Article Archive
The more things change ...
Volume 24, No. 6

On October 23, an explosion with the force of a 2.9 magnitude earthquake and the resulting fire destroyed 11 tanks at a 40-tank petroleum storage facility near San Juan, Puerto Rico. Over the next two days flames spread through at least six more tanks containing jet fuel, bunker fuel and gasoline in one of the largest fires ever in the U.S. Caribbean island territory.

No deaths were reported but at least two people were hurt.

Strangely enough, the date also marked the 20th anniversary of Pasadena Chemical Complex explosion and fire near Houston, TX (See "Wrong Pasadena," September-October 2009). The initial blast registered 3.5 on the Richter scale. The conflagration took 10 hours to bring under control. Some 23 workers were killed and 314 were injured.

Rather than blowing up a fuel storage terminal in Puerto Rico, I would rather have celebrated the Pasadena anniversary quietly. Maybe not as quietly as the Houston news media though. A quick survey of the for newspapers web sites in Houston and Pasadena, together with the web sites for all the major Houston television stations, revealed not one mention commemorating the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history in the past 60 years. Granted, the U.S. has a lot on its plate right now -- health care reform, the economy, swine flu, Iraq, Afghanistan and wayward airline pilots who can not find Minneapolis.

Industrial Fire World is entering its 25th year of service to our namesake. What have we learned over the years? We must look to the past and have a "what if" future perspective as we report on potential? disasters. A few examples:

  • Whiting, IN - 1955: An explosion in an oil refinery hydroformer triggered an eight day fire that spread through 67 storage tanks. We learned that one tank boilover can destroy a total refinery.
  • Sunray, TX - 1956: A little known refinery disaster that still ranks only three places behind 9/11 in the record for firefighters killed. You must address impinging fire on a pressure vessel in the vapor space and the dangers of pumping out liquids during the fire.
  • Philadelphia, PA - 1975: A refinery fire that killed eight. The incident commander must have the big picture of what is going on in a fire and monitor the liquid levels in the dike because overflowing dikes put flammable liquid under personnel outside the dike. Also, a covered floating roof tank can boil over as much as two weeks after the initial fire.

For the 50th anniversary of the Sunray incident, the refinery joined with the community to hold a dinner honoring the relatives of the survivors. A special display case for memorabilia related to the disaster was dedicated the refinery's new fire station.

In contrast, unfortunately, the Pasadena anniversary, passed without a glimmer of interest from the hometown press. Tiny Sunray, population 1,950, seems to have a longer memory as a community than Pasadena, population 146,518.

We would have written the articles about Whiting, Sunray and Pasadena regardless. As poet and philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Sure, the technology and procedures change. And, yes, we also work to keep you updated on the latest developments. But, more important, the mind set that leads to industrial catastrophe past and present too often remains the same. Some moment of carelessness or, worse, incompetence, begins a cascade of events that in the end gets someone killed. A decision based on false economy, such as delaying fire training, results in the loss of the entire facility.

I hope your focus in 2010 will be to learn from the expertise of your peers who have "battled the dragon" and from those developing strategies and technology to meet today's emerging issues by joining us for the 25th Industrial Fire World conference in Baton Rouge.


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