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Firefighters Without Borders
Mutual Aid on an International Scale Responds When an Earthquake In Turkey Triggers a Huge Refinery Fire

For Richard Coates, group fire advisor for BP/Amoco, the arrival of a 10-member team from the Azerbaijan State Fire Department at a mammoth five-day refinery fire in earthquake-torn Turkey came as a complete surprise.

"The Azerbaijan contingent arrived at the end of day three and on seeing me were very pleased to recognize someone they knew, much to the surprise of many people over the next two days," Coates said.

Trained in flammable liquid emergency response by BP/Amoco, the Azerbaijan firefighters played a significant role in the international effort to extinguish the fire that the news media seized on as representative of the devastating quake.

At 3:01 a.m. on Aug. 17, an earthquake that measured 7.4 on the Richter scale slammed northwestern Turkey. Hardest hit was the city of Izmit, only seven miles northwest of the quake's epicenter. The region is no stranger to such disaster. Izmit sits on the North Anatolian fault system which runs across northern Turkey. The fault line has produced seven earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 7.0 since 1939. This latest one was felt as far away as Ankara, 200 miles to the east.

The initial quake lasted only 45 seconds. Still, it was enough to bring many apartment buildings crashing down on their occupants. Those who were not killed or injured in the initial quake fled to nearby open areas. It would be days before many would risk sleeping indoors again.

Estimates place the death toll between 30,000 and 40,000 people. Another 24,000 were injured severely enough to require hospitalization.

Unfortunately, the epicenter area is one of Turkey's most industrialized regions. Among other plants, Izmit is home to a 226,000 barrels a day refinery operated by Tupras (Turkish Petroleum Refineries Corp.), a state-owned oil company. Built in 1961, Tupras' Yarimca refinery is the largest in Turkey and the seventh largest in Europe.

The $2.5 billion facility was hit particularly hard. A 300-foot high heater stack collapsed, destroying a crude unit. Also, fire spread through a block of four storage tanks containing finished products. Immediately adjacent to that block was an LPG sphere. Across the fence line from the tanks sits a BP/Amoco oil terminal. Were the fire to spread throughout the refinery, numerous other LPG installations and a large ammonium nitrate plant would be threatened.

Firefighters from six countries, including neighboring Greece, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan, responded to the Turkish call for help. In particular, the aid from Greece marked an important change in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Bulgaria responded with a five fire engines.

Numerous attempts were made in the early days of the fire to extinguish the tanks by using aircraft to drop foam. Ultimately, it fell to the firefighters on the ground to bring the fires under control.

The Azerbaijans "undertook hazardous close quarter fire fighting on two of the most stubborn tanks," Coates said. The firefighters were forced to use hand-held foam lines. To direct the flow, the Azerbaijans had to lay flat on their bellies across the hot metal of the badly damaged tanks.

"On one tank they applied continuous foam in such a manner throughout the night with moonlight as the only illumination for 11 hours without respite," Coates said.

The Azerbaijan firefighters were still working when the last remaining pockets of fire at the refinery were extinguished.

"I had the privilege of working directly along side them for 48 hours and although my Russian is negligible and their English is worse than my Russian, we could communicate over all the important fire issues," Coates said.

Since BP/Amoco's entry into Azerbaijan to develop its oil reserves, a close working relationship has developed with the ASFD. Coates' standing with the Azerbaijan fire fighting community was cemented when, at his suggestion, the United Kingdom donated surplus fire fighting vehicles known as "Green Goddesses" to the Azerbaijan Republic. BP/Amoco provided logistical support for the transfer.

Azerbaijan's firefighters won the respect of all who saw them at work in Izmit, Coates said.

"The refinery management, chairman of the Tupras refineries, and all those who witnessed the Azerbaijan personnel were impressed by their dedication, bravery, discipline and endurance," Coates said.

 
 

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