Article Archive
On Feb. 18, 2008, an explosion rocked a 70,000-barrels-per-day oil refinery in Big Springs, TX, destroying a propylene recovery unit, and igniting a catalytic cracker and three storage tanks
Volume 23, No. 3

Too many municipal firefighters have not been given the opportunity to learn more than that an oil refinery is an alien territory. A confusing maze of coolers, blowers, boilers, columns, compressors, exchangers, filters, heaters, pipes, pumps, tanks, valves and vessels confront responders whenever some overwhelming emergency beckons them to help the in-house brigade.

Fortunately, Chief Tommy Sullivan of the Howard County (TX) Volunteer Fire Department is familiar with the inner workings of refineries. Before becoming chief, Sullivan worked at the 70,000-barrels-per-day refinery in Big Springs, TX, for six years, serving on its Red Hat fire brigade and training with Williams Fire & Hazard Control.

On February 18, Sullivan put all that experience to good use. A thunderous explosion registering 2.1 on the Richter scale rocked the Big Springs refinery, destroying a propylene recovery unit, igniting other unit fires and at least three storage tanks.

"As soon as I stepped out the door I knew it was bad," Sullivan said. "I'd never seen a mushroom cloud rise above the refinery before."

On-site emergency operations were divided between two groups - the refinery brigade who took on the process leaks, and regional responders from Howard County, Big Springs and Snyder who fought the tank fires. Sullivan took charge of the regional response.

"I said, 'I will not get you hurt,'" Sullivan said. "I discussed it with all the firefighters, not just the officers. I told them what we were going to do and what to expect."


In the future, Presidents' Day may be treated with much more reverence in Big Springs. Thanks to the federal holiday, the refinery was operating with a skeleton crew the morning of the explosion, greatly reducing potential injuries and death.

Almost three minutes before the blast, the refinery summoned off-duty Red Hats in response to a Level 1 release from the polypropylene unit, Sullivan said. That escalated to a Level 3 emergency, meaning immediate evacuation of the refinery.

"It was just a few seconds later that the shift foreman yelled on the radio for everyone to run and take cover," Sullivan said. "Then the vapor cloud lit off."

That happened at 8:12 a.m. Sullivan, drinking coffee at his kitchen table almost two miles away, thought that a truck had driven through his house.

"Having worked at the refinery and experienced some smaller explosions, I knew immediately what it was," he said. "Nothing else could hit with that kind of overpressure."

The blast cut communications with the refinery, leaving them unable to even dial 911, Sullivan said. En route to the site, he began dispatching fire units by radio. The Howard County VFD has 10 stations. Out of the 18 pieces of apparatus that Howard County owns Sullivan summoned 12, including four engines, a Telesquirt with a 50-foot (15.2 meter) ladder and a quick attack mini pumper.

Closest to the refinery is the fire station at Sand Springs, 3.2 miles (5.1 k) away.

"I got the pumper truck there with a FEMA grant," Sullivan said. "I designed it just for the refinery. It's 40 feet long, has a 2,000 gpm (7,500 liters per minute) pump rated at 1,500 (5,700 lpm) for draft, it has LDH (large diameter hose) foam discharge, 3,000 gallons (11,000 liters) of water and 110 gallons (416 liters) of ThunderStorm? 1x3 foam."

The second truck at the Sand Springs station is equipped with a compressed air foam system. Both trucks were out of the station within three minutes of the blast.

"We have a pager system for our volunteers," Sullivan said. "Also, in the last couple of years I've given my firefighters radios. When we are on the scene we have 100 percent fire ground communications. If you're just on pagers, they can hear you but they can't talk to you."

The department completed a switch from analog to digital communications only three months ago, he said.

Interstate 20 runs past the front of the refinery. Within half a mile (.8 k) of the scene, Sullivan discovered that debris hurled by the explosion had shut down traffic. The Midland Reporter-Telegram reported that a woman driving past the refinery was injured when glass on her vehicle shattered from the blast.

"There were grates measuring four feet by eight feet (1.2 m by 2.4 m) long lying in the middle of the road, steel beams, plywood with nails in it, all kinds of stuff," Sullivan said. "I moved onto the north service road and got close to the refinery fence. The bigger debris had gone past the fence so it left me enough room to get by."

No walking wounded were waiting when responders arrived. The four refinery workers injured in the blast had already been taken to area hospitals. From the main gate, Sullivan said he could see the windows had been blown out of the administration and training buildings. In some cases, parts of walls were missing.

Also damaged was the refinery firehouse. Responders on duty at the time of the blast were unable to immediately reach their pumper and 50-foot (15 meter) Telesquirt.

"They had to rip the doors off the station just to get the fire trucks out," Sullivan said. "They were just able to get the Telesquirt out when I got there. They were working to get the pumper out."

The guard at the front gate, hired by Sullivan when he served as the refinery's supervisor of security, was still at her post when he arrived. She advised him that a fire truck was needed at the refinery's cat cracker as soon as possible.

"The cat cracker is south of the polypropylene unit, probably about an eighth of a mile (1.3 k)," Sullivan said. "The blast at the polypropylene unit had touched off the cat cracker. It was burning about 170 feet (52 meters) above the ground."

The blast also damaged the refinery's alkalization unit, wastewater holding tank and asphalt plant, all of which were located between the polypropylene unit and cat cracker, he said. Pre-planning called for responders to stage in the parking lot of the refinery. After a radio conference between Sullivan and the Big Springs fire chief, it was decided to stage the Big Springs responders across the interstate.

Meanwhile, Sullivan ordered his Sand Springs pumper with a five-person crew to report to the main gate.

"My guys fight hydrocarbons all the time," Sullivan said. "Our response area includes the oil field outside the city of Big Springs. It was decided that I should take my people in first and get control of the cat. That was the most important thing at that point. With the experience my guys had, it was decided that we could do a better job."

A nasty surprise awaited the Howard County and Red Hat responders. After laying five-inch LDH to the nearest hydrant, it was discovered that the damage to the firehouse had left only one diesel fire pump working. Worse, the blast had sheared off many of the refinery's hydrants, allowing water to flow freely.

"I used the 3,000 gallons (11,300 liters) of tank water that I brought with me," Sullivan said. "We only had 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) of pressure from the available hydrant. The deck gun had a smooth bore tip and foam built into it. We started at 1,000 gallons (3,800 liters) a minute of foam at 110 pounds (49.8 kilograms) of pressure. We were 100 feet (30 meters) away and still managed to hit the cat at 170 feet (52 meters) above ground."

The foam brought the fire under control and the residual coming off the tower extinguished the ground spill, he said. However, it was only a matter of time before the tank water was exhausted.

"We pulled some handlines and set up some 2?-inch (63 mm) monitors," Sullivan said. "After we had the top knocked, we eased back and used the different portable ground monitors with foam while we were building up water in the tank and pressure."

The refinery had an unoccupied northside firehouse with no pump in it. Sullivan dispatched his minipumper to that location to begin drafting raw water from the Colorado River Municipal Water District.

"That minipumper will pump 1,000 gallons (3,800 liters) a minute with the LDH intake and discharge," Sullivan said. "So I used it to start charging the northside loop system to help get some more pressure. The hydrants that were sheared off were on the downstream side. If we could boost the pressure, we could pick it up on our end and not let it go down the downstream side so much."

About 30 minutes into the emergency, water pressure was sufficient for a Big Spring engine to position on the southwest corner of the cat cracker. To the east of the cat cracker are the refinery's gasoline cooling towers. Underneath them are two bullet tanks, each measuring 20 feet (6 meters) tall and 60 feet (18 meters) long.

The blast had sheared off the piping beneath the tanks, resulting in a direct gravity-fed fire. With the Big Spring engine handling structural cooling with its monitors, Sullivan used his pumper to feed foam to a 2?-inch (63 mm) handline and a 1?-inch (42 mm) handline, both using HydroChem nozzles from Williams F&HC.

Using ThunderStorm? foam, the handlines gained control of the ground spill, reducing the intensity of the fire beneath the bullet tanks despite the difficulty of a beam blocking direct access.

Two options existed - extinguish the fire with the HydroChem and hope it does not re-light, or get close enough using foam to see if any surviving valves could be used to block the fuel. At about one hour and 15 minutes into the emergency, Sullivan chose the latter.

"Zach Johnson, one of my firefighters, is actually an employee of the refinery," Sullivan said. "We were using him as a liaison between us, our attack operations and the shift foreman. We notified the foreman that we had located some valves on the bullet tanks where the fuel was dropping."

The foreman advised the firefighters it was safe to use the valves. The fire went out and firefighters secured the area.

Three tank fires were next on the priority list. Tanks 115 and 116 were 100-foot (30 meter) storage tanks containing gasoline. Nearby was Tank 157, an 80-foot (24 meter) tank containing asphalt.

"I knew I was going to need a Big Gun monitor, a jet ratio controller (JRC) and at least 4,000 gallons (1,500 liters) of foam concentrate staged in that area before we could do anything," Sullivan said.

Before that could happen, the regional responders got an unexpected opportunity to rehab.

"By the alkalization unit we could see a mist or fog," Sullivan said. "Having worked at the refinery, I knew it had to be acid vapors. We evacuated and notified the refinery that we could see a vapor release."

More than one and half hours later, the leaking situation stabilized. Owing to the amount of damage on-site, the refinery had set up an incident command center nearly one mile southeast, Sullivan said. The refinery notified Sullivan that he was in charge of operations on the storage tank extinguishment. To help him, he had an additional Big Spring engine and crew assigned to him.

After returning to the burning tanks, the first step by Sullivan was to remove downed power lines and poles to grant easier access to the area.

"We got the electrical representative to make sure everything was clear, then pulled out the K12 saw and sliced through the lines," Sullivan said. "I could see that all the primary lines were down. When these guys tell me that the line is dead and we can cut it, I believe them."


By now, reinforcements from Midland, 40 miles away, were on scene. A Midland engine, together with refinery firefighters, was deployed to the alkalization unit on the northwest side of the refinery. A Quint from Midland assisted Big Spring responders at the cat cracker in dealing with small fires from unpressurized fuel.

With the rest of the refinery secure, Sullivan concentrated on Tank 115. Working with plant personnel, he managed to block in all the sheared hydrants save for one. The Colorado River Municipal Water District increased water pressure to the refinery by an additional 20 pounds (1.38 BAR). Water pressure throughout the refinery improved significantly.

"To me, 115, 116 and the asphalt tank were like dumpster fires," Sullivan said. "They'll be there when you get to them. If you have a failure, you have your dike. They are by themselves in an area where they won't set anything else off."

Having trained at the annual Williams F&HC foam workshop, Sullivan employed the classic 'Footprint' methodology. His relationship with Williams F&HC traces back to a March 1993 crude oil tank fire that he responded to in the oilfields south of Howard County. Unfortunately, that tank dramatically boiled over, forcing responders to flee.

"That's when I changed," Sullivan said. "I used to handle a tank fire by just hanging a stinger on the edge. I changed all operations on crude oil tanks and everything else."

His work with the refinery Red Hats gave him the opportunity to attend the annual Williams F&HC foam workshop in 1995.

"That gave me knowledge about the Big Guns," Sullivan said. "It taught me about using distance and big water to my advantage. It also taught me about the right kind of application rates."

A Williams F&HC 2x6 Gun monitor belonging to the refinery was moved into position. Drawing from the refinery's stockpile of ThunderStorm?, Sullivan assembled 1,500 gallons (5,700 liters) of concentrate on trailers and moved six totes of concentrate by forklift.

"I met with the mutual aid we had from Big Spring and Synder and explained how we were going to do this," Sullivan said. "They didn't have any idea how to use it, let alone hook it up. But they also said we will follow you and do what you tell us."

During application only minimum personnel were allowed at the 2x6 Gun - an officer, one firefighter working the monitor up and down, and another firefighter working it left to right. Sullivan himself took up a position at the JRC beside the foam trailers. Sullivan's pumper from Sand Springs provided the pressure.

"We were at the 6 o'clock position dropping the foam right in the middle, getting that footprint on the fire," he said. "Before, using stingers mounted on the side of the tank, the reaction was nowhere as positive."

Tank 115, standing upwind, came first. Much of the tank shell above the product line collapsed from the heat. After it was extinguished with product saved, firefighters turned to Tank 116, making application from the west side of the tank.

"We had flame collapse in about 12 minutes," Sullivan said. "We then spent 24 minutes cooling. There was a lot of hot metal in there and we didn't want it to re-light."

Tank 157 required different tactics. Positioning to the south of the tank, Sullivan flowed water onto the ground to judge the flow pattern.

"The water was coming back toward us so I had backhoes brought in to build diversion dikes," Sullivan said. "Asphalt will froth 99 percent of the time, so you have to be careful. I didn't want to have a fire flow of burning asphalt coming toward my equipment and people."

Once the diversion dikes were ready, Sullivan had volunteers waiting for a chance at monitor duty.

"I had some Big Spring firefighters on the 2x6 Gun," Sullivan said. "What better time for them to get experience."

First, firefighters put a full minute of foam flow into the dike for vapor suppression. Next was the "tease." Foam was applied to the burning asphalt for about three seconds, inviting a violent reaction.

"This gives me steam conversion, but I still have active flames," Sullivan said. "So I give it about 20 to 30 seconds before putting another 10 to 15 seconds of teasing. It all turns to steam. I pulled the 2x6 Gun off of the asphalt again, letting it put foam on the dike. The tank never frothed over or boiled over."

Handlines cooled the bottom three-quarters of the tank shell. With the contents stabilized, the object was to bring down the temperature of the metal. In less than seven minutes from the start of application with the 2x6 Gun, the asphalt tank extinguished.

"Just to the north we had the asphalt line and some hydrocarbon still burning," Sullivan said. "We just turned the 2x6 Gun around and ran it up through there for about three minutes, shoving 2,000 gpm(750 lpm) of foam up through that alleyway. That put all of it out."

Final extinguishment at the refinery was achieved in 10 hours, Sullivan said. Some plant officials had predicted it would take at least two days.

Since the refinery is in the Howard County VFD's jurisdiction, Sullivan agreed to keep a pumper and five-person crew on hand throughout the night.

"There were some small places burning inside the refinery that we didn't want to go into because of the danger to the responders," Sullivan said. "We let those small fires burn out."


During the course of the emergency, the only evacuation outside the refinery was at a carbon plant to the northwest. An evacuation of a two-mile radius of the refinery was considered. Residential neighborhoods are only about 500 feet (150 meters) from the refinery's west fence.

As chief, Sullivan said he usually gets to make decisions rather than actually fight fires. At the Big Springs refinery fire, things were different.

"With this one, I actually had to take charge of operations directly," he said. "When you get close to tanks this big, it is really intimidating."


P: (979) 690-7559
F: (979) 690-7562

Content & Feeds

Download Magazine
Download Media Kit


Feedback Form
Privacy Policy
Ads & Marketing

IFW Sites

IFW Store
IFW Gallery



Thank you for visiting! Join us in our mission by subscribing to IFW magazine, using our Web accessible resources, becoming an advertiser, or sharing your personal input.