"I Suddenly Felt Myself Levitate and I Was Flying Through the Air"
The Shawnee Township, OH, Fire Department covers 25 square miles and a population of 14,000. The department responds with three engines, one tanker, one ladder, two advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, a hazmat trailer and a foam trailer. It is a combination fire department with 21 full-time firefighters and officers, one chief and 15 volunteer firefighters who are paged in for fire calls. Career staffing consists of seven as a full shift and six is minimum manning. Our sincere appreciation to the members of the Shawnee Township Fire Department and especially to Platoon Chief Todd Truesdale and Chief of Department Tim Mosher.
This account is by Platoon Chief Todd Truesdale:
On Jan. 18, 2008, at 1:07 P.M., we received a call for a gas leak at Tuttle Construction from Byron Winner, Tuttle's newly appointed safety director. He stated he was getting readings of 25% LEL on his four-gas monitor. While responding, dispatch confirmed that the building was evacuated. The all-brick building had a metal roof and was estimated to be 8,500 square feet. It was near other commercial structures, nearest to a bank, grocery store and cement-block manufacturer.
We responded with Engine 1 with Firefighter Dick Oder, Ladder 3 with Firefighter Ron Luttrell, and Rescue 4 with Captain Matt Myers and me. The medic crew, consisting of Firefighter Travis Jackson and Firefighter Mike Smith, was at the hospital from a previous EMS call when the alarm came in. Due to heavy traffic, the placement of apparatus was decided prior to our arrival. Rescue 4 and Engine 1 would be placed in Tuttle's lot on the B side and Ladder 3 would stage at the grocery store. The wind was out of the south/southwest and it was a sunny, cold day.
On arrival, Engine 1 operator Oder asked Captain Myers to pull Rescue 4 forward to make a better shot at the hydrant while I met with company officials near the C side of structure. They confirmed that everyone was out of the structure and with their monitoring of the building, the highest readings they had achieved was 25% of the LEL. Then I asked company officials where the main disconnect and HVAC system shutoffs were; they were deep into the building from the main door entrance. They had also confirmed that the gas leak had originated from a fiber optic cable contractor boring under an access road next to the building and the contractor had hit a gas line. They stated that both the cable contractor and they had notified Dominion Gas of the situation. They were told that we also had our dispatch call Dominion as we were leaving the station, and that Dominion was going to keep its employees clear of the area.
I made a visual on the D side about how far the leak was located from the C side. On returning to meet Captain Myers, another employee from Tuttle asked whether we could move an employee's car because the person had a doctor's appointment. We told the person to have the keys ready when we monitored area and if it was clear, the car could be moved with the understanding that no other cars could move and no one else would be allowed near the building.
As we put on our facepieces, we told the person to move the car and reiterated that nothing else could be moved. Cones had been placed by the contractor and the fire department on the access road on the D side of the building where the leak was located to restrict traffic access. When Captain Myers and I got near the D side, close to the leak, we noted in a mulch area a few feet from the meter, in an area that was dug out and where a boring machine should have come through, that we were getting varying readings on our gas monitor from 11% to 30%. While assessing the situation, we had a couple of contractors involved in the boring approach us near the building, by the leak. We told them to clear out of the area and that we would get with them later as we walked them away from the building.
Ladder 3 moved from the original staging area to a location south of the building on the side entrance to another commercial structure. At that time, the Ladder 3 firefighter made sure our hydrant was operational in case it was needed.
We returned to the D side of the building. After Captain Myers went to shut off the gas meter, we noticed that the gas was leaking about three feet high and five feet in length between the landscape timber and the mulch. We could see the vapors appearing and could hear it. At this time, we knew it was more pressure than a standard low-pressure leak such as at a residential incident. Captain Myers advised to reopen the gas meter with no relief noted in the leak by the building.
At this time, we heard a noise behind us - a semi-truck was pulling past the traffic cones that had been set up to restrict access. To our amazement, the driver was heading toward us (we were geared up and clearly identifiable as firefighters). He had his window down and a cigarette in his hand. When we stopped him, he was within six feet of where we had the leak - and our highest readings. Captain Myers directed the driver to back out the way he came. After the truck turned around, more traffic cones were placed to further restrict traffic (there was no law enforcement on the scene yet). Our medic unit arrived and Firefighters Jackson and Smith were packing up for backup and staging at Engine 1.
At 1:20, I asked dispatch to advise Dominion that we had a serious gas leak in the building and we need them to respond ASAP. Dispatch advised that Dominion would be out within an hour and would call when someone was enroute.
At 1:33, Engine 1 contacted command and advised that a Dominion representative was on scene. Captain Myers and I met with the representative at the C/D corner of the building. We proceeded with the Dominion representative around to the D side of the building to show him where the leak was. He wanted to try to shut off another valve on the gas assembly next to the building, so we gave him our wrench to use. He could not get the valve to turn and he said he was going to try to shut off another service line near the C/D corner of the building. As the Dominion representative was walking away, two workers involved in the boring operation approached us. I told them to get out of the area and Captain Myers made sure they were leaving.
During this time, a can of red marker paint was accidentally kicked in the area of the leak, probably by a contractor employee who was leaving the area. I was about four feet from the building next to the leak and Captain Myers was about six feet farther out on to the access road looking back at me. The Dominion employee was nearing the C/D corner of the building along with one contractor and the other was still facing me near Captain Myers.
I suddenly felt myself levitate and I was flying through the air. I saw Captain Myers' boots in the air out of the left side of my mask and saw the contractor shoot straight out and disappear. The explosive percussion hit me and I don't think I will ever be able to explain this feeling fully. I had the wind knocked out of me and it hurt like nothing I have ever felt. I was so upset - all I cared about was Captain Myers; where is he and is he alive? After hitting the ground, I felt some large pieces of debris fall on me: my SCBA bottle took the brunt of the one hitting my back. I then felt my foot get crushed and I was thinking at least I can feel things distally. I was trying to get any air moving in my lungs.
I then heard something that we all train for, but never want to hear: the Mayday that I was down. I was never so happy to hear that Mayday because it was loud and clear from Captain Myers, and I knew he was all right. After he got over to me, he was trying to communicate to me and I was pounding my left fist on the ground to let him know I was all right. I could not get my breath. He was initially really concerned when he saw all the blood near my regulator on my mask. I was finally able to get my breath and he then pulled me out of the debris.
When I got up on my knees and looked back, we heard the gas ignite and blow out at us, and now the front half of building was gone. What went through our minds was to get around to see the rest of our crew. After rounding the B/C corner of the building and seeing all the crew was OK, I noted everything almost seemed peaceful - traffic on roadways had stopped, papers rained down and, quite frankly, we thought the owner of the building wasn't going to be very happy.
We now went to work addressing the fire and called for evacuation of the supermarket and the bank near the explosion. The Dominion representative and the contractors were transported to a local hospital with cuts and burns. Captain Myers and I were taken to a hospital about 20 minutes after explosion by our medic to be treated for injuries, once we had enough resources on the scene. We had to have shrapnel removed from us along with minor burns and one broken toe. It was estimated that Captain Myers and I were blown through the air about 25-30 feet.
I believe our training and experience played a major role in how things went that day. You can do everything right and things still can go wrong. I believe if we didn't have all our gear on properly and if we weren't on air, I don't think he and I would be here to talk about a close call - we would be a NIOSH statistic.
The cause of the leak was the boring machine that had diverted off course and tore a hole in a two-inch medium-pressure gas line at 57 psi. The Lima and American Township fire departments heard the Mayday and were responding before they were called, and that meant to a great deal to us.
These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writer and with FDNY Battalion Chief Frank Montagna, respected author of the book Responding to Routine Emergencies, regarding this close call:
With a few years behind both Chief Montagna and I studying close calls and, tragically, line-of-duty deaths (several related to gas leaks), I have developed a deep respect for what gas can do - and what we need to do in order to minimize our risks when responding to related emergencies.
The first issue that stood out to me in this close call is once again, the staffing and response issue. As we have written in this column many times before, firefighting and related emergency responses are task oriented - and our ability to perform the tasks required and to do them nearly simultaneously is directly related to the staffing required. Simply put, no fire department can respond to an emergency, that requires, for example, 20 firefighters (as planned for ahead of time by pre-planning and developing alarm assignments) with half that many firefighters and realistically expect the job to get done successfully and safely in the required time.
Calls for "odor of gas," "gas leak," "broken gas line" and similar situations may range from minor to potentially major incidents. All of these must be handled as potentially dangerous situations as done in this case. Fire department personnel must evacuate any civilians in the area of escaping gas - and that was a challenge in this close call because of the amount of firefighters on the first alarm. Additionally, law enforcement also must send a "heavy" response so that the policing of civilians getting near the area is handled. Police officers are more apt to make the point to stay out of the hazard zone to those who should not be there than firefighters, who are better utilized as firefighters.
Firefighters working near a gas leak must wear full protective clothing with self-contained breathing apparatus, and that was done in this case by the captain and platoon chief. Firefighters operating in a suspected ignitable atmosphere (i.e., attempting to shut off a gas line) should be covered by a staffed protective hoseline. The number of exposed members must be kept to an absolute minimum at all times if command determines the risk is worth taking. Depending on conditions and resources on scene, the fire department may decide to evacuate the area, restrict access and await the gas company response, hazmat team or applicable responders.
When operating, a limited-access zone must be established and maintained around any suspected gas leak and "fire line" tape should be used to identify that zone. If the zone is larger, police will be needed to handle security and access.
Other tasks include:
- Secure the area, expect the worst - and act like it. Keep the public (and firefighters) at a safe distance.
- Shut down all sources of ignition that you can safely shut (backhoes, lighting, electric tools, etc.). For example, if the building has a emergency generator or emergency lighting, shutting down the power to the building may activate the generator or lighting. If a backhoe is near the leak, it is too dangerous to send someone to shut it down. Think about and research what the reaction of your actions may be.
- Hook up to a hydrant at a secure location and stretch a charged precautionary line to a safe area with enough line to cover exposed buildings.
- Handlines and large-caliber streams with fog nozzles may be used to direct escaping gas away from exposed structures.
- If the leak ignites, set up handlines and large-caliber streams to protect exposed structures. Extinguishing the leaking gas fire likely will result in re-ignition at the site of the leak.
- Position apparatus and firefighters upwind, out of the path of escaping gas.
- If possible, do not let water flow into the excavation.
- Using a gas meter, check surrounding structures for any migration of gas. A gas line accidentally damaged may not only leak gas at the site of the damage, but may have been pulled out of the building or even out of the gas main in the street. As a result, gas could be leaking remote from the rupture. This greatly increases the danger area and the likelihood of gas migrating into a nearby structure. Evacuate if necessary. Determine well before a run whether the gas detector carried by your fire department detects natural gas and whether it can indicate the degree of hazard present. You may need the response of a special company or hazmat unit for use of its digital gas detectors. On-scene utility personnel should have a digital gas detector and can assist with a hazard assessment. Check the sewer systems and any other manholes near and around the leak. Gas can migrate long distances in a sewer system and enter buildings remote from the leak.
- Do not attempt to stop the flow of gas from plastic gas lines. Gas flowing through plastic pipe creates static electricity, which can collect on the exterior of a broken gas pipe. Touching or coming near the pipe can result in a static discharge, causing ignition of the leaking gas.
- Do not extinguish burning gas outdoors; let it burn. An extinguished outdoor gas fire can re-ignite due to fuel and heat that still exists. Additionally, the still-leaking gas will form a combustible vapor cloud that may threaten exposures or personnel. The best and safest way to extinguish burning gas is to stop the gas feeding the fire. If a gas valve is shut during an investigation and it was determined that it had no impact on the leak, do not reopen the valve. Unlike water or electricity, integrity tests must be performed on the piping before it can be re-opened. Also, any pilot lights that were turned off due to the valve closing will have to be re-lighted; otherwise, there will be blowing gas at these locations.
The incident commander should consider the following questions when sizing-up these incidents and deciding whether to evacuate a building or area:
- What can go wrong?
- Where is the leaking gas going?
- Where is the gas collecting? Is the gas approaching the explosive range?
- What problems and hazards will be present if the gas ignites?
- Are firefighters, civilians and apparatus in a safe location?
- What additional resources, information and equipment are needed to safely control and mitigate the situation?
Often, answers to these questions can be obtained from utility representatives on the scene and they must be at or in communications with the incident commander.
Fire service history demonstrates the danger of gas leaks to firefighters. Firefighters have been critically injured and killed operating at such emergencies. Fortunately, the members of the Shawnee Township Fire Department survived this incident and are willing to share what they learned. The best thing we can do is to learn from them, evaluate our own operations and make changes as required so that we do not repeat history.
WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a FirehouseÂ® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.