Nebraska City, NE, Mayor Jo Dee Adelung raced to the emergency room upon learning that 13 volunteer firefighters responding to a stubborn fire at the EnTire Recycling, Inc. tire recycling facility had been injured in an explosion.
"It was the phone call that a mayor never wants to get," Adelung said. "It was the chief of police who called to tell me we had firefighters down. I hate to think of how quickly I drove from my office to the hospital because I probably shouldn't have been driving that fast."
What she found when she entered the emergency room gave her even greater reason for concern. From head to foot, the firefighters were completely black.
"I can't even describe that emotion," Adelung said. "They were just bringing them in. I thought they were burned."
Then one of the firefighters gave her a smile and a thumbs-up. No one had been burned in the blast. What gave the impression of being burned was a course black powder the consistency of gunpowder -- pulverized rubber from the recycling center.
The fire and explosion at EnTire sent a shock through this community of 7,200 akin to what New Yorkers felt when September 11 felled so many of their emergency responders in one blow. The 45-member Nebraska City, NE, Volunteer Fire Department had been suddenly reduced to 32 in the midst of an ongoing emergency beyond any local experience. That emergency would last more than 10 days.
Williams Fire & Hazard Control takes charge of extinguishing the fire in the two remaining silos at the En Tire Tire Recycling facility in Nebraska City. Rubber being removed is spread out and soaked.
Fortunately, Nebraska City found friends who were just as concerned. The federal Environmental Protection Agency under the National Contingency Plan has the authority to mobilize experts and resources to respond to immediate, critical, hazardous substance and oil threats or releases. EPA's goal is to make the responsible parties clean up their own spills. However, in an emergency situation when a responsible party does not have adequate resourcs available or is not willing to respond in a timely fashion, the EPA has the authority to respond without delay and address liability issues after the emergency is under control.
The insurance company representing EnTire paid to have Williams Fire & Hazard Control brought in as consultants on the fire. But due to the task of coordinating many contractors and the need under the Incident Command System to have a command structure in place that allowed for coordinated management of the response -- addressing safety issues, accountability of personnel and resources, a clear operations and action plan -- the decision was made that EPA would contract directly with Williams F&HC.
"It was a real concern for all of us here because one of the alternatives would have been to let it burn," Adelung said. "Then you really would spend day after day worrying about the wind direction."
At 2:54 a.m. on January 23, a 73-year-old woman living on the fifth floor of a elderly retirement center noticed what appeared to be fog. Then she spotted flames rising from the four 64-foot tall storage silos at the nearby recycling facility.
Originally, these silos were built for the same reason as many such structures across Nebraska -- to hold grain. These silos had been converted to industrial use when the facility overlooking the Missouri River became a tire recycling center in 1995. Instead of grain, the EnTire silos were filled with used tire rubber cut into pieces two inches square and even ground down to a 20 mesh powder form. In turn, this was used to make artificial turf for sports stadiums.
These silos were different from other silos in another important way. Modern silos are built from corrugated metal. But these silos, typical of those built in the 1940s and 1950s, were constructed from 4 foot by 8 foot sections of solid steel plate. That steel would require special tools to penetrate when the time came, said Larry Wiles, a 32-year veteran of the Nebraska City VFD. He is also a fire resource manager with the Nebraska Forest Service.
Only one day during the entire 10-day operation did the low temperature break freezing. Wednesday the 23rd was not that day. The weather was a brisk 26 degrees F at its coldest, warming to 50 degrees F. Factor in the wind chill and the low temperature plunged to 11 degrees F. The northwesterly winds were blowing out across the Missouri River and away from the town at 11-19 miles per hour.
Firefighters had responded to small fires at the recycling center before, Wiles said. What they found was somewhat more alarming. Nebraska's oldest fire department, established 1856, faced the biggest fire since 1860 when 60 buildings downtown were destroyed. The initial response was two engines, an aerial tower, a heavy rescue unit and an EMS unit. The decision was made to immediately call in mutual aid from the nearby towns of Syracuse, Dunbar and Plattsmouth. Nearly 25 area fire departments provided mutual aid assistance during the 10-day emergency to come.
While the fire gave reason for concern, it was hardly dramatic. Gray smoke rose from the complex of four 28-foot diameter silos topped by a single headhouse. Some flames were showing at the top and at the base. One of the first steps taken by the firefighters was to place a temporary dike between the silos and the Missouri River to catch any runoff. Meanwhile, calls went in to state officials and by 6 a.m. three deputy fire marshals were on scene as well.
"Our attitude throughout the operation was 'Let's analyze this and see what the best way is to approach it," Wiles said.
Wiles was out of town that morning but heard about it on the 8 a.m. radio news. When he arrived at the scene at noon, the operation was in an overhaul rather than attack mode. Plant workers were using a Bobcat to remove rubber from a silo a bit at a time, then wetting it down. Figuring out a way to reach the flames inside the filled silos was proving difficult.
"That was one of the most frustrating things about this fire," Wiles said. "You could look in the access at the base of the silos and actually see the fire, but you couldn't reach it to put it out."
Consulting with the plant owners, firefighters drafted a plan. As part of the production process liquid nitrogen was used to freeze the tires for ease in cutting them into small pieces. The plant owners advised pumping nitrogen vapor into the silos, rendering the atmosphere inside incapable of sustaining combustion. No oxygen, no fire. The southeast tank was first to be tackled.
According to Wiles, concern about strange activity in the silo led to an order to pull back from the fire.
"It belched some flame, then sucked it back in," Wiles said. "Then it did it a second time. The chief (incident commander Alan Viox) didn't like the looks of it and told everybody to pull out. The hose crew standing beside the silo entrance turned to back out. The blast blew them across the ground."
A cold explosion of rubber pieces and particles blew through the access opening, showering a 350 foot area. Soft rubber projectiles splattered and stuck to the fire equipment. The firefighters were struck by two-inch pieces, some with the wire from steel belted radials in them. Of the 25 responders on the scene, 13 were sent to the hospital for treatment. Three required hospitalization.
"One firefighter had a compound fracture of his right leg," Wiles said. "Another had a fractured ankle. A third one was wearing his SCBA when he was hit in the face. It broke his face shield and gave him a fractured cheekbone." None of the firefighters were burned.
Everyone was covered in black pulverized rubber, Wiles said. It was as if the fire department had returned to the days of black fire coats, he said.
Upon word of the explosion, the local hospital administrator called the Lincoln (NE) Fire Department to line up extra ambulances in case the local fleet of four were overwhelmed. He also notified the state's leading burn trauma center in Lincoln.
"It just happened that the state Department of Health was conducting an inspection as to the hospital's disaster preparedness," Wiles said. "The hospital passed with flying colors."
Wiles himself called Omaha to request that the medical helicopter service be put on standby if needed. Instead, Omaha dispatched the helicopter immediately for the 18-minute trip to Nebraska City.
"Their policy is they don't go on standby," Wiles said. "They would rather have the helicopter on its way and recall it in flight if necessary." The medical helicopter in Lincoln, also 18 minutes away, was also alerted.
The silos continued to burn. Worse, since the early stages of the fire it had been noticed that the two south silos were beginning to lean. From a gradual shift of inches per hour, the increasing angle was now apparent to everyone.
"That ruled out putting anybody on top to fight the fire," Wiles said. "The headhouse on top of the silos was even shifting out of position."
People identify the Environmental Protection Agency with air and water quality. However, the Nebraska City fire illustrates a lesser known area of authority for the agency -- their responsibility under the Oil Pollution Act to address oil releases to a waterway. One tire can generate at least one gallon of oil when it burns. The EnTire facility was located very close to the banks of the Missouri River. Therefore, EPA responded to the threat of an oil release to the waterway.
At 6:37 p.m. officials with the Region 7 office of the EPA in Kansas City, KS, arrived in Nebraska City. In touch with local emergency management officials since the fire was first reported, EPA brought with them an air monitoring contractor assigned to test the air quality. EPA was also concerned about runoff polluting the Missouri River, said federal on scene coordinator (OSC) Janice Kroone.
With favorable winds blowing away from residents and a dike in place to protect the Missouri, attention turned to financial issues. The cost of emergency operations at the recycling center would soon exceed the maximum insurance coverage of the company that owned it. The owners had no monetary resources to assist with the response beyond that. And with the need for specialized help in this case, the price tag was still going up.
"It was determined that the cost for this response would far exceed funds available to the local fire department," Kroone said.
As early as Jan. 24, EPA's emergency response cleanup contractor, IT Group, had been in touch with Williams F&HC in Mauriceville, TX. Then the insurance company contacted them.
"When it became apparent that the EPA needed to take the 'whole fight' responsibility, we hired Williams under EPA auspices to do the fire fighting," Kroone said.
Williams F&HC made its mark in fighting tire fires when its successfully extinguished flames sweeping through seven million tires stored in a canyon near Wesley, CA in September 1999. Williams F&HC extinguished the fire in 27 days when experts predicted it might take as long as a year.
Dwight Williams, owner of Williams F&HC, said he has great respect for any fire burning uncontrolled in a confined space.
"Fighting fire is always dangerous, but anytime you have confined spaces such as warehouses or silos, then the notch goes up about three or four times as far as risk," Williams said.
Before Williams could arrive, events transpiring at EnTire would continue to hold the community's close attention. The EnTire complex consisted of four silos in the center and two 300 foot long, 100 foot wide steel buildings extending north and south. The south building served as receiving for used tires which were immediately ground up and shipped to the north building by conveyor belt. There the rubber was ground down further into black powder. Fire communicating along the conveyor belts had spread into the north building.
On Friday afternoon a change in the wind direction caused a smoldering fire under a conveyor belt at the south end of the north building to reignite. A fireball resulted that spread fires throughout that portion of the north building. Officials chose to evacuate part of the town for nearly five hours.
Williams and associate Chauncey Naylor arrived at 1 p.m. Saturday. At this point he was only consulting on extinguishing the fire. Still, he followed his established procedure of first taking a walk completely around the fire ground.
"What I saw was a lot of black smoke and rubber," Williams said. "There were flames around the bottom of the silos and burning out the top. The silos were pretty much intact at that point, but it was obvious that their structural integrity had been damaged to some degree."
Once the EPA engaged Williams to extinguish the fire, his first action was to stop the spread of fire into the north building. Williams and the Nebraska City Fire Department tackled the fire with handlines and a fresh supply of 1X3 Thunderstorm ATC, pushing it out of the building.
"We basically played defense until our equipment arrived," Williams said.
The Williams equipment list included a 3,500 gpm pump, a 2,500 gpm pump, 3,000 feet of five-inch hose, 3,000 feet of three-inch hose, 3,000 feet of 13/4 -inch hose, a five inch monitor with a 2,000 gpm foam nozzle, six 21/2 -inch monitors with foam nozzles, 3,200 gallons of "Class B" AFFF foam. Williams F&HC brought in a total of eight firefighters and logistics control and document specialist Randy Williams.
"We had used our own equipment up plus what Dwight brought in," Wiles said. "Then we switched to using his equipment because it was just bigger. Typically, one of our firefighters works with a 11/2 -inch or 21/2 inch hose. Dwight brought in nozzles fed with a five-inch hose."
While waiting for the equipment to arrive, the extended operation at the recycling center fell into an aggravating routine, Wiles said.
"We'd have a day of excitement, then a day where nothing happened, then a day of excitement and the next day nothing," Wiles said.
On the fifth day the winds shifted from northwesterly to west-by-northwest sending smoke into the town. Of principle concern was a six-story apartment complex catering to elderly residents. A warning was issued that the elderly and those with upper respiratory conditions should stay clear of the smoke.
"Some people were out of their residences up to a week," Kroone said.
The location and layout of the burning facility created other problems for officials. Union Pacific, with tracks running past the EnTire facility, checked the status of the fire on an almost hourly basis. When trains were allowed through, it was noticed that it caused the silos to lean even more. Depending on what direction the silos fell it was possible they would take down important power lines. On the bright side, for once Williams F&HC did not have to stretch far to reach water. The plant site was on top of one of the city's biggest mains. Williams had access to three hydrants that each flowed more than 3,000 gpm.
On Jan. 28, before any of that new equipment could be put into service, two of the four silos toppled over. Strangely enough, that might have been to the firefighters' advantage. The burning product inside was now more easily accessible. Using heavy equipment, Environmental Solutions, Inc., a contractor to EPA, pulled out the twisted metal. The firefighters used a foam/water fix to wet down the burning rubber and then move it to a nearby concrete foundation. There it was spread out and allowed to cool overnight. Finally it would be removed for safe disposal in a landfill.
"Of course, now you had to go in to empty the fallen towers and hope the other towers don't fall on top of you too," Williams said.
By February 1, Williams F&HC and ESI was in a position with manpower and equipment to move in on the silos. Breaking through the metal shell was the first order of business. ESI used a trackhoe which was specially adapted by removing the bucket and replacing it with a rake. Long metal teeth protruding from the rake would be used to puncture the silos, then dragged down the side to tear a new opening.
"ESI (under the direction of Williams F&HC) cut a hole right down to the product level and the burning tire pieces actually poured out of the silo," Naylor said "When we cut down below the product level it actually poured out of the silo. We found we could actually dump the top of the pile to the atmosphere and quench it as it came out."
What poured out was a "river of fire," Naylor said. But sometimes that rubbery powder bound together to make what Williams called a 'klunker,' a big hard ball of rubber. Once outside, the rubber was drenched, flattened, removed to the concrete foundation, then drenched and worked again before being removed for disposal. The EPA estimates that at least 2,000s tons of ground or pulverized rubber was removed from the silos and taken to landfills.
Adding a further degree of difficulty to the operation was a two-day snowstorm that dumped more than 10 inches on Nebraska City. The recorded low temperature for February 1 was 1 degree F with a wind chill factor of -24 degrees. The high for the day was only 24 degrees F.
"We'd never seen water freeze into ice so close to a fire," Williams said.
A land stand version of the Daspit Tool spared the Williams personnel from crouching on the frozen ground. Nothing could spare the hose and pumps, however. If the flow of water was shut off for any length of time it would freeze solid. The only recourse then was to let it thaw out inside the heated fire station.
"Standard fire hose would just bend and break when you tried to move it," Naylor said. "Hose with a polyester woven jacket on it just folded right up. We just took it to the fire house, hung it up and thawed it out."
More experienced in handling icy conditions were local volunteer firefighters temporarily hired by Williams F&HC to supplement his own crew.
"We found local firefighters who caught on so quickly that we actually hired them at one point to help us," Williams said. "They did a good job."
At 10:50 a.m. February 3, the fire was officially declared extinguished. After four days on the scene setting up operations, Williams was already back in Mauriceville, TX, headquarters preparing for his next fire operation.
"My big concern throughout the whole operation is that we have so many companies in the oil business that depend on us to respond quickly," Williams said. "I only have three teams and two of them were in Nebraska City."
The job for the EPA was far from over in Nebraska City. Throughout the emergency the agency had trucked collected runoff water to Omaha for treatment. During the emergency, runoff had also collected in an underground portion of the silos. That runoff would also have to be carted off to Omaha.
In Texas those tall structures that farmers fill with grain are called silos. In Nebraska the same structure is often called a bin. Throughout the operation this was the only disagreement between city officials, the EPA and Williams F&HC.
"The people who do this work and the people who need to know them are starting to get more comfortable with each other," Williams said. "There is a new level of respect."
During the emergency the EPA kept a tight reign on everything, Williams said. Meetings of officials to discuss action taken were well planned and people felt comfortable putting their ideas on the table.
"Everybody had a deliberate action," Williams said.
As for the community, Nebraska City and the neighboring towns that responded to the EnTire fire all showed a positive spirit throughout the emergency. In particular, local firefighters were well trained and enthusiastic to help.
Mayor Adelung said her experience with the EPA was a very positive one. They were cooperative and genuinely concerned. Safety and the well being of our community were their primary concern.
While very much relieved when the decision was finally made to bring in outside experts, Adelung admitted she was somewhat apprehensive about the relationship they would have with the local volunteer firefighters. That reaction quickly fell by the wayside.
"It was very apparent that Williams was impressed with our firefighters and the job they had done up to that point. They wanted our input and they wanted our firefighters to be involved in extinguishing the fire -- to finish the job they had started. Williams handled the situation wonderfully."