For Kelvin Hardingham, fighting the fires that spread through the Buncefield oil storage depot north of London in December 2005 too often became an exercise in futility. Flames that spread to 20 fuel storage tanks on site had to be extinguished not once but repeatedly throughout the three-day emergency.
"As a matter of fact, we put out two tanks at least four times," Hardingham said. "You get a little fed up putting the same tank out time after time."
Due to environmental concerns that runoff would pollute the nearby drinking water supply for North London, authorities repeatedly cut off water to the firefighters. This made it impossible to gain control of the many fires in fuel storage tanks mostly in the 60-foot diameter range but some as large as 145 feet. Pressure fires and dike fires also swept through the facility following one of the largest explosion in England since World War II.
Eventually, many of the fires simply burned themselves out, Hardingham said.
"To say this fire was a success in terms of extinguishing is probably untrue," he said. "But things certainly weren't in our favor. Most of all was the water supply. If you're constantly having your water supply cut off your likelihood of success is very low."
In many ways, Buncefield represents the 9/11 of industrial fire fighting. Officials reacted with uncertainty. A heroic but flawed response failed to change the ultimate outcome. A failure of imagination in recognizing the potential for such a disaster is apparent. And, worst of all, the lessons to be learned from this catastrophe may never be fully realized by those in charge.
Hardingham, the U.K. representative for Williams Fire & Hazard Control, did not become directly involved at Buncefield until 18 hours after the initial explosion. He served as a technical advisor to local authorities, then assumed a hands-on role as the operational fire fighting coordinator on site.
Before joining Williams F&HC in 1996, Hardingham had served 30 years in the U.K. municipal fire service. His last 10 years were spent as the liaison between the municipal fire service and the petrochemical industry.
"That's when I was introduced to Dwight and his late father Les and we introduced the Williams F&HC Big Gun technology to Europe," Hardingham said.
He addressed fellow firefighters last March in Baton Rouge at the Industrial Fire World Conference & Exposition about his role in dealing with the Buncefield emergency.
DARKNESS AT DAWN
Before December, Buncefield might not have been famous, but it was important. The depot provided eight percent of the U.K.'s overall oil supplies, including 20 percent to consumers in southeast U.K. Located about 25 miles from London, the 50-acre Buncefield depot interacted with various refineries across the U.K. via three different pipelines. A fourth pipeline supplied 40 percent of the aviation fuel used at London Heathrow Airport, the world's third busiest airport. Buncefield also supplied London Gatwick Airport, the second largest airport in the U.K.
About 40 percent of Buncefield is taken up by the east and west units of the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal, a joint venture between Total (60 percent) and Chevron (40 percent). In 2004, 2.34 metric tons of fuel passed through the HOSL units either by pipeline and the nearly 400 tanker trucks loaded each day on a 24-hour basis. Products stored on site included ultra low sulfur diesel, unleaded gasoline, super unleaded motor spirit, kerosene, gas oil and aviation fuel.
It would be this area on the north side of the Buncefield depot, divided by a British Petroleum Oil U.K. terminal, that would bear the brunt of the explosion and subsequent fires. The BP area of Buncefield experienced little damage.
"There was no on-site fire fighting crew at Buncefield," Hardingham said. "This wasn't a terminal that justified having its own dedicated fire crews."
What caused the explosion that rocked the southeast U.K. at 6 a.m. on Sunday, December 11, remains a matter of conjecture. Reports issued by the Buncefield Major Incident Investigative Board point to a tank overfill in Tank 912 in HOSL West that created an immense vapor cloud searching for an ignition source. The cloud flowed off site, reaching nearby unrelated businesses.
"The explosion registered 2.4 on the Richter scale," Hardingham said. "There were three or four smaller explosions within the next 10 minutes. Fortunately there were only 43 people injured. I say fortunately because had this occurred at 11 a.m. on a Monday all these nearby factories would have been full of people."
People more than 200 miles away in France and the Netherlands reported hearing the initial explosion. Hardingham, living 110 miles from Buncefield in Leigh-On-Sea, Essex, could see the smoke spreading across the southeastern skies of England by the time he left for London that morning.
"It was daylight but it was like night at the railroad station," Hardingham said.
The trip to London was at the request of Sky News. Hardingham's 40 years of fire fighting experience was first employed by the U.K. equivalent of Fox News in covering an event that was drawing media attention across Europe and beyond.
Aerial photographs supplied to the media by the Hertfordshire Constabulary and the Chiltern Air Support Unit revealed the extent of the devastation. Beside the damage to the depot, surrounding commercial buildings owned by Fuji Film and other companies had sustained substantial blast damage. Glass and other exterior materials had been stripped away. Contents littered the surrounding countryside.
"About a mile south were the European offices formerly used by BP," Hardingham said. "It was fairly modern with quite large offices. There was a glass atrium that stood as tall as the 11-story building. It was cracked from top to bottom and quite seriously damaged."
These surrounding buildings had to be taken care of before on site operations could begin, Hardingham said.
"The buildings had a maze of fire in them," he said. "The firefighters had to go around and figure out if they had anyone in those buildings."
As to the on site emergency, the first priority was to assess the degree of damage and number of injuries. Information in those first moments was not easy to obtain. Casualties on site were primarily tanker drivers. No one with a working knowledge of the complete facility could be located immediately.
"Bear in mind that the municipal fire department (Hertsfordshire Fire Rescue Service from Hemel Hempstead) had never had an incident like this before," Hardingham said. "The only thing they've ever planned for at this site was a single tank fire. To plan for 20 tanks immediately catching fire in one hit plus all the other damage was unrealistic."
In the earliest hours, firefighters busied themselves with the off site fires. On site operations were limited to establishing cooling jets to protect three tanks not yet ablaze. Hampering even those initial actions was a lack of available water. The explosion had destroyed the depot's one fire water pump station, effectively disabling the entire independent fire water system. Firefighters were forced to draw from a small lake about 1,000 feet away at a maximum of about 1,000 gallons per minute.
In the U.K., coordination and management of emergencies involves three levels of interlinked leadership. Strategic aims are handled by Gold command, the top tier of the command structure. The second tier, Silver command, which handles tactical concerns, was done away with during the Buncefield emergency. Third comes the Bronze command, which directly supervises operations on the fire ground.
Hardingham would come to play a key role in this Bronze command structure.
"My son, Mark Hardingham, with the Essex Fire Rescue Service, responded to the fire with a crew and some Williams F&HC equipment," Hardingham said. "He phoned me about three or four hours after he got there, explaining the situation. He basically said 'Dad, what do we need to do?' So I talked him through some of the things he needed to consider, look at and plan for."
About two hours later, Hardingham got a call from U.K. deputy prime minister John Prescott's office, which had assumed responsibility for coordinating the government's response to the emergency. Hardingham was asked to report to Buncefield as a technical advisor in support of local authorities.
"When I met the fire commander he said 'Who are you?' -- no one had told him I was coming," Hardingham said. "I explained who I was and he said 'Well, you'd better come into the command area.'"
Hardingham's next move was straight out of the Williams F&HC playbook. He spent the next 45 minutes making a reconnaissance of the fire ground. Then he came back with an important question - "Are you sure you want to put this fire out?"
"Even Red Adair said there are times to act and times to walk away," Hardingham said. "The fire was in the middle of a field and not going anywhere. The buildings around it were already destroyed. There were eight or nine tanks that weren't on fire that we could protect. Again, I asked, do we really want to put this out?"
The answer he received cited priorities other than those in evidence on the fire field.
"The fire chief had said in the national press that they were going to put it out," Hardingham said. "Therefore, we're going to put it out."
The Gold command post was almost 30 miles from the actual fire. Hardingham soon deployed to the Bronze command post about half a mile from the incident. He was now the operations fire fighting coordinator on site reporting direct to the HFRS Bronze Command structure.
Press briefings reported that nearly 600 firefighters were on hand at Buncefield. However, access to the fireground itself was tightly controlled.
"Basically, out of the 600 firefighters, there were two guys from BP, five guys from SembCorp, five guys from Total, myself and six guys from the Essex fire brigade," Hardingham said. "If there had been 600 people on that fireground it would have been a nightmare, so virtually all of these other personnel were held back during the initial fire fighting operations in reserve."
Hardingham actually made it home to Leigh-On-Sea twice during the lengthy fire to rest. When he got home he was black from head to foot.
"My wife wanted to know why I was dirty," Hardingham said. "There were lots of firemen on the television and they were all clean."
About the time that Hardingham arrived at Buncefield, firefighters had successfully increased the water supply on site to an additional five lines of 6-inch hose. Coping with the water problem had not been easy. The nearest inexhaustible supply of water was a canal about 1? -miles away.
"The concern with the canal was that if you put large pumps on the edge you could destroy the bank," Hardingham said. "If you destroy the bank you destroy the entire canal system. So they decided they could not take water from the canal."
The next available source, two miles away across farmland, had its own drawbacks. With no hard road access, authorities had to use cranes and cherry pickers to lift and place the 2,000 gpm pumps used to relay the water.
"In the U.K. we have what we call the New Dimensions program, which is basically similar to your Homeland Security," Hardingham said. "The program purchased fifty-four 2,000 gpm pumps and a lot of 6-inch hose. That was basically what was used at this emergency." Fourteen 2,000 gpm pumps and 12 lines of 6-inch hose were used to relay water to the fire at Buncefield.
Meanwhile, decisions about strategy were made. Firefighters moved into position in anticipation of getting more water for a foam attack. A 1,000 gpm monitor supplied by Total, two Williams F&HC's 2x6 Guns owned by BP UK and ConocoPhillips UK and a Williams F&HC 2,000 gpm Patriot II owned by SembCorp, were carefully located to attack multiple fires.
"It demonstrated the value of long range trailer monitors," Hardingham said. "People tend to like to get a foam pod and stick a monitor on top of it. That's fine if you can get it into place. But if it's in place and you can't get to it because the infrastructure is collapsing and the roadway is knackered, you're stuck. With the trailer type mobile monitors six or seven guys can hump that over the 6-inch hose and the fallen pipe racks."
Twenty hours into the emergency three hose lines became available. Cooling operations were reduced in order to supply the direct firefighting. The targeted tanks were successfully extinguished. However, having an inexhaustible water supply is not the same thing as a guaranteed supply.
"What you want for your fire water supply is reliability," Hardingham said. "That is the one thing we did not have. We had to constantly shut down for three and four hours at a time. There we would be fighting the fire and all the sudden the water would be turned off."
The Environmental Agency, the U.K.'s version of the Environmental Protection Agency, were high profile participants during the entire event, Hardingham said
"When they said shut the fire water off, there was no argument," he said.
Following the incident U.K. officials collected and stored 9 million gallons of firewater runoff with plans now in operation to incinerate it.
"If you can put the fire out a lot quicker, the problems with firewater runoff are less," Hardingham said. "If they had used AFFF they would have used considerably less foam."
Foam was another fire fighting essential that was in short supply. All the foam on site at Buncefield had been destroyed in the explosion. The only foam available in the early hours was brought by municipal firefighters. Fluoroprotein foam remains the standard issue used by most U.K. municipal departments. Some AFFF-AR foam arrived with the first industrial fire crews and one or two more enlightened UK municipal fire brigade, Hardingham said.
"We had some very questionable foam," he said. "It could have been high expansion or fluoroprotein where the actual sediment had settled out and you were left mainly with water. When you sprayed some of this foam on the fire it just sizzled. It wouldn't put the fire out."
Tank fires were not the only problem on the rise. Small to large pressure fires raging throughout the damaged tank farm had gone largely unchecked. Pressure fires do not respond well to water or foam, Hardingham said. It takes dry chemical and the specialized equipment to apply it. None of that was immediately available.
Two and a half hours after the first foam attack water was reestablished and firefighters prepared for a second try. In the meantime, tanks that had been extinguished had reignited.
"Remember what I said earlier about the questionable foam," Hardingham said. "We got a very questionable tanker load of foam. We were off-loading the foam tanker into a 4,000 gallon foam pod and from there we were proportioning it out to about 6,000 gpm with a Williams F&HC proportioning unit."
No one knows where the bad foam came from, but the lack of quality was immediately apparent, Hardingham said.
"It gave us a real problem," he said. "We were struggling to hold the fire back."
After the first 24 hours firefighters started receiving factory fresh foam from U.K. based Angus Fire, greatly improving the consistency, Hardingham said. Bulk AFFF-ATC foam was available from Europe but was never requested by HFRS Command.
One of the non burning tanks was causing anxiety at HFRS Bronze control. Tank temperatures were being monitored by infra red cameras mounted on a helicopter. This particular tank was registering a high temperature. The Bronze commander transferred the information to Hardingham on the fire ground.
"The HFRS command were very concerned," Hardingham said. "They believed the tank was about to explode like a bomb. I tried to explain the tank would not explode. It may go to fire, but as you may have a weak seam split between the tank wall and the roof it will not explode. However, I could not persuade the HFRS Command otherwise."
In the U.K., municipal fire departments legally take charge of fire operations upon entering a plant or refinery. The senior official with the local fire department has the authority. The only exceptions are nuclear plants and military bases.
"A lot of smaller distribution terminals rely on help from municipal departments," Hardingham said. "Unfortunately, many municipal departments have only little understanding of the petrochemical industry. For example if you start talking about condensate, they have no idea what you mean. That's no criticism of them because it's not their job. Their roles are more focused on handling such things as structure fires, road accidents, etc."
On the positive side, municipal departments like the Essex Fire Rescue Brigade send officers and firefighters to the annual Xtreme Industrial Fire & Hazard Training conducted by Williams F&HC in Beaumont, TX.
"They're sending six this year," Hardingham said. "They usually send two or four most years but they're sending six because they've have released more money for this training following this incident." Likewise, the U.K. divisions of Total, Lindsey Oil, Conoco, SembCorp and BP have all been either represented at the annual school or received on site training by WF&HC.
The Bronze commander ordered Hardingham to shift one of the key monitors to cooling the exterior of the tank in question and extinguish surrounding ground fires. Hardingham advised against this strategy, noting that the new location would not be close enough to extinguish the fires being targeted. Also, it meant risking the 2x6 Gun, the most effective weapon at the disposal of the firefighters.
"I said 'If you do that you've got to knock off this 2x6 Gun,'" Hardingham said. "Now these guys are surrounded almost 220 degrees by fire. If they knock it off they've got nothing to fight those fires with. They could easily end up being totally surrounded 360 degrees by fire."
Hearing that, the Bronze commander ordered that the firefighters evacuate the entire site.
"It gave us a chance to have a rest and reassess exactly what we are going to do with this water which was still being knocked on and off on a regular basis," Hardingham said.
As the firefighters walked off the site they found 12 lines of 6-inch hose running down the road, he said.
"Now all we had coming in on the site were three lines of 6-inch hose," Hardingham said. "I've asked many times where were the other nine lines of 6-inch hose going? To this day I have never had an answer. Our immediate reaction was 'Where the hell is this hose going?' We were really shocked."
Once the site was evacuated a meeting of the officials in charge was held. Hardingham was adamant about what was needed for success at Buncefield.
"I said 'What we need to do is be secure with our water supplies and make a decision on whether to protect the unburned areas and let the rest of this facility burn, because if you continue to have the water turned on and off you're wasting all the effort and the foam."
The decision was made to return to the site in two hours and concentrate on protecting the unburned tanks. Firefighters used water curtains to protect the tanks that could be saved, allowing the rest to burn.
"To be honest, at this point in the timeline, there wasn't a lot left to burn in some of them," Hardingham said.
Some of the tanks burning would have been difficult to extinguish under the best of conditions, he said. One of the last tanks that firefighters tackled posed its own special problems.
"If anyone here has dealt with an internal floating roof tank, you know they're buggers," Hardingham said. "We left this one. We couldn't extinguish it. It was burning out the vents and we had no way of extinguishing it with the other tanks burning. To make matters worse, it had pressure fires burning outside it."
Using an aerial ladder, Hardingham determined that the roof had split open and the tank was burning inside.
"We decided to let it burn itself out," he said. "It only had about 10 feet of product left in it. We put out the bund and tried to deal with the pressure fires."
Finally, one by one, the fires went out. On December 11, the site held more than 9.2 million gallons of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel. Three days later almost one-third of this inventory was lost.
In the future, Hardingham said, he believes the U.K. needs to consider having plans in place to mobilize a team of experts with experience in petroleum and petrochemical fire fighting when these emergencies occur.
"We have hostage negotiators and hijack teams who are trained especially for those jobs," Hardingham said. "Why not have one for industrial emergencies?"
In particular, the team of about a dozen people would train to take charge of storage tank fires.
"We don't need it for process fires because these are not long-term fires," Hardingham said. "We need it for tank fires because these are the ones that do last for a while. It may be 12 hours before you start to attack it. So you've got long term implications."
This team, trained to interact in industrial emergencies, should in Hardingham's opinion include members of the government, the Environmental Agency, municipal firefighters and industrial fire crews.
"This incident proves to me that you need expertise," Hardingham said. "What if these industrial fire fighting teams with their fire chiefs and equipment had not been released by their management to attend or if they had been busy doing something else? Where would we have been?"