Had the explosion that demolished much of an auto parts foundry in Radford, VA, occurred in broad daylight instead of darkest night, fire
chief Lee Simpkins said several key decisions he made would have been different.
"I'm not sure we would have ever allowed anybody to enter the building," Simpkins said. " I know for certain that there were some areas we would never have let anybody enter."
The March 5 blast reduced a section of the four-story foundry located on the New River about 30 miles west of Roanoke to a pile of twisted steel less than half as tall. Damage was so extensive that recovery of two of the three fatalities took 31/2 days and required the use of giant cranes shipped to the site.
"It was a miracle to have an explosion of that magnitude and only have three dead and seven injured," Simpkins said. "The good Lord was looking out for the rescuers too. At one point we actually sounded the air horns and had everyone retreat from the building because of shifting steel."
Radford, population 17,000, is protected by a fire department staffed by seven paid members and 30 volunteers. The 1.7 million-square-foot foundry complex makes casings for transmissions and other iron parts for the auto industry. Employing approximately 500 people, it is the largest local employer save for Radford University.
According to Simpkins, the foundry was powered up at 9 p.m. after a weekend shutdown for maintenance. Then, at 9:35 p.m., an explosion ripped through an area roughly 100 feet in diameter where five large core machines used in molding parts were located. One city official, Basil Edwards, reported that equipment as close as 20 feet outside the blast area survived relatively untouched. However, inside the radius devastation was total.
"It actually took a 24-inch steel I-beam and sheared it off," Simpkins said.
The first Radford fire truck arrived within five minutes, followed closely by Simpkins who immediately took charge.
"It was completely dark," Simpkins said. "We had sheet metal that had blown off the sides of the building laying everywhere. There was a lot of fire concentrated in the middle of the foundry."
Dazed workers roamed about trying to comprehend what had happened, he said. Those who had been inside when the blast occurred were covered in black graphite dust, commonly used in foundry work.
Firefighters attacked and quickly extinguished scattered small blazes using 13/4-inch hand lines. One large fire fed by the contents of a resin tank could not be reached because of collapsed debris, Simpkins said. Further complicating the fire fighting effort were four huge foundry ladles filled with molten iron.
"We had two volunteer members of the fire department who also work at the foundry," Simpkins said. "We assigned them to do nothing else but keep an eye on those four ladles, the reason being that if they melted through or water got to them we would have the chance of another severe explosion."
It was decided to let the fire that could not be reached burn itself out. Rescuers turned their full attention to search and rescue.
"Everybody had complete turnout gear on," Simpkins said. "We paired everybody into teams of two, got out the big hand lights and started going in. Literally, you had workers wandering through the wreckage to get out."
Inside, several workers needed immediate help. A man pinned beneath a steel beam was found in the foundry's 20-foot-deep basement. Working in an area surrounded by molten metal, eight rescuers were needed to physically lift the beam and free the injured man.
Another rescue involved operators trapped high above ground in the cabs of two industrial cranes. Thirty-five foot ladders were needed to reach them, Simpkins said.
"Neither one was injured," Simpkins said. "They just couldn't get down."
Twenty-one Radford firefighters turned out for the emergency, joined by 27 firefighters from nearby Snowville and Fairlawn. Resources Simpkins could call upon included four pumpers, an aerial and two rescue squads. Radford EMS, together with Pulaski County EMS and Christianburg EMS, mustered eight ambulances for the emergency. The foundry itself had no fire brigade.
The various mutual aid departments quickly gelled to respond as one, Simpkins said.
"Fairlawn had one of their trucks and four people at our fire station standing by," Simpkins said. "Christianburg brought two ambulances to the scene and took another to our station to cover calls in the city. We were very fortunate that we didn't have any other calls during this incident."
Simpkins' department caught a few other important breaks. No hazardous materials requiring more than standard self-contained breathing apparatus were involved. The foundry's holding pond and basement prevented any runoff from reaching the New River. Also, the foundry is a gated facility which allowed for better control of the scene.
"I hate to think of the problems if there had been no fence with all the families that were rushing to the scene," Simpkins said.
All emergency responders in the New River Valley use a common system of identification tags, expediting accountability, Simpkins said. Two firefighters were assigned to the gate to check identification and log in the arriving mutual aid companies.
To account for the workers, plant administrators provided a list of those on duty at the time of the blast. Despite initial reports of as many as 100 workers involved, only 60 were on hand that night.
Seven injured were transported to area hospitals by ambulance. One of those was later airlifted from a local hospital to nearby Roanoke. Of the three fatalities, only one was found the first night. The search for the last two victims became an extended operation lasting for days.
To help with the search, the foundry brought in three giant cranes, one of which required 13 tractor-trailer rigs to deliver. When the cranes were in place, three search dogs were brought to the scene independent of each other. All three dogs "hit" in a target area within five to 10 feet of each other.
"We felt confident that we had the right area to concentrate on," Simpkins said. "With the help of the cranes we were able to get in and start cutting this metal apart from the top down." The last two fatalities were found underneath."
Throughout the lengthy search, Simpkins met with the families of the victims twice daily, followed by a press conference.
"We told no one anything until we told the families," Simpkins said.
Meanwhile, local authorities overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tragedy turned to the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to help determine a cause.
"Our police department arson investigator requested two ATF agents come over from Roanoke," Simpkins said. "We wanted their expertise in directing us. The Roanoke agents suggested we call in one of the ATF's national response teams. They were on site by Tuesday morning."
The ATF maintains four national response teams, each with as many as 20 agents specializing in areas such as explosives, arson investigation and chemical analysis. These teams have participated in the investigations of the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City federal building. The request for ATF assistance should not imply suspicion about the Radford explosion, said Bart McEntire, ATF resident agent for Roanoke.
"We take a neutral stance as to whether an explosion is criminal or accidental," McEntire said. "We have a wide range of personnel with the expertise to determine the cause and origin of any explosion. Only then do we act on whether the explosion was criminal or accidental."
The ATF team works beside state and local officers to reconstruct the scene, identify the seat of the blast or origin of the fire, conduct interviews and sift through debris to obtain evidence.
The Radford explosion has been determined to have been accidental, McEntire said.
In incidents such as the Radford blast, ATF can only become involved at the request of the local police or fire department. The incident is then evaluated by the ATF to determine if it meets the criteria for a national response team investigation, McEntire said.
Simpkins praised the federal agents for their resources and expertise they brought to the investigation.
"One of the main things that should come out of this is that fire departments need to know their local ATF agents," Simpkins said. "A lot of people think that to call in the ATF it has to be something involving a bomb. That is not everything these people do. Areas that don't have the manpower and expertise for this kind of investigation need to keep it in the back of their heads that these people are out there to help."