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Engine 32 (ladder) was ordered to position to open up the roof on side A. A special call was issued for the next-closest aerial, City of Zephyrhills Fire Department (ZFD) Engine 1 (ladder). ZFD Engine 1 was advised to take the north side (C) of the building. The occupancy was labeled as All Natural Botanicals. As crews entered, it was evident that there was a large body of fire, but the size of the fire area was unknown, as were the contents. The business stored the oil in 55-gallon metal and plastic drums using racks two stories high in some areas.
Soon after crews began an interior attack, a muffled explosion was heard from inside. Command pulled crews out to determine the contents of the building, which at this time was presumed to be fully sprinklered, as are most buildings in the complex. Before a different tactical plan could be formulated, and within two minutes of withdrawing companies, a powerful explosion occurred, shooting flames out of the door that attack crews had used for entry. The explosion broke a large sprinkler riser on side A and blew a hole in the concrete block wall at the second-floor level. It was later discovered that an additional sprinkler riser broke on side B. The blast was heard by people in their homes two miles away. Firefighters said the entire building shook during the blast.
The evacuation signal had been sounded before the explosion, and now command announced all companies would change to a defensive attack. The strategy was quickly changed to containing the fire to the original fire building. Exposures of like-type buildings were on sides A, B and D. Side A had a covered breezeway of lightweight-steel construction connecting the fire building to one used for marine repair. Side B was attached via a metal roof at the third-floor roof line. Most dramatic was side D, which was a drive-through area at the first-floor level and attached by common wall at the second- and third-floor levels. Exposure D contained a 10,000-pound tank of anhydrous ammonia used in manufacturing. The D-exposure building was over 500 by 200 feet in size.
Command requested a third alarm and established a Level II staging area at the entrance to the facility for those units responding on that assignment. Two battalion chiefs had arrived and were assigned to side C and accountability, respectively. The next-in battalion chief was assigned to staging. One additional ALS unit was requested and assigned as the medical unit.
The rupture of the sprinkler riser immediately became an issue, as the riser could not be shut down without shutting down the entire fire system, which would mean the loss of all water from hydrants as well. The closet municipal hydrant was over a half-mile away.
The explosion had initiated a dramatic change in strategy. The building was thought to be fully sprinklered, but an investigation later showed that there were no sprinklers in the fire area on the first floor. The strategy now was to contain the fire to the first floor and the building of origin while command worked to determine the contents and the resources needed to keep the fire from spreading to attached buildings. It was obvious that the tactics necessary would require additional manpower, so a fourth alarm was requested.
A close inspection from crews on side A determined that exterior walls were bulging. The precarious condition of the building and dealing with exposures attached to the fire building caused additional concern. Add the presence of a large amount of hazardous material in one exposure and what apparently was a large amount of flammable liquids burning, and another strategy session was held with Emergency Services Director Anthony Lopinto (the fire chief), Training Chief Tim Reardon and command.
Side C was issuing heavy smoke. Battalion Chief Greg Gude (side C Division) directed ZFD Engine 1 (ladder) to flow water into this area. Even though only smoke could be seen, the fire stream was making an effect on the fire conditions. This would prove key to the operation as it moved into the next stage. The owner of the complex and the business manager advised several chief officers that the second and third floors were vacant with no storage at all on the upper floors. It was decided to continue the current tactics until daylight when a better evaluation could be made.
Lines had been stretched into the D exposure that housed the anhydrous ammonia to cool the tank if necessary. Also, a courtyard lay was stretched to upper floors of that building since the standpipe was not working. Engine 24 breached a wall and opened another overhead door at ground level on the A/D intersection and applied a master stream, knocking down a large amount of fire.