Incident Report: Fatal Explosions, Fires in Spanish Fireworks Factory

By George H. Potter

Spain has a justified reputation as one of the world’s leading supplier of display Fireworks, and the country is also one of Europe’s most extensive user of fireworks. Every village, township, and city celebrates patron saints’ festivities with all sorts of noise-making and sky-lighting devices. Valencia, the nation’s third ranking city celebrates what is known as FALLAS, several days of intense activities during which literally tons of fireworks, everthing from simple fire crackers to complex displays are ignited.

On Friday, July 31st, 2015, one of the country’s leading producers of display fireworks, PIROTÉCNIA ZARAGOZANA, located some 12 miles west of the city of Zaragoza, suffered a violent explosion and subsequent fires. The incident destroyed an important part of the facility, killed five workers and injured seven more, one of whom died later the same day. The explosion was heard in the city, and columns of dense, black smoke rose several hundred feet. The incident required the response of several units from the Zaragoza municipal fire brigade as well as support from the provincial fire service. The Zaragoza municipal fire department dispatched a total of 45 officers and fire fighters along with three urban engines, one rural engine, two tankers, two ambulances, and several auxiliary vehicles; the provincial emergency service sent two engines and 8 fire fighters. This contingent spent 14 hours at the plant from Friday afternoon through early Saturday morning. Firefighters were unable to approach the immediate area where the first explosions went off because of extreme heat and the risks of further explosions. It was estimated that some 10 tons of explosive materials were involved in the first explosions. Over the course of three more days, standby crews were made available in case of more explosions or fires, with between seven and 15 firefighters and two or three engines on scene. During this period, the paramilitary police corps, Guardia Civil, sent explosives technicians to the plant to control and deactivate potential explosive materials. More than 175 pounds of fireworks that could have accidently exploded were destroyed.

As stated above, Spain is a world leader in display fireworks, or pyrotechnics. This particular plant supplied the fireworks display in Dubai for the 2015-2016 New Year celebration. The company had recently been acquired by the French pyrotechnics firm ETEINNE LACROIX, which gave the Spanish company a much wider market potential. Immediately after the incident, management of both companies declared that the plant would be rebuilt and that all jobs would be respected. Several of the Spanish employees were temporarily transferred to the French plant, and those remaining in Spain would be laid off with full compensation until the plant is rebuilt.

Smoke billows from a fire at a fireworks factory in Spain.

The principal fires burned for several hours following the initial explosions. Fire services’ staging area is to the left in the photo.

Spanish legislation concerning fireworks and pyrotechnic manufacture and storage is extensive and strict, although they are very lax with regard to public sale and use. The manufacturing areas must meet specific design and materials specifications with limitations as to how much material can be inside any given building on the site. Qualified technicians must be employed for the design and supervision of manufacture and assembly of the pyrotechnic display devices. The amounts of raw materials and finished pyrotechnics stored in specific, purpose-built sheds are limited. The perimeters of fireworks plants must be well fenced and access strictly controlled. No one may carry potential ignition sources such as matched or lighters, and all electrical and lighting systems and devices must be intrinsically safe. This includes hand-held flashlights and lamps as well. Motor vehicles circulating within the premises must have special systems to impede the liberation of sparks and other possible ignition sources. These activities are also required to have internal emergency response plans in place, with all personnel fully instructed as to what their functions would be in case of emergency situations. In this particular case, the plant did have an up-to-date emergency plan, but the sheer magnitude of the explosions and fires practically voided any effective response.

On the other hand, fireworks are normally sold in specialty shops, but during the festivity periods, street vendors can be found all over the place in the towns and villages celebrating their patron saints (or any old reason to make noise, lots of noise). Anything from small pop-type firecrackers to extremely loud and powerful devices can be obtained and used by just about anyone.

During the initial investigations, the police explosives experts commented that it would be very difficult to establish the cause of the initial explosion due to the severity and extent of the damage. Temperatures in the heart of the explosion/fire area exceeded 3,600º F.

This plant was relatively new and well-equipped as far as fire safety measures are concerned. It replaced a much older facility that had experienced a similar tragedy in 1967, when five employees were killed.

Schematic drawing of the incident scene

This incident demonstrates the absolute necessity for pre-emergency planning and coordination between the hazard location and the local emergency response organizations. Fire and rescue services must get out and visit these facilities, become familiar with the general and specific hazards in and outside the locations. Companies must know how to get there including alternative routes, how to get into the site if no one is there to receive them, where fire protection materials and systems are and how they function, and so much more. Combined drills should be carried out simulating a variety of potential emergency situations. The local emergency communications operators must also have as much information as possible to accurately and constantly maintained emergency management informed as to the initiation and evolution of any emergency incident.

George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 47 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County (MD) volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters’ Association (ASELF).

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