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.
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.
The incident’s environmental impact was addressed early. The HFD’s three-piece HMRT arrived from their east-side quarters in less than a half-hour and its crews, under Captains Tommy Erickson and Mike Byrd, began to control runoff and monitor shell temperatures of tanks with infrared thermometers.
Fearing possible involvement of toxic chemicals, Houston police cordoned off a 10-square-block area surrounding the blaze. All news crews on scene were kept a quarter-mile north of the site. Broadcast media advised residents to remain indoors for several hours until the large plume of smoke had dissipated. A very light evening wind allowed most of the smoke to trail straight up.
Air and water monitoring services, ordered by the state’s environmental authority, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), also arrived quickly and began to take samples. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) airplane leaving Freeport, 50 miles south of the fire, was overhead during much of the fire taking air samples aloft.
The “dean” of Houston’s HMRT members was on duty that evening, although working on a shift different from his normal crew. Assigned to the team since its inception 25 years ago, Engineer Bill Hand was given the job of team advisor to the Incident Commander.
“Bill is an enormous asset on a fire like that,” Erickson said. “He has a tremendous amount of knowledge that he has gained over the years. He is very level-headed and just goes through the processes smoothly.”
A City Without Zoning
Houston is the largest U.S. city without comprehensive zoning. Even though supporters have managed to put proposals for citywide zoning on ballots numerous times over several decades, voters have always turned down such plans. As a result, many areas of the city, including the area around the wax plant, have developed with a wide array of occupancies next door to one another. In fact, a house, church, homeless shelter and social club were directly across the street from the plant, and all were badly damaged. Fortunately, only a few occupants received minor injuries, but there were many close calls.
Eight men meeting inside The Gulf Coast Club, a social club directly across the street, dove for cover when the initial explosion sent the entire front door and window assembly crashing down on furniture and the office Christmas tree. Employee Juan Vasquez said, “I thought it was a bad thunderstorm. I was in the front room and the whole wall just came in on us so quickly.”
Club member James Cheek pointed out a three-foot-wide hole in the brick on the front wall of the building where a jagged piece of flying metal had imbedded itself. Much of the ceiling in the New Deliverance Church, next door to the social club, collapsed during the blast. The church operated a homeless shelter, and many of the men staying there were pelted by falling building materials. HFD rescue personnel systematically checked nearby homes and businesses, but found no trapped victims.
A number of homes and other businesses near the plant were heavily damaged as well, including a residential garage directly across the street that was hit by a large piece of flying debris. A nearby resident sitting in her living room watching TV ended up on the floor of her home when the force of the blast knocked out a plate-glass window right behind her sofa. Her husband said, after a few minutes, he started smelling gas. “The explosion blew out the pilot light on our stove, so I just shut off the gas to the house,” he said.
By far, the most spectacular example of flying debris was an intact 40,000-gallon tank that had rocketed more than 100 feet across the plant’s property and lodged itself into the side of a neighboring metal building. Next to where that tank had stood were three other similar tanks, one of which had flaming product flowing from it.
About an hour into the incident, the main drain in the plant’s north driveway became so plugged with flowing wax that Engine 82, positioned near the north gate and supplying water to two ladder pipes, became surrounded by a sea of molten sludge. Engineer Robert Fults first stood on the pump panel running board, then finally escaped the hot wax by climbing over the cab, while Captain Robert Ross slipped and fell into it, burning both hands severely. At least one other fire officer was transported for fall injuries.
Local and federal investigators converged on the scene. Within a day, they determined that the initial explosion was due to a mechanical failure in a storage tank, ruling out an intentional act. The federal investigators, however, were considering recommending a more in-depth investigation of the facility in light of the other recent major incident.
- Cooling and protection of exposed tanks is critical for a successful outcome in industrial plant fires. Using unmanned streams from as far away and out of the potential trajectory as possible is certainly preferable to manned devices at such incidents. This action certainly requires that a voluminous water supply be developed early, but its use should be tempered with a plan for containing runoff.
HOUSTON FIRE DEPARTMENT HAZARDOUS MATERIALS RESPONSE TEAM (HMRT)
- Established: Oct. 5, 1979 by now-retired District Chief Max McRae
- Quarters: Fire Station 22 at 7825 Harrisburg, near the Port of Houston (the second-largest-tonnage port in the U.S.)
- Commanders: Assistant Chief Danny Snell and District Chief Blake White
- Apparatus: Two step vans and one foam pumper
- Staffing: Ten on a shift, including a captain on each van, engineers on all three units and two firefighters on each van plus one on the foam pumper
- Training: Minimum Hazardous Materials Technician, but most with incident command and Hazardous Materials Specialist training as well
HOUSTON FD RESPONSE
Marcus Oil & Chemical Co. Explosion and Fire Dec. 3, 2004
Tom McDonald is a captain, serving his 23rd year with the Houston Fire Department, and is assigned to Engine Company 82.