tanks. Using smaller monitors rated at 1,000 to 500 gpm amounted to hand to hand combat with the fire, Craft said. A lot of hose had to be laid to operate these devices.

"I told our guys to make a hose lay and as you advance, just break the hoses off and leave them on the ground," Craft said. "Get another section and keep walking. Don't take the time to move hose, just keep walking with the fire."

Firefighters needed more water. On the northeast side of the refinery was a delayed coker unit. Using heavy equipment, firefighters broke down the dike wall to a cooling tower containing about 50,000 barrels of water. It also gave them access to the well water system that kept the tower filled, powered by an independent diesel turbine. With the help of nine 1,000 gpm municipal pumpers and the first 5-inch hose to arrive, firefighters were able to relay water 3,500 feet to a second 2,000 gpm monitor borrowed from another plant.

"We didn't use any fire water to put this fire out," Craft said. "We used all secondary contingency water that was evaluated at the time of the event."

Just as firefighters searched for more water, the fire searched for more fuel. It did not have to look hard. The plant's sewer system was loading with fuel from broken pipelines and ruptured piping off the tanks.

"It was a constantly moving, running fire with burning fuel," Craft said.

Another source of fuel was four API separators measuring about 100 foot wide and as long as a football field. Fuel oil kept coming into the separators and burning, creating a continuous problem. While firefighters fought that, it was reported that fire had broken out in a reformer unit almost a mile away.

"They breached a tube when it crashed and we had gasoline components pouring out of the furnace on fire," Craft said. "We had to separate a team and go put that out. Then I got a call that a seal had failed in a big pump at the chemical plant causing a fire there. We had to take resources and go put it out."

The attack on the ground fire developed its own complications. Four 60-foot diameter tanks burning in one area contained lube oil. Ordinarily a docile product, lube oil can ignite at high temperatures. The heat it produces when it does is staggering, Craft said.

"We could literally see through the tanks," he said. "They were burning in depth and it was so hot we could see the level through the walls of the tanks."

About five hours into the emergency, Craft found himself moving back and forth between the fire itself and the war room where the refinery's shift superintendents waited to be briefed

"It took me an hour each time I visited the fire operations and returned to the EOC to report," Craft said.

Increasingly, Craft would adopt an incident command structure, keeping in touch with his firefighting teams by radio. Also stationed at the war room were the outside agencies lending support - the EPA, Coast Guard, the Baton Rouge Fire Department and the Louisiana State Police hazmat division.

"The Baton Rouge Fire Department has no jurisdiction inside our refinery," Craft said. "They will only bring equipment into the refinery and that's all. They had a rookie academy for firefighters at the LSU fire school and brought 40 rookies to help lay hose for the tandem pumping operations."


That afternoon, Les and Dwight Williams arrived with a team of seven people. The flames from the refinery had been visible from Lafayette, more than 50 miles away, Dwight Williams said.

It ranked as one of the worst fires he had ever seen, Williams said.

"You've got to remember that I saw five tanks boil over at the Magpetco fire near Beaumont in 1974," he said. "At one time, that fire was as big at the Baton Rouge fire. Thank God a boilover burns out real quick."

Up to that point, the refinery firefighters had been doing a good job of playing defense, Williams said

"Basically, they were holding the fire in check. They were applying foam to the tanks from the upwind side, knocking down some of the radiant heat. They hadn't put any tanks out yet but they were knocking down some ground fire."

Dealing with 134 foot tanks on fire might not sound big considering that Williams F&HC successfully dealt with a record setting 270-foot gasoline storage tank fire in 2001. However, each of those 134 foot tanks was surrounded by a 200 foot diameter dike fire.

"Those 134 footers were delivering by far the most heat and black smoke," Williams said. "They were the most destructive."

Being a contract firefighter often means working downwind while the fire brigade works upwind. That was the case at Baton Rouge, Williams said.

"There were these two big tanks involved," he said. "Herschel Stafford and his crew were working on the upwind side of the fire. We had a plan where he was going to hit his tank, then within about 10 minutes we would hit ours. We had a big ground fire in front of us, probably 200 feet worth, and another 150 feet of ground fire downwind of us. The ground fire in front of us was laying over on us. It was so hot it burned the handles off the fire truck and burned the first hose we put on it."

By the time Williams reestablished the hoses, Stafford had eliminated the bulk of the ground fire giving Williams and his personnel more room to operate.

"Going by the book, you're supposed to extinguish the ground fire first," Williams said. "We didn't do that. We used the trail off from the foam application into the main tanks to put out the ground fire, then we used a react team of three or four young men to secure the ground fire after we had flame collapse in the tank."

All that heat generated by the ground fires had a plus side though. Darkness was already falling, bringing with it another plunge in temperature.

"Even firefighters in Canada aren't used to fighting fire in 10 degree weather, but they're better at it than us firefighters in South Louisiana," Craft said.

Throughout the night, firefighters slowly regained control of the refinery. Firefighters used 45,000 gallons of foam to extinguish the refinery fires. Although the Baton Rouge refinery has switched to ATC in the late 1970s, the stockpile would soon have been exhausted.

"The book tells you we should have used about 70,000 gallons," Craft said. "Our suppliers, Williams F&HC and 3M, delivered 80,000 gallons of ATC to Baton Rouge on Christmas Eve."

The last fires extinguished were the two 134-foot tanks. Half the heating oil remaining in them had thermo cracked due to extreme heat, Craft said.

Not one firefighter was injured during the entire emergency response.

Williams, a passenger on the trip home, remembers falling asleep from exhaustion before reaching the front gate on Christmas Day. Craft said he got home at about 7 p.m. Christmas Day.

"My wife hugged me even though I was dirty and grimy. She didn't care and I didn't either."


In an era when the practical use of big monitors and large diameter hose in fire fighting was still in its infancy, responders in Baton Rouge were able to bring one of the worst refinery fires in history under control in record time.

"All of those tanks were fully involved," Craft said. "We had to deal with the ground spill, the separators, the rail yard, the pipe band and the process area. It just goes to show you that diligence and commitment can go a long way to substitute for five-inch hose and big guns."

According to Dwight Williams, the Baton Rouge emergency was a triumph because firefighters were able to bring logic to the situation.

"The difference from Buncefield was a deliberate, well planned attack by people who knew what they were doing," Williams said.


P: (979) 690-7559
F: (979) 690-7562

Content & Feeds

Download Magazine
Download Media Kit


Feedback Form
Privacy Policy
Ads & Marketing

IFW Sites

IFW Store
IFW Gallery



Thank you for visiting! Join us in our mission by subscribing to IFW magazine, using our Web accessible resources, becoming an advertiser, or sharing your personal input.