Body Shop Fire: Car Fire in the Structure - And There’s Nitrous Oxide in the Car!

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Cocoa, FL, Fire Rescue protects a population of 18,000 in 15 square miles along the eastern Florida coastline. Unlike many Florida communities with high concentrations of seniors, Cocoa’s largest age group is in the 20-44 age range. Cocoa Fire Rescue is staffed by 33 line personnel running out of three stations with three shifts. In addition, there is a chief and an assistant chief. The department responds to 4,000 fire and EMS runs annually. Thanks to Chief Ricky Plummer, Lieutenant Bryan Hahn, Lieutenant James Moore, Firefighter/EMT John Taylor (Engineer), Firefighter/EMT Eric Holt, Engineer Howard Peckham, Firefighter/EMT Mark Silverman and the other firefighters operating at this fire for their assistance.

Account from Chief Ricky Plummer:

Cocoa Fire Rescue was dispatched to a reported smoke investigation near Peachtree Street and U.S. 1 at 5:47 A.M. on March 30, 2006. Truck 31 (a quint) and District 30 (the shift commander) responded from Station 1. Upon arrival, District 30 reported heavy smoke showing from a multi-tenant commercial building 75 by 100 feet and requested a working fire assignment. Engines 32 and 33 and the fire chief were dispatched along with a request for Engine 35 from Rockledge.

Because there was no sign indicating what type of business was inside, companies were going in blind. As Truck 31 forced entry, Engine 32 had an attack line ready. Only a few minutes into the incident, there was a loud explosion that rocked the building and sent our firefighters ducking for cover. Conditions deteriorated immediately with heavy black smoke pushing out the now-broken windows, doors and roof.

Engine 32 made entry through the front door and encountered heavy fire conditions. I went to the rear of the building to get a look at the other sides of the structure and found heavy smoke coming out from an overhead door in at least two units. I ordered the two overhead doors be cut to get them open. Engine 33 took the roof and opened it up so crews could further advance. They soon discovered that it was an auto body shop with chemicals, acetylene and propane tanks. The explosion involved a nitrous oxide tank in the trunk of the car inside the building, which was fully involved. The fire had spread to the attic.

The contents were all flammable liquids and paint-shop equipment. Quite clearly, this fueled the fire. A second car had started to burn, but was pushed out the rear doors by firefighters to eliminate that as a fuel. A second line was advanced and foam was applied knocking down the fire.

This is one of those simple fires that could have turned terribly bad. Had the firefighters been inside when the nitrous oxide tank exploded, they quite possibly could have been killed. When the tank exploded, it blew the entire side of the car out and blew the trunk lid up as far as it could. The tank, which was made of thick aluminum, ripped opened like a tin can. We are thankful that it exploded upon entry, not while we were at the car!

Account from Lieutenant Bryan Hahn, the first-due command officer:

This building had no signs to indicate its use. It had three large roll-up garage doors in the front and two in the rear. Over the past 24 years, I have seen its contents change to everything from carpet sales to car repair shops, so I really had no idea what was burning.

The truck company was starting forcible entry and Engine 32 had pulled a line to the entry point. I was checking the rear of the structure for other means of entry and exposures. As I was checking one of the doors, there was a large explosion that shook the entire building. I reported the explosion to incoming units and a head count was taken immediately. Naturally, I was relieved to get the report that everyone was accounted for and entry had not been completed yet. I ordered personnel to be extremely cautious as they entered the structure.

During the extinguishment of a fully involved car and contents of the structure, a second car was pushed out of the structure and away from the burning car by firefighters. There was also a fuel leak that covered the floor and was flowing to the outside of the structure while burning. We then switched to a foam operation to extinguish the fire in a short time.

During our investigation, we found a large nitrous oxide tank in the trunk of the burned car that exploded violently. It ripped apart the trunk area. The corner panel was wrapped around to the rear door and the trunk was blown up about two feet. There was also a large piece of the car up against the wall.

Account is from Lieutenant Jamie Moore, the first-due officer, and the crew of Engine Company 32:

As the second-due engine, it is our pre-assigned task to obtain a water source. I had located a hydrant at the corner of South Wilson and Peachtree about 300 feet west of the fire building. Around Prospect Avenue (three blocks from the fire), I radioed to District 30/Command for an assignment. He advised us to come to the fire scene for manpower and that Truck 31 had a hydrant right in front of the fire building.

Upon our arrival, we noted a large 75-by-100-foot commercial building with a light-trussed, asphalt-shingled roof with sky lights, which were intact. We had black smoke conditions coming from the roof line. The heaviest concentration of smoke was from the two end units on the west side of the building. Firefighter/EMT Eric Holt and I made our way to the front (north side) of the building and noted no building markings or signs indicating what type of occupancy we were dealing with.

Firefighter/EMT-P John Taylor was placing a 2½-inch blitz line at the door as Truck 31 was attempting to gain entry into personnel doors, which had a two-by-five-foot glass window to the right. The doors were locked with a dead-bolt cylinder on the outside. I picked up a sledge hammer that the truck crew had brought and began breaking the glass near the door, hoping to reach in and unlock the door. I was unable to reach the locking mechanism from the outside, so I ordered Truck 31 crew to force the doors.

Simultaneously, Firefighter Holt had the thermal imaging camera. I instructed him to place the camera in the window to see if he could locate what was burning. He responded that there was large fire in the rear of the building that appeared to be a car. I asked him to do the same procedure to the unit to the right (west). He reported back that he did not see any flames in the unit to the west on the camera.

At this point, we were going to focus our attack and make entry through the unit that had visible active fire. There was very light smoke in front of the fire building. All of the smoke was rising vertically. The next thing I remember was an enormous explosion that nearly took the wind out of me. In my career, I have never heard nor felt anything this powerful!

The explosion pressurized the inside of the building so much that it forced massive amounts of smoke through the open window next to the personnel doors. Instantly, I could not see the hand in front of my face. Due to the explosion, I could not recall whether the door had been opened and whether any crews were inside. My worst fear was whether anyone had made it inside the building prior to the explosion. Due to the sudden poor visual conditions outside, we did accountability for Truck 31 and Engine 32. All personnel were safe, uninjured and accounted for.

After we “shook out the cobwebs,†we opened the personnel doors and made entry with a 1¾-inch attack line. Probationary Firefighter Hutchingson was on the nozzle with Firefighter Taylor and me backing up with Firefighter/EMT Mark Silverman performing a primary search. Firefighter Hutchingson was discharging water on the fire using a combo attack. As he hit the floor, the fire began to intensify and run. I looked under the car and noted the fire would run and flash back. After noting the presence of a flammable liquid, I ordered personnel to back up and keep the fire in check from a safer distance while maintaining an interior attack.

I advised command over the radio of the presence of flammable-liquid fire and requested foam operations. While Truck 31 Pump Operator Howard Peckham was switching to foam operations, I requested a dry chemical extinguisher to help control further intensification of the fire. The extinguisher was exhausted along with the occupant’s extinguisher, resulting in temporary fire knockdown.

A rear roll-up door was opened and another car was found parked behind the first car. This car had its tires inflated and we pushed this car out the shop to minimize the fire load. The intense heat would reignite the standing gasoline on the shop floor. Another 1¾-inch attack line was deployed using foam on the fire, which was efficiently and quickly knocked down.

At this point, fire and smoke conditions were improving. It was apparent that there was a car involved that had heavy damage to the trunk area. The trunk was buckled like an overfilled balloon and the left side of the car was ripped apart like a soda can. Upon inspection of the trunk, a nitrous oxide tank was found, its skin peeled like an orange. When the nitrous tank exploded, it ruptured the car’s gas tank, resulting in a catastrophic explosion. After the fire was knocked down crews checked for fire extension in the adjacent units and remarkably the fire was contained to the affected unit. Routine salvage and overhaul was completed without incident.

I hope this account helps paint a picture of this very real hazard, which 20 seconds later would have claimed our lives.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this close call:

Several interesting decisions and outcomes occurred at this fire:

Delayed entry. If they had made entry faster, the result could have been tragic. What can be done to minimize any of us getting into that situation? The first is that everyone must be fully protected-from head to toe – with no exposed skin, using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and thermal imaging cameras. (TICs). Why take a risk?

A 2½-inch attack line. While the 1¾-inch line allows for better maneuverability, the 2½-inch line allows for more flow-and in a commercial building, the 2½-inch is often the line of choice. It was in this case. My rule of thumb (which doesn’t mean always) is that a residential fire (single-family dwelling) gets a 1¾-inch line and everything else is usually 2½ inches. If your fire department has 2½-inch attack lines (and we would hope it does), it is critical to drill with those lines regularly so that everyone is familiar with its abilities – and limitations.

Building occupancy. This location has had various businesses inside. We must always act as if anything we roll into is an unknown, and expect the worse. While pre-plans are critical, what a business (or homeowner) has going on inside can often be a surprise for firefighters. The solution: Communicate with occupants, when possible, on arrival; pre-plan, when possible; but most importantly observe and size-up to determine what the conditions are on arrival (and throughout the incident) using standard size-up factors. As companies start carrying out their orders, there should be constant feedback between the bosses and the companies to monitor conditions, to extinguish the fire and protect your personnel.


William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® 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.

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