People usually mark the Labor Day weekend as the end of summer and a last chance to celebrate outdoors. Instead of a celebration, the outdoor event that Hugh Billings attended on Labor Day weekend in 1979 qualified as a conflagration – the explosion and fire aboard the SS Chevron Hawaii on the Houston ship channel.
Today, Billings is the Health, Safety and Operations Manager for the OXEA Corporation plant in Bay City, TX. In 1979, he was a Safety Specialist at Celanese Corporation in Houston and responded as a member of Channel Industries Mutual Aid (CIMA), the industrial mutual aid group protecting the ship channel.
“The biggest fire I ever went to was the chemical complex blast in Pasadena, Texas in 1989,” Billings said. “But the Chevron Hawaii was the most involved fire I ever fought in that you had a tank on fire as well as the ship, barges, and the ship channel.”
According to a U.S. Coast Guard case history, the SS Chevron Hawaii exploded, burned and sank while discharging cargo at the Deer Park Shell Oil terminal on the south side of the ship channel. The cargo of catalytic cracker feedstock and Santa Maria crude oil spilled into the sea as the fire burned for 10 hours.
“Within a quarter-mile you had fire in a 120-foot diameter ethyl alcohol tank,” Billings said. “Also within a quarter mile you had barges on fire because the burning crude had spread down the channel and ignited them.”
Billings had only come to the ship channel only a year earlier. He began his career as a junior firefighter in North Carolina. After obtaining an associates degree from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury, NC, Billings attended Oklahoma State University, earning a bachelors degree in fire protection.
After joining CIMA, Billings’ resume as an industrial firefighter began to expand big time.
“I just had a real good time responding to incidents on the ship channel,” he said. “I also had the good fortune to serve as an officer a few times and as a Response Specialist for several years.”
On Saturday, Sept. 1, 1979, Tropical Storm Elena pelted the ship channel with wind and rain. At 2:12 p.m., a lightning strike apparently ignited accumulated cargo vapors on the deck of the Chevron Hawaii, a 70,000 dwt (deadweight tonnage) tanker discharging cargo at the Deer Park Shell Oil terminal.
The explosion was so powerful that a five-foot by seven-foot hull fragment from the burning vessel penetrated the roof of a storage tank 600 feet away. That tank, containing about 26,000 barrels of ethyl alcohol, ignited and burned as well.
“The sequence of events later became a big bone of contention,” Billings said. “Which blew up first, the ship or the tank? As it turned out, someone was taking marketing photos from a high vantage point at the refinery that day. The photos proved conclusively that the ship blew up first.”
Foam management became the real challenge in this emergency, he said.
“You had to get the right foam on the right fire,” Billings said. “The ship fire was hydrocarbons. However, the tank fire was a polar solvent.”
When the tank ignited, the explosion blew the roof straight up. When it came down, the badly crumpled roof landed inside the tank.
“We probably put that tank out three or four times,” Billings said. “We had a small area of flame in the center isolated by the damaged roof. We couldn’t flow foam over it and we couldn’t reach it with our monitors.”
Firefighters even tried using AFFF rated at three percent and boosting it to nine percent when concentrate became limited, he said.
“We were trying anything we could,” Billings said.
Meanwhile, calamity spread to other nearby tanks. Four monitors had been pouring water onto the burning tank’s nearest neighbor when, late in the fire, it began to rumble.
“The water was shaking off of it,” Billings said. “Everybody started running. I just sat there thinking ‘This can not be blowing up – it doesn’t make any sense because there is no heat load on the tank.’”
When the rumbling ceased and firefighters could get close enough to inspect the tank, they discovered that it had collapsed on the back side, he said.
“The tank farm operators, thinking the tank was threatened, had decided to pull product out of it,” Billings said. “They were pulling out of it faster than the tank’s vent could draw air in, creating a vacuum. The tank was pulled in.”
Drawing product out of a threatened tank is a natural reaction, Billings said. It demonstrates why management needs to participate closely in the incident command process.
“Wanting to save or minimize your risk is a natural human reaction,” Billings said. “If we can communicate with management, the firefighters can explain that a full tank is better from a safety standpoint. But it’s a tough deal when you’re looking at a potential major loss.”
As for the S S Chevron Hawaii, one crew member and two radar repairmen aboard were killed, with 13 other people injured. The explosion all but tore the vessel in half. A major portion of the ship survived and was later put back into service.
As large and challenging as the S S Chevron Hawaii fire was, Billings said the single biggest concentration of fire he experienced during his career was the November 1985 vapor cloud explosion at the Warren Petroleum gas storage facility in Mont Belvieu, TX.
“It was the first incident in which CIMA implemented a formal incident command system,” Billings said. “Don Davis and I set up the incident command and ran it from the Harris County Fire Marshal’s van.”
The facility is located above an underground salt dome containing 44 million gallons of petroleum products. A cloud of propane, ethane and butane gas from a severed pipeline ignited, killing two workers doing pipeline maintenance. Automatic shutoff valves to three of the 25 underground caverns failed, continuing to fuel the fire.
“The concentrated fire from those wells was burning straight up,” Billings said. Flames rose 300 feet into the air.
To obtain enough water to fight the fire, firefighters had to get creative, Billings said.
“There was a 6- or 10-inch pipe coming into the facility from the Coastal Industry Water Authority,” he said. “It had a blind flange on it and we didn’t have any adapters to get from flange to a fire hose thread. We popped the flange off, flowed the pipeline into a ditch and let it run downhill to the main gate.”
Using a backhoe found near the scene, the responders dammed the ditch and dug a drafting pit that provided the water for fire fighting, Billings said.
Between emergencies, Billings invested time in fire fighting innovations that were far ahead of their time, said Industrial Fire World publisher David White.
“I remember Hugh had a 1,000 gpm Angus self-educting foam cannon mounted on a trailer,” White said.
That home-built trailer also carried 700 feet of five-inch hose and ten drums of foam, Billings said.
“We designed it to be almost like an artillery piece,” he said. “We put drum rollers in the bed with two gates at the front. We took the guts out of some two-inch pipe reamers, welded them solid. You could smash a hole in the top of the drum, then once you had sucked it dry you kicked the empty off to the side and the next drum automatically moved into place.”
Billings was also one of the first to see the benefit of a tower ladder, White said. “He had an LTI 85-foot tower ladder in his plant when everybody else was staying on the ground.”
Adding the LTI tower ladder to his fire fighting fleet was a significant addition, Billings said.
“We wanted to duplicate what some people on the channel had done using 55-foot Telesquirts,” he said. “Those were some real fire fighting machines. But the tanks were getting bigger and I wanted a bigger flow, a minimum of 2,000 gpm, plus I liked the added safety of having the platform to protect the firefighters.”
Today, Billings works nearly 80 miles southwest of his old CIMA stomping grounds. His plant in Bay City manufactures oxo intermediates and derivatives.
“We have excellent management that is supportive of being prepared,” Billings said. “We believe in fixed protection with mobile equipment as a backup to give you some redundancy.”
Always looking for ways to increase the firepower per firefighter, Billings worked with Williams Fire & Hazard Control to develop a Quick Attack truck with not only a wireless controlled monitor, but the foam and water valves are wireless controlled too.
“One firefighter can hook a section of 5-inch to a hydrant, charge it, and then have total control of a 1,500 gpm foam or water stream.”
But even with good equipment, mutual aid is a strong addition to any facilities capabilities. “Six or seven years ago we put together a group modeled after CIMA, with the same indemnity provisions and reimbursement clauses for signed members,” Billings said. “Right now membership consists of Matagorda County, City of Bay City and three industrial members, including ConocoPhillips, Lyondell Basell, and OXEA.”
Regardless of tools at hand, modern industrial fire fighting is still the same thought process that it was when he began, Billings said.
“It’s thinking about what is really happening on the fireground and determining how to use basic physics and knowledge to our advantage,” he said.