When the doors rolled up at the first Fort Worth Fire Department unit to respond to a July 28 chemical plant there was already a heavy column of black smoke showing, said Lt. Kent Worley, the department's spokesperson. Added to the smoke were massive fireballs 200 feet high and erupting every five to eight minutes.
"We were behind the eight-ball from the very start," Worley said.
Those fireballs would continue to blossom through more than half of the four-hour, four-alarm emergency. The chemical complex had at least 30 different chemicals stored in 2,000- to 4,000-gallon tanks, most of which were industrial solvents such as acetone and isopropyl alcohol. There were also more dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, local health officials said.
Fire officials decided early on that the best move was to train all available resources on protecting exposures, i.e., the few storage tanks and other facilities that were not already ablaze. The rest of the complex was sacrificed to prevent potential environmental hazards.
"We knew that sending water into an area that was burning so intensely was just going to be a waste," Worley said. "There was no way that we were going to get enough water on it to do any good at that point."
The plant is located in an industrial area of north Fort Worth. The fire started at about 1:30 p.m. in an unloading area where a tanker truck was in the process of off-loading its cargo of methanol. Intense flames and a continuous chain reaction of explosions shooting straight up over the complex resulted.
"It was quite a dangerous situation from the fire department's standpoint," Worley said. "Obviously, our incident commander determined that with the explosions it was going to be too dangerous to get our firefighters very close to the incident."
Any pre-plan in place for the facility was almost immediately overwhelmed, he said. Firefighters concentrated on protecting any threatened exposures. A water curtain was established to protect a building across the street east of the complex. Also of immediate concern were tank farms south and east of the burning complex and a large lumber yard to the south. Fortunately, these were far enough away not to be immediately threatened.
"We did have a verticle storage tank to actually become airborne," Worley said. "It landed on a fence across the street from the lumber yard, which was an interesting sight. We later found a hole in the roof of the shed at the lumber yard that was about the size of a 55-gallon drum."
With the wind coming out of the north, firefighters set up aerial ladders on the north and east of the complex.
"We tried to hit and cool what tanks we could on the outer edges of the complex," Worley said.
Along with each new fireball came a wave of searing heat felt as far back as the command post area, Worley said.
"The ground would vibrate with a heat wave following," Worley said.
Media outlets poured into the area with a fleet of satellite trucks, drawn by the spectacular visuals. Each reporter seemed to have the same question -- "Why don't the firefighters just go in and put it out?" That would have been solving one problem to create another, Worley said.
"We knew at that point that so many of the tanks had been compromised that we'd end up having thousands of gallons of various chemicals intermixing and flowing down the roadway," Worley said. "It would create an entirely different challenge."
Even with the fire, runoff was a major concern. Dirt trucked into the scene was used to block the storm sewer about a mile and a quarter downstream and captured contaminated runoff. That runoff was removed using vacuum trucks and taken away for proper disposal. Tests conducted further downstream determined that no runoff got past this point, Worley said.
Likewise, steps were taken to determine the threat from any aerial pollution. The Texas Environmental Quality Commission responded immediately from their Arlington bureau. Within a few hours, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was on the scene.
"The EPA utilized a specially outfitted fixed wing aircraft which they actually fly through the smoke," Worley said. "They reported some particulate and some alcohol based chemicals but nothing as far as heavy chemical concentrations to worry about."
Another resource drawn upon to evaluate any threat from the rising smoke was the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center in Livermore, CA. NARAC, provides tools and services that map the probable spread of hazardous material accidentally or intentionally released into the atmosphere through plume modeling.
"Our city environmental management staff, including our internal GIS (Geographic Information Systems) people, worked with Livermore to do plume modeling based on wind conditions to map where this cloud was going," Worley said.
The wind was just strong enough to carry the smoke up and disperse it. However, a limited shelter-in-place alert was issued, Worley said.
"We tried to make it as non threatening as possible," Worley said. "If you're inside, go ahead and stay there. If you're outside, you don't have to make a 100-yard dash for cover."
Fort Worth has no industrial mutual aid organization. An additional Quint was provided by the Haltom City Fire Department, but crash trucks responding from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the Naval Air Station in Fort Worth were sent back.
Despite the attempt to save outer areas of the chemical complex, almost none of it survived the fire. Although there were no fatalities in the plant fire, four people were taken to local hospitals. Three were treated and released while the fourth, a warehouse manager who sustained burns over 30 percent of his body, remained hospitalized.
Options available to firefighters were limited throughout the emergency, Worley said.
"Obviously, our training in refinery fires is not as extensive as industrial firefighters," he said. "What we focus on is safety first. That's how we decided to operate. It just shows that any city with an industrial area can be subjected to industrial responses given the right circumstances." o