Wax Plant Blast Rocks Houston

Tom McDonald reports on the second major fire within a year to hit a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) wax manufacturing plant.


HOUSTON FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief: Phil Boriskie Personnel: 3,470 career firefighters Apparatus: 85 engines, 37 ladders, 21 district chiefs, one deputy chief (shift commander), two technical rescue units, two hazmat units, one foam pumper, three safety officers, three air cascade units, one rehab...


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HOUSTON FIRE DEPARTMENT
Chief: Phil Boriskie
Personnel: 3,470 career firefighters
Apparatus: 85 engines, 37 ladders, 21 district chiefs, one deputy chief (shift commander), two technical rescue units, two hazmat units, one foam pumper, three safety officers, three air cascade units, one rehab unit (HFD also operates an extensive EMS fleet and provides ARFF service at two major airports)
Population: 2 million
Area: 617 square miles

A mammoth explosion and ensuing fire leveled offices, a warehouse and a tank storage yard at a southwest Houston high-density polyethylene (HDPE) wax manufacturing plant, damaging numerous homes and businesses surrounding it. All three workers in the plant at the time managed to escape safely. Luckily, no one was killed and there were only a few injuries to firefighters and civilians.

Calls from all across the metropolitan area inundated 911 centers shortly before 6 P.M. on Dec. 3, 2004, as the explosion could be felt more than 20 miles away. With the plant only two blocks from Houston’s southwestern city-limit line, several fire jurisdictions near the site responded, including the Houston Fire Department (HFD), which dispatched a first-alarm assignment of four engines, two ladders, two district chiefs, a safety officer and several EMS units.

Initial Operations

Engine 102 from the career Missouri City Fire Department, a community bordering Houston, was the first to arrive from quarters less than a mile away. That crew managed to search the perimeter of the plant and accounted for the handful of employees still inside as Houston units began to arrive.

Houston District 82 Chief E.J. Bender, the first HFD officer to arrive, staged his companies two blocks away for a brief period until the exact nature of the hazards involved were evaluated. The Marcus Oil & Chemical Co. plant, however, was no stranger to firefighters as this blast was not the first recent major incident there. Less than a year earlier, on Dec. 20, 2003, the HFD responded to a potentially-disastrous fire in the main production area of the plant. Four additional engines had to be called to suppress that blaze as long hoselays were required from the few hydrants in the area.

Bender called for the department’s Hazardous Materials Response Team (HMRT), but knew it would take close to a half-hour for the team to arrive from its quarters across town. He ordered firefighters under his command to approach the spectacular, block-long blaze cautiously and give top priority to cooling numerous exposed storage tanks.

Water supply and access were both problems at the plant, so Bender summoned a second alarm. Streets in the area were narrow with deep open ditches and a scarcity of fire hydrants. Apparatus had to be positioned close to the edge of roadways to allow others to pass. Relay pumping was used in several instances to develop the necessary fire flow.

This time, the fire did not involve the production area, but that area was threatened by exploding tanks and drums. Numerous large tanks in the plant’s storage yard, as well as a metal warehouse that also housed the company’s offices, were involved in this fire.

The east (Exposure 2 or B) side of the plant fronted Canemont Street, where a wire fence briefly slowed firefighters from their order to place heavy-caliber streams. The crew from HFD Engine 68 took its deck gun down and used it as a multiversal inside that fence.

The plant’s main entrance, at the north end off Minetta Street (Exposure 1 or A) had a sizable paved driveway, large enough to maneuver 18-wheelers. Ladder 82 and Tower 69 (a platform) were positioned there inside the fence to train protective streams on exposed tanks and the uninvolved production area west of the fire (Exposure 4 or D).

Already partly involved by the time first fire units arrived, the plant’s main office in one of two large warehouses on the site rapidly was consumed by fire. For several hours, smaller tanks and drums continued to explode into spectacular fireballs visible for miles around.

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