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Winning the Giant Coin Toss
New Jersey Firefighters Battle 28-Hour Gasoline Storage Fire (1996)

Retired New York City firefighter Rick Ciasco may have been eyewitness to the biggest coin toss in history. He was visiting friends across the street from a gasoline storage terminal in Woodbridge Township, N.J. on June 11, 1996, when lightning struck a tank containing 3 million gallons of gasoline.

"We ran outside thinking it was a thunderbolt," Ciasco told The New York Times. "The top of the (gasoline) tank had been flung about 150 feet in the air. It swung sideways on its edge and then it came down like a slice, just like a guillotine. It went back down into the tank. And then the whole thing was just fire and smoke."

The way that giant coin landed proved to be lucky for Richard Kozub, chief of the Middlesex County Hazardous Materials Unit. It eventually provided a solution to controlling a raging tank fire that took 28 hours to extinguish.

Firefighters from 84 different fire companies, some from as far away as New York City, and eight different industrial fire brigades joined together to bring the tank fire under control. That includes Kozub's own 35-member unit which covers a 330 square mile region with a population of nearly 660,000 and about 4,300 industrial facilities.

"Fire resources as far as municipal services go were, I hate to say unlimited, but it was almost that," Kozub said. "We could just keep calling and pulling resources from anywhere in the state as we needed."

However, the industrial fire resources needed proved more difficult to come by, Kozub said. Because of downsizing and closures, fewer industrial facilities in the area maintain a fire brigade, let alone participate in mutual aid agreements.

"A few years ago we had 13 different groups (participating in mutual aid), now we're down to six and soon we're going to be down to four," Kozub said. "So we're setting at a smaller table."

The foam supplies and equipment available in the area decrease each year, Kozub said. What remains is purchased to meet the specific needs of particular plants, perhaps ones much smaller than the oil terminal where the June 11 fire occurred. The demands of that fire were beyond much of what the equipment available was capable of, Kozub said.

"It worked to the point it eventually put the fire out, but it caused some problems," Kozub said.

On Tuesday afternoon, June 11, a small but relatively severe thunderstorm moved through the Woodbridge Township area, downing power lines and causing numerous structure fires. At about 4:15 p.m. a lightning strike set off tank 139 at the 17-tank storage terminal in the Sewaren section of Woodbridge Township. Smoke from the burning fuel rose 3,000 feet into the air. The terminal directly adjoined a residential area, forcing an evacuation of nearly 200 people. Further complicating the situation, the storm that had swept the area had also caused a furnace fire at nearby refinery. That fire was extinguished quickly, but delayed dispatching foam equipment to the oil terminal fire.

"I got to the scene about nine minutes after the first alarm," Kozub said. "My initial assessment after talking to the fire command people was that we were probably going to be there about three days and that we should figure resources for that amount of time."

Kozub based his gloomy assessment on hard facts. The fire burned in a steel tank standing 40 feet tall and 140 feet in diameter. Its steel external roof, flipped by the explosion, lay to one side inside the burning tank. The internal floating roof sank to the bottom of the tank. Rather than having its own containment dike,Tank 139 was the center tank of five tanks sharing a common containment dike. The four surrounding tanks all contained gasoline in varying amounts. Those four tanks were only 75 feet from the burning center tank and already suffering radiant heat damage.

To reach the center of Tank 139 with foam thrown from the dike wall was about 270 feet. That meant it would have to be thrown significantly further than any equipment on hand was designed to do, Kozub said.

Every resource available in the state was placed at the firefighter's disposal, Kozub said. However, it was 10 a.m. Wednesday before adequate foam supplies were on site to mount an attack on the blaze. Therefore, a strictly defensive strategy was initially implemented. Firefighters set the facility monitors into action along with department ground monitors. To cover all the tanks four sectors were established, one along each dike wall.

Supplying the various monitors and apparatus were five hose relays in which miles of 5-inch hose brought water from municipal hydrants and the Arthur Kill River. To supplement the terminal's salt water fire protection system, a fireboat supplied by the Fire Department of New York was tied into the system from a nearby dock. However, the pipeline later broke and the boat was switched to supplying hose lines.

A plan of attack to extinguish the fire came out of a command post meeting of company, municipal and industrial fire personnel.

"With the involvement of some of our political people, company people and others, we made a decision that morning that we would attack with the foam and physically put the fire out," Kozub said. "The likelihood was that it wasn't going to work, but we had made the decision that we would attempt to put it out and try to get back to normal."

The single biggest hurdle was the distance to throw finished foam, Kozub said. Firefighters set up two 2,000 gallon-per-minute foam monitors working in different directions from atop the containment dike wall. This initial attack put most of the foam into the dike but was working to slowly dampen down the fire. As the wind would pick up more foam would go into the fire, almost putting it out. But one of two foam pumpers being employed developed a mechanical problem and had to be shut down.

"With only one set going we couldn't maintain the (foam) blanket, so we decided that instead of wasting the foam we'd shut both of them down until we got it repaired," Kozub said.

A wind shift spoiled the second foam attack, causing most of the foam to miss the tank.

"Because of the wind shift, we knew where we had our foam apparatus was not going to work anymore, so this involved a couple of hours of relocating the apparatus and restretching hose to where the apparatus would be," Kozub said.

After flying over the tank in a state police helicopter, a new plan was devised. For the third attack, firefighters moved inside the dike with monitors set up on the ground. The idea was to lob the foam high into the air, using the blown-off steel roof propped inside the far side of the tank as the target. The foam arced high into the air, hit the roof and flowed back into the tank. Despite a minor foam supply problem, the fire was extinguished at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday with 300,000 to 500,000 gallons of gasoline left in the tank.

"It got to the point with the third attack that because we were getting into darkness again that if the third attack didn't work we'd just sit through the night and let it burn itself out," Kozub said.

The terminal management did fly experts in from Houston to advise on extingushing the fire. One other source of expertise Kozub had to draw on was Norman Leahy, chief of the Woodbridge Volunteer Fire Department, who had attended a course on fighting oil fires at Texas A&M University, the New York Times states. The oil terminal management paid for the course.

To the end, the companies still participating in industrial mutual aid were on the scene, Kozub said. Companies such as the owners of this New Jersey terminal who no longer sit at the mutual aid table have to go begging in a major emergency.

"(This terminal) is not part of the industrial mutual aid group anymore, so we are bringing in other companies to handle a third party's accident," Kozub said. "But because of our agreement we have the availability to do that. The players that are left are more than willing to participate. Our problem is we just don't have that many players anymore."

 
 

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