On the Job - Ohio: 18 Departments Respond To Garfield Heights Magnesium Fire

June 1, 2004
Jay K. Bradish reports on a five-alarm fire and explosions involving magnesium.
On Dec. 29, 2003, a spectacular five-alarm fire and explosions involving magnesium destroyed three businesses in an industrial park and caused the evacuation of approximately 425 homes and four apartment buildings in Garfield Heights, OH. The explosions were so bright that they could be seen miles away.
Photo By Jeff Rosewicz
Chief: Anthony CollovaPersonneL: 47 career firefightersApparatus: One engine, one quint, one aerial platform, two ALS units, one BLS unitPopulation: 31,000Area: 7.5 square miles

The Garfield Heights Fire Department was dispatched at 3:01 P.M. to a reported magnesium fire at Garfield Alloys Inc., located on Chaincraft Road in an industrial park. The industrial park is in the northern section of the city, in a setting that is lower than the surrounding areas. Chaincraft Road is a dead-end street approximately seven-tenths of a mile long with 12 industrial occupancies. Part of the water supply on Chaincraft Road has a grid system while the other part is on a dead-end main. Garfield Alloys was a magnesium recycling facility occupying three buildings on five acres of land. Approximately 30 tractor-trailer trucks were also used to store magnesium at the site.

West of the industrial park is a residential area consisting of apartment buildings and homes. These residential structures are on top of an adjacent hillside 80 to 100 feet in elevation and 800 feet away. North, east and south of the industrial park are open areas, railroad tracks, businesses and homes.

Garfield Heights Engine 1, a 1,500-gpm pumper, and Tower 1, a 100-foot aerial platform with a 1,500-gpm pump, with four firefighters responded from Fire Station 1 under the command of Captain Thomas Nemetz. Ladder 2, a 75-foot quint with a 1,500-gpm pump, and Squad 2 responded from Fire Station 2 with four firefighters. Eight firefighters is the minimum manning for Garfield Heights, therefore a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) second alarm was immediately struck. Responding on the second alarm for MABAS Box 3411, Zone 1, were Maple Heights Fire Department Engine 2 and Squad 2 with four firefighters; Warrenville Heights Fire Department Ladder 1 with three firefighters; Cuyahoga Heights Fire Department Engine 26 with four firefighters; and Valley View Squad 31 and Air Truck with three firefighters. Due to the type of alarm, Valley View also dispatched Engine 35 with two firefighters and Maple Heights also dispatched Tower 1 with two firefighters.

Photo By Steven Nedrich Garfield Heights Ladder 2 uses a ladder pipe to protect an exposure in the early stages of the fire.

While responding down Henry Street, about a minute after leaving Fire Station 1, Nemetz observed smoke and flames coming from the roof of the main building of Garfield Alloys. He immediately requested that a third alarm be transmitted. The City of Cleveland Fire Department responded with an engine and ladder company, the Independence Fire Department responded with an engine and the Newburgh Heights Fire Department responded with a squad and a 75-foot quint. A recall was issued for all off-duty Garfield Heights firefighters.

Upon arrival, Nemetz met with the plant manager concerning accountability of employees. The plant manager assured Nemetz that all employees were accounted for. He also stated that magnesium was involved in the fire. The building was constructed of masonry, steel and wood with a flat wood-and-tar roof. Fire protection equipment in the building included four 30-pound Class D fire extinguishers and two 150-pound Class D mobile extinguishing carts.

Command was established on the A side (address side) of the main building. Garfield Heights Tower 1 and Ladder 2 caught the hydrant in front of the main building A side, away from the original fire, to protect exposures. Each apparatus was supplied with a 100-foot four-inch supply line from the hydrant.

Photo By Jeff Rosewicz Violent explosions caused molten magnesium to fall onto the roofs of surrounding exposures. Hundreds of homes and four apartment buildings had to be evacuated because of the fire and explosions.

Garfield Heights Fire Chief Anthony Collova arrived on the scene at 3:15 P.M. and assumed command. Nemetz was assigned as operations officer, Garfield Heights Firefighter Dennis Cain was assigned the position of staging officer and Maple Heights Lieutenant William Wheeler was assigned as water supply officer. Staging was established upwind from the fire in a parking lot at the entrance to the industrial park, approximately 800 feet from the fire.

Cuyahoga Heights Engine 26 relayed water from a hydrant on Chaincraft Road approximately 300 feet away to both Garfield Heights Tower 1, on the A side, and Maple Heights Tower 1, on the D side. At this time, it was determined that a second water supply was needed. The nearest hydrant on a different grid was about 1,700 feet away. The engines from Cleveland and Independence completed the relay to a hydrant on Broadway Avenue. These units were positioned to protect the primary on-site exposure, a 300-foot-long magnesium storage warehouse. The warehouse was located approximately 20 feet from the original fire building and was constructed of masonry and steel with a wooden gable roof. The warehouse contained magnesium powders, borings, trimmings and magnesium scrap products of an unknown, but extensive quantity. Forty thousand pounds of factory flux, commonly used as an extinguishing agent on magnesium fires, was stored in the warehouse. An additional 80,000 pounds of factory flux was transported to the scene by Garfield Alloys at the beginning of the incident.

As other chief officers arrived on the scene, they were assigned command functions and met periodically to discuss strategy and tactics. Broadway Command was assigned to Bedford Heights Fire Chief Ken Ledford and Brecksville Fire Chief Ed Egut. Henry Street Command was assigned to Independence Fire Chief Peter Nelson, Newburgh Heights Fire Chief Rick Pugsley and Garfield Heights Lieutenant Patrick Nelson. A Planning Section was established to make sure the necessary resources were available for firefighting operations. Maple Heights Fire Chief Jim Castelucci, Valley View Fire Chief Tom Koscielski, Bedford Fire Chief Ken Rybka and Warrensville Heights Fire Chief Stan Martin were assigned to these duties. Operations were so spread out that Collova assigned two additional safety officers, Lieutenant Bob Koscielski and Firefighter Duane Kaptler from Valley View, operating under the command of Garfield Heights Captain Mike Brasdovich.

Photo By Tom Lisy Three buildings on five acres plus 30

In addition to protecting primary exposures, fire crews needed to address the outlying exposures. To the west, exposures were the apartments and homes that were addressed by Henry Street Command, which positioned unmanned monitors to protect those occupancies. Seven Hills Fire Chief Charles Hosta was in charge of those relay operations. Three unmanned monitors were setup and supplied by 21¼2-inch lines from Bedford and Newburgh Heights pumpers. The outlying east-side exposures consisted of railroad tracks and a cement company along with some small businesses and homes. Broadway Command controlled this area. The north exposures were remaining businesses on Chaincraft and a Metro Park area. Of main concern were the west exposures consisting of four apartment buildings and residential homes 800 to 1,000 feet away.

A Cleveland Fire Department hazardous materials team was requested to respond to perform air quality testing. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) were also contacted and responded to the command post. Cleveland Air Pollution was also contacted. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District was also contacted to check the sewers and adjacent Mill Creek for any contamination. Later in the incident, another Cleveland hazmat team unit responded and was used as a rehab vehicle for on-scene firefighters. Due to the possibility of explosions and a possible wind change, it was determined to evacuate adjacent apartments and homes on the west side of the incident. This was accomplished by personnel from the Fire, Police and Public Service Departments. Evacuees were sheltered in the assembly room at Garfield Heights Fire Station 1. The evacuees were supplied with food, cots and blankets by the American Red Cross. The operations at the station were controlled by Garfield Heights Captain Bill Horrigan.

Along with the original water relay from Broadway, two additional four-inch supply lines were laid from hydrants on Henry Street. A pumper from Seven Hills hooked onto a hydrant on Henry Street and supplied two 300-foot four-inch lines to units on the fireground. These lines supplemented the supply to the aerials located on the D side of the fire scene protecting the exposures. The plan was to protect exposures until the magnesium was consumed to the point where factory flux could be applied. According to information received, factory flux is approximately 70% potassium chloride, 25% magnesium chloride and 5% calcium fluoride. It is normally used to remove impurities from magnesium during the process of melting down magnesium. It is also used as an extinguishing agent because it forms a film barrier over molten magnesium to suppress the flammability.

Photo By Tom Lisy A tower from Garfield Heights and another from Maple Heights were set up.

The Cleveland Electrical Illuminating Co. was notified to shut down the electricity in the area and also to shut down the high-tension wires along the adjacent railroad tracks. The East Ohio Gas Co. was contacted to disconnect the gas supply to the area. The railroad company was contacted to stop any rail traffic going through the area.

With the large amount of magnesium involved, the fire quickly spread through the main building and ignited the magnesium warehouse. Crews were repositioned to protect an industrial building across the street from the warehouse. That one-story, masonry-and-steel building with a wooden roof was occupied by the Crescent Heat Treat Co. Molten magnesium from multiple explosions was falling like rain onto the roof of this structure, and it was soon lost. Fire crews then concentrated efforts on protecting 30 on-site trailers loaded with magnesium. Three unmanned master streams were positioned to protect the trailers. While this was being accomplished, a violent explosion occurred that broke the windows out of one of the nearby apartment buildings.

Due to heavy fire involvement and explosions, the firefighters’ locations were again changed. Unmanned monitors were left in place and firefighters were moved to a safe location. The Chagrin Southeast Command vehicle arrived on the scene and was staged on the D side of the incident in a safe location 600 feet from the scene and utilized as the command post for the incident. A segregated media area was established near the command post.

Photo By Steven Nedrich Valley View Engine 35 waits for water in front of the fully involved warehouse.

At this time, a fourth alarm was requested. Responding were an engine from the Bedford Heights Fire Department with four firefighters, an engine company from the Bedford Fire Department with four firefighters, a 75-foot ladder from Brooklyn Heights with four firefighters and an air truck from Oakwood Village. In the MABAS fourth alarm, the Cuyahoga County Emergency Management Assistance Center was alerted to prepare to activate the Interdivisional Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (IMABAS). The IMABAS is a pre-planned resource for additional apparatus and manpower from the counties of Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake and Summit.

As the fire continued to rage, a fifth alarm was requested. Three engines and a squad from the Parma, Brecksville and Seven Hills Fire Departments responded. Also on the fifth alarm, a pumper and manpower from the Solon Fire Department moved up to cover Garfield Heights Fire Station 1. The Concord Fire Department contacted command and volunteered to cover Garfield Heights Fire Station 2.

At approximately 11 P.M., firefighters began being rotated on four-hour shifts. While firefighters were trying to contain the flames, the weather changed. The wind gusted and turned toward the southeast. Rain and snow started to fall heavily and created violent explosions. Truck companies in this area were protecting a two-story, recently renovated office building that was nearly 100 years old. That structure was lost due to burning magnesium falling relentlessly on its roof. Firefighters in this area had no time to disconnect the supply lines, so they had to cut the hoses with an axe from the apparatus as they drove the trucks to a safe area. Since the road was blocked by fire and debris, they had to leave on foot along the rail tracks, east of the scene. Cuyahoga Heights Fire Chief Lee Zmia and Garfield Heights Captain Dan Kaminski were in charge of this operation. Large pieces of glowing steel could be seen flying hundreds of feet into the air. Personnel accountability reports (PARs) were conducted periodically, throughout the incident to ensure firefighter safety.

Photo By Steven Nedrich Garfield Height Ladder 1 uses its limited water supply to protect the offices of Garfield Alloys.

The fire was declared under control at 4 A.M. the following day when the command staff was rotated with off-duty officers. Collova remained on scene to follow up on public information officer (PIO) duties. The last mutual aid company was released at approximately 2 P.M. on Dec. 30. A fire watch remained on the scene until 1:30 P.M. on Dec. 31 with Garfield Heights personnel and a pumper from the Solon Fire Department. Factory flux was applied to the remains of the trailer that burned to completely extinguish the smoldering magnesium. The remains of the main building and warehouse remained too hot to apply the factory flux. Before Garfield Heights left the scene, the area was cordoned off. A security watch with a local company was instituted and the area was given special attention by the Garfield Heights Police Department.

Along with testing the air quality, the U.S. EPA set up a command center in the conference room at Garfield Heights Fire Station 1 to coordinate monitoring and clean-up efforts during and after the incident. The U.S. Chemical and Safety Board and the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office investigated the fire. The fire marshal’s office determined that the fire started while a worker was opening the lid of a 55-gallon drum that contained magnesium waste.

A total of 193 personnel from 18 fire departments were used throughout the incident in one capacity or another. Two firefighters from Garfield Heights and two from Maple Heights received minor injuries during the incident. Thirteen pumpers, five aerials, and seven deck guns and portable monitors were used to battle the fire. Firefighters were on the scene for 461¼2 hours. As reported from one of the departments that responded, the flow meter on its pumper indicated a flow of over 1 million gallons of water.

Photo By Tom Lisy Firefighters were on the scene for more than 46 hours. There were 1,725 feet of four-inch supply damaged or destroyed and an additional 1,300 feet of smaller hose was damaged or destroyed.

Fire department equipment damaged or destroyed during the fire included 1,725 feet of four-inch supply line, 550 feet of three-inch hose, 750 feet of 21¼2-inch hose, one smooth-bore nozzle, three portable radios, one windshield, one cab window, one mirror, one vent cover housing, four hosebed covers and two strobe lights.

Concerns that faced the command staff were firefighter safety, air-quality testing, sewer and adjacent waterway testing, shutting down utilities on scene, shutting down adjacent high-tension lines, public service announcements through the Cuyahoga County Emergency Operations Center, evacuations, contacting a hospital in the area of the situation, shutting down rail traffic due to the proximity to the explosions, inclement weather of rain and snow that ignited many of the explosions, supplying pumps to the area to control flooding from water directed on exposures and opening shelters for evacuated residents.

Garfield Heights Fire Station 1 and the city’s Civic Center were used as shelters and were staffed by city officials and firefighters. The coordination of food brought to firefighters at the scene and occupants in the shelters was done by the American Red Cross. Police and Public Service Department workers transported some residents to the shelter area. Diesel fuel trucks were brought in to fuel the vehicles on scene from Highland Hills and the City of Cleveland. Weather reports were provided from the County Emergency Operations Center concerning wind speed and direction and when rain or snow showers were moving into the area.

Lessons learned included:

  • Establish a PIO early during high-profile incidents to provide accurate information for news media.

  • Put Fire Dispatch on a separate channel controlled by a communications officer as soon as possible.

In reviewing the incident, Collova praised the contribution of all the firefighters and fire departments that responded.

“The firefighters from the different departments were so well trained and dedicated,” he said, “that whenever an officer would state we need to accomplish a certain objective, the firefighters would just say, we’ll take care of it.”

Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.

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