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Firefighting Family
Rose Family Dominated Early History of RTFC
Vol 20 Issue 1

From 1950 to 1983, Refinery Terminal Fire Company acquired much of its leadership and innovation from one family. The name of that family was Rose.

Riley Rose started at RTFC as assistant chief in 1950, only two years after the non profit fire fighting company was founded. In 1958 he became RTFC chief. Rose's son Jerry came to work at RTFC in 1963. His father handed over the reins of chief to him in 1978.

"When my father took over as fire chief RTFC did not have a fire truck," Jerry Rose said. "Everything that RTFC owned was trailer mounted. They had these 500 gpm Hale pumps, maybe a dozen of them. RTFC also had five pick-up trucks with clamp hitches in the front and back, to haul the trailers."

Everyone agrees that the main impetus behind the founding of RTFC was the 1948 Texas City disaster. Corpus Christi, like Texas City, was a major port along the Texas Gulf Coast with consolidated industry nearby. But, unlike Texas City, which was relatively close to Houston, Corpus Christi is hours away from any major responders that could help in a Texas City-caliber disaster.

But Corpus Christi took a different approach in establishing industrial fire fighting. Instead of negotiating a mutual aid agreement for plants and refineries to share fire equipment in emergencies, the Corpus industrial communities established a common fire brigade. This would serve as an alternative to each industrial facility maintaining their own brigade.

The early days of RTFC were not without problems. Within three months of its founding, RTFC's first fire chief was fired. Hired in his place was A.J. Mehlberger who would remain chief for the next 10 years.

"Basically, it started out as a one-man operation run by Mr. Mehlberger," Jerry Rose said. "They had about 60 volunteer firefighters working at the plants. Then, in 1950, Mr. Mehlberger decided he needed help so he hired my dad."

Riley Rose had no background in fire fighting when Mehlberger hired him. After working in the oil patch for many years Rose had landed a job with American Mineral Spirits in Corpus Christi. That came to an end when the plant, engaged in a annexation battle with the city, closed its doors and moved operations to Houston.

"That's why all the industry in Corpus Christi is outside the city limits today," Jerry Rose said.

In those early days, volunteers took the pick-up trucks home with them, always leaving one at the station in case a volunteer reporting there needed it. Those vehicles were all needed in 1952 when the biggest emergency of RTFC history occurred -- the General American tank farm fire. At least two major storage tanks were destroyed.

"They saved the lot," Jerry Rose said chuckling. "When you look at what happened they kept it from getting bigger. So that in itself, at that point in time, was an excellent job."

The fire was nasty. Although the tanks did not boil over, the heavy oil did froth when the heat reached the bottom of one burning tank. ?

"They had chemical foam and all kinds of apparatus to utilize," Jerry Rose said. "They had portable foam towers that you could put up over the edge of the tank. They had nozzles and other equipment they could use with chemical foam, the old A and B powder."

Fortunately, emergencies like the General American fire were not common. Unlike Houston, which had operated refineries since the turn of the century, the refining business was relatively new in Corpus Christi. The new local refineries became very conscientious about installing foam chambers on their storage tanks, Rose said.

In 1958, Mehlberger stepped aside in favor of Riley Rose taking charge. What followed was an era of innovation and progress for RTFC, Jerry Rose said.

"In 1958 RTFC purchased its first fire truck," Jerry Rose said. "It was a 1958 National Foam truck with a 750 gpm pump on a GMC chassis. We were still using that truck in the mid-1980s."

Riley Rose started a construction program that took every equipment trailer out of service in favor of placing the equipment on army surplus trucks obtained with help from the Corpus Christi Fire Department. Rose designed and manufactured the changes himself.

"We went from having one truck to 15," Jerry Rose said. "He took all the 500 gpm pumps that had been on trailers and put them on 2?-ton trucks. He built foam tanks as well. We had a full-time welder and fabricator on duty for the next 15 years."

RTFC continued operating on a volunteer basis throughout the 1960s, building an elite group consisting of many of the key people at Corpus Christi refineries.

"They got experience," Jerry Rose said. "That was one of the good things about RTFC. It offered the experience of going to 15 member companies' fires rather than just your company's fires. It gave them the opportunity to learn a lot about fire fighting. We had some excellent people come out of Corpus."

RTFC averaged about 60 fires a year, ranging from grass fires to process and tank fires.

"We were the only fire fighters in the country for a long time that could claim they put out a 120-foot diameter tank," Jerry Rose said. "Not many people can say they've had a successful extinguishment. On one occasion we had three tanks burning simultaneously and put them out."

Over the years RTFC has taken part in important research and innovation in industrial fire fighting. One area of interest involved subsurface air agitation.

"A fellow named Joe Reisinger was instrumental in that work," Rose said. "We did lots of testing. We actually constructed a tank equipped to test the system. It was really unique and cutting edge. It would make an great show on the Discovery Channel, like how they trace the history of the Flying Wing from the 1950s contributing to today's Stealth bomber."

The development of high expansion foam was another important research project in which RTFC participated.

"In 1965 and 1966 my dad worked with a man named Thad Stover from the federal government who was designing a portable high expansion foam unit for use in Vietnam. I was working at RTFC when I got drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1967. I happened to get there while the unit was being put in service. I got to take the stuff incountry for about a month training firefighters with Mr. Stover and his son."

Oil containment was another area where RTFC took a leading role.

"We were very strong on oil spill containment in the port," Rose said. "We had the responsibility for many years of cleaning up the oil spills. My father built a tug with an air-operated boom. The air used to extend the boom could also operate the tug as it circled the spill."

Through the 1960s and well into the 1970s, Riley Rose guided the RTFC. The hallmark of his years as chief was that he was open to any suggestion, Jerry Rose said.

"Anytime someone wanted to try something new, he was not closed minded at all," Rose said. "He was a genius in his own right even though he had very little formal education. He basically designed and built all those fire trucks, figuring out the design, the piping, the whole nine yards."

After Riley stepped down he remained a consultant to RTFC. Unfortunately, he died only a few years later. As the new fire chief, Jerry continued on the course set by his father. Still, money was tight. His first year saw the RTFC budget break $1 million annually.

"We were set up in Corpus to physically be able to extinguish a 190-foot diameter tank," Jerry Rose said. "That was our capacity on paper. We could actually do more than that but we knew for a fire we could do that for sure."

Jerry Rose's tenure as fire chief saw the introduction of large diameter hose. The spirit of experimentation continued as well. When a United Kingdom foam company introduced high volume foam cannons, RTFC was the first to buy and use them.

"When it comes to process unit stuff, that's where most of the fire fighting was done," Rose said. "There were so few large fires such as tank fires that most of what you were doing was process unit fires. We had excellent results with process fires. They were controlled very efficiently with no collateral damage. We took a lot of pride in that."

Jerry Rose stepped down after five years as chief. He left fire fighting to pursue other business interests.

In an emergency, people need direction, Rose said. His father's greatest contribution to RTFC was developing a simple methodology -- surround, contain, keep calm and stop the fire from spreading. He also believed in listening to the plant personnel.

Not too many firefighters are left from the early days at RTFC. Ask most emergency responders in Corpus industry today about Riley Rose and they would have to look at a memorial plaque at the RTFC headquarters before replying.

"It would be nice to have a fire station named after him," said Jerry Rose.

 
 

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