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Whiskey River Encore

In May 2000 a seven story warehouse containing 1 million gallons of whiskey burned in Lawrenceburg, KY. A similar fire in November 1996 in Bardstown, KY, destroyed seven such warehouses.

Personnel on duty at the Lawrenceburg, KY, water treatment plant May 9, 2000, paid little attention when a small explosion sounded in the distance.

Blasting is common at a rock quarry in the area. Then, someone spotted the rear wall collapsing on a seven-story bourbon warehouse less than 200 yards away.

Within moments flames rose from the damaged Warehouse "K" belonging to the nearby Wild Turkey Distillery. Torrents of burning alcohol poured from crushed barrels, flowing 300 feet downhill into the Kentucky River. It was the beginning of a disaster that would destroy nearly one million gallons of aging liquor, shut down the water supply to Lawrenceburg and cause the largest fish kill in Kentucky history.

For Lawrenceburg Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Bobby Hume, the priority was clear.

"Protecting the city's water supply and that treatment plant became my primary concerns," Hume said.


The Wild Turkey Distillery is located on Highway 62 between Lawrenceburg and Versailles. Before the fire, Warehouse "K" resembled most whiskey warehouses built in Kentucky and Tennessee during the 50s and 60s. Timber and slat construction, the structure was topped with a tin roof. Located on a hillside at the edge of the distillery's property, Warehouse K had neither an alarm system to warn about the fire, a sprinkler system to help extinguish it or a containment dike to capture any spill.

When water plant workers spotted the flames about 3:30 p.m., the plant supervisor ordered an immediate evacuation and notified 911 dispatch for Anderson County. Dispatch, in turn, notified the Anderson County Fire Protection District. Area residents observing the billowing smoke also alerted the fire department in neighboring Woodford County. In Lawrenceburg, a volunteer firefighter radioed county dispatch that he could see a smoke column rising from the distillery about 4 miles away on Highway 62.

Responding to the scene, Hume reported that flames were visible from more than three miles away. Additional help was immediately requested. First to arrive was Anderson County Fire Chief Ernest Hunt and a Lawrenceburg Fire Department engine. City firefighters went directly to the water plant while Chief Hunt set up the incident command system and began calling for and assigning resources.

This style of whiskey warehouse is designed to collapse inward as it burns, as Warehouse K did. Stored inside was 17,262 barrels of bourbon, each containing 53 gallons of 107 to 112 proof bourbon. The alcohol content of the escaping liquid measured more than 50 percent by volume. A mass quantity of more than 914,000 gallons of alcohol can not burn off all at once.

Firefighters arriving at Wild Turkey found a stream of burning alcohol moving like a lava flow downhill from flaming Warehouse K through a small patch of woods and then into the Kentucky River.

Anderson County Fire Protection District's first engine to arrive laid its entire 900 foot load of 5-inch hose from a hydrant at the distillery's entrance gate. This initial lay barely spanned 60 percent of the distance to the fire. Leaving the line behind for firefighters arriving later, the engine began exposure protection for Warehouse "I" some 260 feet upwind of the burning warehouse.

As Anderson County's second and third engines arrived, the second engine added 700 feet of 5-inch hose to that left by the first engine. Connecting with the first engine, the second engine then extended another 200 feet of 5-inch hose to provide exposure protection on the opposite side of Warehouse I. The third engine 'caught' the hydrant and began supply operations to the other engines.

Chief Hunt established an incident command post 400 yards up the ridge line from the incident, giving him a view of the water plant, the warehouses and, later, his drafting operation for the tanker shuttle. As more units arrived, Chief Hume took charge of ground operations near the water plant.

It was immediately apparent that the burning warehouse was beyond saving. Firefighters feared further environmental impact from fire water runoff. Exposure protection became the primary concern.

With the initial response in place, Chief Hunt moved Lawrenceburg's 55-foot telesquirt into action, operating off his first engine. He also moved tankers up for possible use as a tanker shuttle. Woodford County units went to work fighting wild fires sparked as burning alcohol cascaded downhill through wooded areas. The Versailles Fire Department aerial was staged in reserve at the scene. Also, volunteers from other departments responded to the scene to assist.

Throughout the emergency, the Lexington, KY, Fire Department placed a full engine company at the Lawrenceburg fire station to provide coverage for the city and county.

Lawrenceburg's first engine on the scene then joined Anderson County's third engine pumping from the hydrant. Lawrenceburg tied in with some 700 feet of 5-inch hose to support their exposure operations. This totaled between 2,600 feet to 2,700 feet of 5-inch hose operating from one hydrant and one pumper apparatus.

"That's probably the best hydrant you can get in the county," said Hunt.

Lawrenceburg's water treatment plant is the only such facility serving the city. Any fire damage could cripple the city's water supply. Despite the threatening fire, treatment plant workers returned to remove four one-ton chlorine cylinders. Twin 500-gallon propane tanks on the east side of the treatment plant now presented the greatest remaining threat. Those tanks were subject to an increasing radiant heat.

Hume ordered firefighters to begin cooling operations on the tanks and the treatment plant exposure. Burning alcohol rushing down the hillside was so hot that limestone lining the creek bed spalded and exploded, pelting firefighters with debris, Hume said.

At Warehouse I, located slightly uphill and northwest of the burning warehouse, mild winds moving to the southeast gave the responding firefighters time to set up adequate exposure control. Unlike the Heaven Hill Distillery fire 31/2 years earlier that destroyed seven warehouses, this fire never had the opportunity to jump from building to building. (See Industrial Fire World for Jan.- Feb. 1997).


Officials soon recognized a new threat to the water treatment plant. As burning alcohol poured downhill it entered the Kentucky River upstream of the treatment plant's intake. To protect the city's water supply, officials took the plant off-line. Lawrenceburg's water storage capacity is1.2 million gallons with daily usage of 1.8 million gallons. More than three hours into the fire, water available from the closed treatment plant began to run low. To conserve water for residential use, officials cut the supply to the single hydrant in use by firefighters.

Chief Hunt set in motion a well rehearsed tanker shuttle program to continue exposure protection. Drafting from a static source one to 11/2 miles away, five tankers were in full operation in less than seven minutes of the initial request. The shuttle program supplied most of the 500,000 gallons of water used to cool exposures throughout the night and into next morning. Units remained on the scene throughout the following day to watch for and extinguish hot spots.

Lawrenceburg's water treatment plant resumed operations within 24 hours of being shut down. However, it took several days to rebuild the pressure in water lines. Cracks and leaks caused by resulting air pockets and water hammers are possible. There was also a threat of contamination caused by the loss of pressure in the system. Residents were told to boil what water was available. Most local businesses stayed closed through May 11 due to strict conservation measures. Grade school students did not return to classes until the following week.

Distillery workers rerouted fresh water from the company's intake further upstream to supply the water plant, allowing it to reopen sooner. Officials arranged for water to be trucked in for distribution to residents. Also, Wal-Mart and Kroger's donated bottle water to local residents.

Wild Turkey Distillery closed its doors for several days after the fire, sending its payroll of 180 workers home. The distillery compensated employees for the unexpected shut down, despite the lost production time. Fortunately, the lost product represented only four percent of the company's supply. Most bourbon and whiskey distillers along the Tennessee-Kentucky corridor who utilize warehouse aging store varying quantities of each year's production in different locations to prevent an entire year's run being lost in such a disaster.

While no one was hospitalized due to the fire, two Lawrenceburg firefighters were treated and released for heat exhaustion.


State environmental emergency responders estimated that 20 percent of the alcohol stored in Warehouse K made its way into the waterway. The environmental impact of ground absorption and water pollution, together with pockets of burning alcohol traveling down river, required immediate action. Officials ordered a three-quarter mile stretch of the river closed, including a controlling lock and dam.

Environmental agencies responding included the Kentucky Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Emergency Response Team, Kentucky Fish & Wildlife, the State Division of Water, the Atlanta, GA, regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard's Gulf Strike Force based in Mobile, AL, and contractors hired by the EPA.

Initially, state and federal officials made highly optimistic appraisals of the situation. "There's been pretty minimal impact," said the EPA's John McKeown the day after the fire. Another premature assessment came from Gene Blair, supervisor of the state's Department of Environmental Protection. "There's obviously been some environmental harm, but it doesn't seem to be an environmental disaster."

Jokes about drunken fish did not seem as funny after 9 a.m. May 11. The State Division of Water received a call from the Frankfort, KY, water treatment facility 14 miles down river from the Wild Turkey Distillery. First Frankfort reported the sweet smell of bourbon in the water. Then came reports of a fish kill. On May 15, an official with the Division of Water stated that the kill was "quite a decent size one." Two days later other sources reported that the fish kill might possibly be the largest in state history. By May 19, the count of dead fish had reached tens of thousands. At that time what officials described as a "slug of dead water" moving down river had reached the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio rivers.

"The actual area of influence measures some five to six miles in length with a critical zone of two to four miles, moving at a rate of about five miles a day," said Pete Pfeiffer of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "They (fish) were literally jumping over the dam. Someone said there were so many dead fish across the mouth of Elkhorn Creek that you could literally walk across it."

Officials had hoped that turbulence resulting from the plume of bourbon traveling over a series of locks and dams along the river would disperse the effect. That has not been the case. The EPA, assisted by contractors, began aeration of the effected area on May 18. Much like providing oxygen to a home aquarium, the EPA used six barges equipped with large oxygen compressors and trailing submerged perforated piping. The plan called for pumping oxygen back into the river where the oxygen level had dropped to less that .5 parts per million.

An official with Austin Nichols & Co. said the distiller would pay the cost of the oxygen replenishment as well as other measures to insure the environment is returned to normal. The state of Kentucky requires businesses to cover all costs of replacing fish killed through chemical spills.

Some aquatic life escaped by swimming into tributaries, streams and creeks along the river. Since the affected water or "area of influence" is bank to bank, top to bottom, it cannot be controlled by an overflow or underflow dam or by using containment booms.

Also responding were investigative agencies such as the Kentucky State Fire Marshall's Office, Kentucky State Police and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. (Despite ATF participation, sources close to the investigation report that arson is not suspected.) Also, Austin Nichols & Co., Inc., owners of the distillery, responded with their corporate crisis team.


In November 1996 a similar disaster that proved far more destructive occurred 45 miles southwest of the Wild Turkey Distillery in Bardstown, KY. The Heavens Hill Distillery fire destroyed seven bourbon warehouses similar in size to Warehouse K, together with 13 distillery buildings and 36 parked cars. The importance of rapidly establishing an adequate water supply system and the need to concentrate on exposure protection versus initial attack is paramount. Firefighters at the Wild Turkey fire focused on both of these key elements.

Unlike the Heavens Hill fire, firefighters at the Wild Turkey fire did not have to fight 55 mph winds which created a huge exposure problem and quickly spread the fire. However, the environmental impact of the Wild Turkey fire was far greater than the Heavens Hill fire. At Heavens Hill, alcohol escaping from the collapsed warehouses pooled more allowing a large amount to burn off. The alcohol that did not burn had further to travel to reach the nearby river, allowing for more absorption and evaporation.

What contributed to the total loss of the Wild Turkey warehouse and nearly one million gallons of fine Kentucky sipping bourbon? The absence of an early stage warning or alarm system was one major factor. Also missing was any automatic sprinkler system. Distillery employees had no warning about the fire breaking out inside Warehouse K. Whiskey warehouses such as these are rarely entered unless product is being stored, unshelved or checked for taste.

Other important factors contributing to the Wild Turkey blaze include:

  • Early failure and collapse of the warehouse wall, causing rapid involvement of unignited material.
  • Lack of an on-site fire brigade. (It is unknown what a brigade would have been able to achieve here, with such little notice before the warehouse reached full involvement, but in other facilities across the country an in-house response team or fire brigade has had a major impact on emergency incident loss.)
  • The incident occurred at or around shift change time, lessening the number of employees on hand that could possibly have noticed smoke or other early warning signs.
  • Warehouse K, located near the edge of the distillery's property, sits at the end of a row of warehouses, making it one of the least noticeable.
  • Firefighters responding to the scene belonged to volunteer departments, increasing the response time.
  • Pressurized water supply was limited to two hydrants on site with use discontinued after the water plant was shut down.

The responding fire departments performed efficiently and to the best of their ability, effectively saving the city's water plant and protecting the exposure of the northwest warehouse. Jeff Mervine, senior vice president for human resources for Austin Nichols & Co., Inc., put it succinctly "The fire guys saved our (behinds)."

Timber and slat construction for whiskey and bourbon warehouses no longer meet code in Kentucky. But those such as Warehouse K are "grand fathered" under state regulations and require no modification. Warehouses built under today's standards must be concrete and steel with adequate sprinkler systems. As evident here and in Bardstown, the lack of sprinkler protection for a building housing flammable liquids can be devastating. Although not required by state regulations, a dike around the warehouse would likely have prevented the majority of the environmental impact to the Kentucky River.

John R. Coates is a 24-year veteran of fire and emergency services, serving with municipal, industrial and airport operations. Coates is the executive director of Fire Safety Technology, a Tennessee based emergency services training and consulting firm. He holds seven instructor certifications ranging from International Fire Service Accreditation Congress to ARFF to advanced rescue and is an alumnus of the National Fire Academy.

Two generations of the Williams family, recognized internationally for innovations in industrial fire fighting, received special awards during ceremonies at the 15th annual Industrial Fire World Conference&

Exposition held in Houston this month.

Dwight Williams, owner of Williams Fire & Hazard Control, was presented with the Red Adair Award by Industrial Fire World publisher David White. The award, named for the leading pioneer in oil field fire fighting, goes to the firefighter who has made the greatest advancements in industrial fire fighting.

"Just to have my name spoken in the same breath as Red Adair's is honor enough, let alone receiving this award bearing his name," Williams said.

In posthumous recognition of the contribution to industrial fire fighting made by Dwight Williams' father Les, the Williams family was presented with the Industrial Fire World Millennium Award. The award, also presented by White, honors Les Williams as having made the greatest impact on industrial fire fighting in the 20th century.

The plaque includes a quote used by Williams many times -- "The idea is so simple and so much needed, I don't know why nobody ever thought of it before..."

Developed by Dwight and Les Williams, the Hydro-Chem nozzle can project dry chemical in concert with foam and water, an important tool in battling three-dimensional fires at difficult angles. Hydro-Chem is the latest evolution of Williams' original Hydro-Foam technology, which combined water and foam.

The Williams family was also instrumental in bringing large volume nozzles to bear against industrial fires. Starting with a landmark 2,000 gallon per minute "Big Gun" nozzle, Williams now manufactures nozzles that deliver up to 14,000 gallons per minute of water or foam.

Williams Fire & Hazard Control's list of achievements includes extinguishing more than 100 major fires in industrial facilities and ocean-going vessels. Among the most famous was the Christmas Eve 1989 fire at the Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge, LA, involving 15 storage tanks, the October 1990 marine fire involving the gasoline tanker Jupiter on the Great Lakes and the November 1990 Stapleton Airport tank fire at Denver, CO.

Last year, Williams Fire & Hazard Control successfully dealt with a series of pressure fires at a Chevron pipeline near Wortham, TX, in August, and extinguished a blaze in Wesley, CA, involving nearly five million abandoned tires.

The company holds the record for extinguishing the largest fully involved flammable liquid tank fire in history. Williams Fire and Hazard Control , celebrating its 20th anniversary, also sponsors one of the largest privately conducted fire fighting schools, this year scheduled for May 22-26 at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX.

Upon accepting the Millennium Award with his sister Randy and mother Colleen, Dwight Williams again referred to the renown Red Adair.

"When we first got to know Red one of the greatest honors was for him to tell a potential client 'You don't need me, you need to call the Williams boys,'" Dwight Williams said. "He had enough respect for our abilities to refer clients to us."

The four-day Industrial Fire World conference and exposition drew more than 600 attendees and more than 100 vendors. This year's conference was held in conjunction with an international gathering of more than 70 fire chiefs with BP/Amoco and Arco, the first such meeting in the company's history.


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