Article Archive
Tribute to a Firefighter
Death Claims Chief Jerry Craft, 61
Volume 23. No 4

Jerry Craft, an undisputed leader in industrial fire fighting who, as a brigade fire chief, battled one of the epic refinery fires of the 20th century, died May 20 in Baton Rouge, LA, following a massive stroke several days earlier. He was 61. The following is from a presentation Craft gave to attendees at a Williams Fire & Hazard Control foam school. If he could give a parting message to his fellow industrial firefighters, IFW thinks this would be it.

Complacency is the number one hazard in industrial process operations, according to Jerry Craft of Williams Fire & Hazard Control. The degree of that complacency may well depend on how long it has been since the last process unit emergency was reported at a particular facility.

"With 10 being the best on a scale of one to 10, I can tell you that the national average is about five," Craft said. "If you had a fire today, this time next year you might be an eight. If you haven't had a fire in the last five years, you may even drop to a three."

Craft, manager of consulting and training for Williams F&HC, addressed attendees at the annual Williams F&HC foam school in Beaumont, TX. A former fire chief of a major Baton Rouge, LA, refinery, Craft dealt with numerous major emergencies during his career, including a devastating explosion and fire on Christmas Eve 1989 that ranks as one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history.

Anyone conducting a standard risk analysis at a plant with a recent industrial emergency on record is likely to find a proficient, aggressive safety organization in the process of securing equipment and training, Craft said.

"But, to an extent, it's always a little bit like locking the barn after the horse has gotten out," he said.

The key to leadership is to maintain a continuity of awareness and preparedness, Craft said, particularly with regard to process unit operations. By their very nature, process units can present extreme dangers to overcome in terms of pressure and temperature.

"Operations at refineries and chemical plants may be in a vacuum of as much as 50,000 psi," Craft said. "Having that vacuum in the distillation column is a necessity in order to get boiling points enough to fractionate or distill the bottom of that crude oil barrel, then take those side strings for further processing."

Likewise, production of plastics such as polyethylene and polyurethane involve extreme pressures.

"Think about dealing with a problem such as a fire in a compressor pressurized to 50,000 psi," Craft said.

Temperature is another major concern in process work. Process temperatures can range from cryogenic to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Craft said.

"If cryogenics is not a word you are familiar with, get familiar with it," he said. "In the next 10 years there's going to be cryogenics all over this country."

In a rush to take advantage of high gas prices and low importing costs for liquefied natural gas, U.S. energy companies have been working to open LNG facilities on the nation's East, West and Gulf coasts. LNG is a cryogenic product refrigerated to -265 degrees Fahrenheit. Craft referred to a demonstration often performed during training for LNG fire fighting where a fire boot is lowered into the product, then removed.

"You can take a hammer and break it," Craft said. "It won't tear. It will break and shatter under those extremes. One of the biggest threats to the emergency responder is frost bite."

In process operations, product that might be relatively non- threatening at one stage of processing can become something quite different at another stage, according to Craft.

"Depending on the temperatures and the process, the product may be found in various states of liquid, vapor or solid," Craft said. "It will go from one state to the next because we are either cooking it or mixing it with other things. So you get a variation. In one state it may be very stable and of no concern. Then, in the next stage, it could be volatile."

An emergency such as a fire may change the product state as well. One such product is cetane, also known as hexadecane, an additive in diesel fuel.

"At 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it boils," Craft said. "What else boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit? Water. At 240 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a thermal reaction that is irreversible. Ordinarily, we consider it a fairly docile organic hydrocarbon. But if you've got 50,000 gallons of that product sitting in your refinery, you've got a serious problem if you are not aware of the chemistry of what it can do."

One area of process operations becoming increasingly common at refineries is coker units. Delayed coking utilizes thermal cracking to further process that part of crude left after every bit that can be used for gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, diesel or feedstocks is extracted by other processes.

"This involves the bottom of the barrel, the heaviest of the crude oil," Craft said.

Craft had first hand knowledge of the risks of coking operations. In August 1993, he helped extinguish and later investigate a major coker fire at his refinery that killed three workers.

The size of coker units poses an immediate challenge when it comes to fire fighting. The foundation deck, also known as the cutting deck, generally stands 150 feet above grade. Above that is a 200-foot-tall steel derrick. In one coker fire in Houston in May 1999, two of three derricks collapsed within the first 20 minutes of the fire.

"They didn't last long because a six-inch flushing oil line ruptured," Craft said. "They have since changed the design specifications."

In a process unit emergency, emergency responders and operations personnel may not necessarily have the same objective. They even have separate procedures about an emergency involving their unit's operations.

"The response by operational people will be to isolate the problem section of the process and not shut the unit down," Craft said. "They are trained in a positive fashion that when it's running it's making money. If it's down, it's not making money."

Process operations involve a chain of interlaced activities. If that chain is interrupted, process personnel are occupied with diverting product and changing the operation. By contrast, emergency response personnel give priority to protecting personnel.

"Pulling the plug on a unit is way down our list as a responder unless we feel that a problem will develop and grow bigger," Craft said.

If the plug is pulled, that leaves a great deal of flammable inventory trapped within the limited confines of the process battery.

"It might take a while to leak out of that six-inch flange and can hold you captive there for hours, if not days, working that problem," Craft said.

?The unusual chemistry of those contents must be taken into consideration. In some cases, the contents of the process unit may auto-ignite if released into the atmosphere. One example is syngas, a C-8 alcohol produced at 3,000 pounds of pressure that is a byproduct of making oxo alcohol.

"Hydrogen gas is used to sweeten it and process it, but it also has carbon monoxide," Craft said. "We know that carbon monoxide is very toxic and very lethal at certain levels. But if you have 35 percent by volume carbon monoxide mixed with hydrogen gas, it is going to burn. It's going to already be ignitable when it goes into the atmosphere."

Maintain a familiarity with what your plant is manufacturing, Craft told his audience.

"If you don't know the chemistry of what you're combating, you won't know how to put it out," Craft said. "If you don't know that isopropyl alcohol is a polar solvent, you may apply foam as you would with a hydrocarbon and never extinguish it."

Applying that foam is another problem. Craft encouraged responders to utilize connections to existing water spray systems in an emergency.

"How many of you do not have the capability to put foam into those systems?" Craft asked. "All you have to do is make a tight-end connection and your pumper truck can support the sprinkler system with foam. Turn those sprinkler systems into foam systems."

Craft elaborated about what would be the major event in his career as a firefighter - the Christmas Eve 1989 fire at his Baton Rouge, LA, refinery.

"You may have heard accounts of this in the past," Craft said. "We had 16 storage tanks burning, three buildings and two process units. There were 12 acres of ground spill and 151 rail cars parked on site."

Unusual for south Louisiana, the temperature never rose above freezing for 48 hours. Out of 90 lines in service, 17 ruptured or failed. A 24-inch section of an eight-inch line ruptured and released 1,500 pounds per second of hydrocarbon for 2? -minutes before ignition. The result was an earthshattering unconfined vapor cloud explosion.

"The vapor clouds were calculated to be 3,000 feet in radius and 80 feet in height or depth," Craft said. "It covered half the tank farm that was loaded with product for shipping and blew all the roofs off the tanks, aside from all the other damage when it ignited."

With the help of mutual aid and Williams F&HC, Craft's fire brigade extinguished the flames within 14?-hours, despite the fact that the initial blast had damaged the refinery's fire water distribution system beyond use. Considering that some brigades have worked a single tank fire for as much as five days, that outcome is amazing, Craft said.

"You have to recognize the whole team," he said. "It was thanks to the training the support management had given these firefighters. And there is also the mutual aid responders to thank. As Dwight Williams says, you make your friends before you need them when it comes to mutual aid."

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