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Firefighting lessons from massive explosions

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and when it comes to ammonium nitrate, forgetting is not an option


It has been a year since the tragic explosions during a fire in the port city of Tianjin, China.

There may never be an accurate estimate of the number of deaths resulting from the fire and explosions. Yet we suspect that more than 100 firefighters were killed and scores more injured, making this the greatest loss of firefighters in a single incident during this century since the attacks of 9/11 when we lost 343 firefighters in New York City.

It is, however, important for us to learn from the Tianjin incident and from several similar incidents that have occurred in the United States in the past decades.

The Tianjin fire was reportedly to have originated in a building used by Ruihai International Logistics, a chemical company that was allowed to locate adjacent to a populated residential area. Firefighters were reported to have been on the scene for approximately 40 minutes before two explosions sparked an even more widespread conflagration.

The Chinese Earthquake Administration’s seismograph registered the second, more violent explosion as a magnitude 2.9 on the Richter scale.

While the plant was said to have warehoused extremely large quantities of both ammonium and potassium nitrate, the neighboring areas were also contaminated by an unknown, but concentrated amount of deadly sodium cyanide that releases cyanide gas upon contact with water.

A city boy’s education
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has in the past two years made new attempts to purge his government of graft and corruption, visited the site on the fourth day of the firefighting efforts. At that time, he assured the people of Tianjin that there would be an “all-out effort” to investigate this incident.

Early in the investigation, 13 individuals, either members of Ruihai International’s management or Tianjin public officials were arrested or detained. At the same time, no new statements have been made by Chinese officials and the long-term health concerns expressed by Tianjin residents were quickly quashed.

By comparison, when I started in the fire service, my first fire chief, Cloyce Snyder, once stopped in front of Spaeth’s General Store. It was one of the most hazardous occupancies at that time in our fire district; he told me that in the event of a fire, it was not to be entered.

One reason was that the store, which was more a series of several frame buildings situated on an acre of land, contained bulk ammonium nitrate used as fertilizer in our rural farm areas. Being a city boy, I didn’t understand why a fertilizer was fire problem, so the chief told me to research fires that involved ammonium nitrate.

It didn’t take me long to learn about its explosive power. In addition to fertilizer, ammonium nitrate is also a component of explosives such as dynamite.

History lessons
By some accounts the most devastating explosion in the United States during the 20th century occurred in April 1947 alongside the Monsanto Chemical Co. in Texas City, Texas. The freighter Grandcamp had been loaded with ammonium nitrate to be used as fertilizer.

Early on April 16, a small fire was discovered in the ship’s hold; standard marine firefighting tactics called for the hold to be sealed and filled with steam to snuff the fire. The only problem was that ammonium nitrate quickly decomposes under heat and pressure, so sealing the hold and adding heat made this a huge pressure cooker ripe to explode.

Media reports of the incident say that 12 fire companies responded to the fire when it was reported around 8:30 that morning. Hundreds of dock workers, residents and even school children flocked to the docks to see what was causing the heavy smoke that hung over the harbor.

The 27 members of the Texas City Fire Department played master streams into the freighter. But at 9:15, less than an hour after the fire was reported, a tremendous explosion leveled several docks, warehouses and the nearby chemical plant and oil refinery.

The fire quickly spread to a second freighter, the High Flyer, also loaded with ammonium nitrate. As an attempt was made to tow the High Flyer out to sea, it too exploded.

These explosions combined to kill 581 people including all but one of the Texas City firefighters. Damage from the blasts and fires was estimated at over $50 million in 1947 dollars, or the equivalent of $560 million today.

Why we plan
Armed with this information, I sat down with my chief and he laid out why we would plan an exterior attack using master stream if there were ever a major fire at the general store. Sure enough, years later the store did burn.

We followed the chief’s plan using master streams from a distance to cut off the fire from spreading to the fertilizer storage buildings. His pre-incident plan gave the department the information we needed to safely control the fire found on arrival.

More recently explosions and fires involving ammonium nitrate include the Kansas City construction site where in 1988 trailers containing ammonium nitrate and fuel oil were detonated by a car fire in the proximity, killing six firefighters.

There was the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995 killing 168 civilians. And the West, Texas fertilizer plant in 2013 explosion killed 15, including 12 firefighters and injuring over 200 others. These should remind us of the explosive power of ammonium nitrate.

So why is it important for us to learn more about the Tianjin explosion? Simply put, there are lessons to be learned from every major fire, but more importantly from those involving large loss of life, especially when it includes the loss of firefighters. It is the reason we have NIOSH investigations of every LODD, have Firefighter Close Calls, and the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.

According to OSHA, there are over 1,300 facilities in the United States that manufacture, store or use ammonium nitrate in their daily production. This does not include ammonium nitrate stored in buildings on private farmland, or used as explosives at construction sites, quarries or landfills.

It is important for us to be aware of these dangers so we can prepare ourselves to fight, win and live.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.

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