EXPLOSION IN NEW JERSEY CHEMICAL PLANT KILLS FIVE
BY JOSEPH M. HARTMAN
On Friday, April 21, 1995, an explosion and fire at a chemical plant rocked the Borough of Lodi in northern New Jersey. Five plant employees were killed in the explosion. The consequences of the event and ensuing fire department operations reinforce some important lessons about the hazards of these types of facilities, the critical nature of code enforcement and fire preplanning, and operations involving fire and unknown combinations of various chemicals.
Napp Technologies is a chemical manufacturing business that produced a variety of pharmaceutical products for the Purdue Frederick Company of Norwalk, Connecticut. In 1970, it moved into 199 Main Street, previously occupied by another chemical company. The production area of the two- and one-story facility encompassed 50,000 square feet of space and was of mixed construction; the larger portion was concrete and concrete masonry block walls with a poured reinforced concrete roof (Type IA noncombustible, fire-resistive as per the National Building Code®) and the smaller portion was constructed of a steel frame with an aluminum covering (Type IIB unprotected noncombustible under the National Building Code®). The east end of the building, fronting the Main Street side, contained offices on the second floor.
The attached warehouse building, approximately 120,000 square feet and also of Type IA construction, originally was separated from 199 Main Street by a brick fire separation wall. Prior to the Napp Technologies occupancy, this wall was breached so that 60,000 square feet could be used for chemical storage. Access to this area was through a two-hour-rated fire door. The Napp stock in this warehouse area consisted of palletized fiber drums of chemicals stacked two pallets high.
The additional warehouse spaces and attached retail stores on the Main Street side were separated from the Napp facility by brick fire separation walls. The attached structure farthest to the south was of mill construction.
The exposure 3 side, immediately west of the Napp facility, was used as a parking area. It also contained a flammable liquids tank storage area, located approximately 40 feet from the building. The product in these tanks was transferred to the flammable liquids mixing area by overhead pipes. The Saddle River is immmediately west of the parking lot and storage tanks.
The building to the north, on the exposure 4 side, just across a short, 30-foot-wide access road called Molnar Drive, was occupied by another chemical manufacturing company, the Fine Organics Chemical Company.
The space occupied by Napp was fully sprinklered. The main production area contained seven or eight explosion-protected mixing rooms where chemicals in solid form were processed. The Napp material safety data sheet (MSDS) included hundreds of chemicals.
The northwest corner of the Napp building contained a 50- by 70-foot room used for mixing processes that involved flammable liquids, receiving these materials from the overhead pipes that ran to the rear-side tank storage area. This room was in full code compliance for its intended use. It was of Type IA noncombustible construction, was fully sprinklered, was equipped with hazardous-location lighting, and contained a liquid containment area. All interior and exterior doors in this area were of two-hour fire-rated construction.
Just south of this mixing area was a smaller room used to temporarily hold flammable liquids ready to be shipped. This room also was of Type IIB noncombustible construction and complied with the code for its intended use. Along its exterior wall, several fiberglass explosion blow-out panels had been installed as required by code officials, so that an explosion in this area would relieve the pressure enough to maintain the integrity of its noncombustible walls.
At the time of the explosion, Napp Technologies was one of two high-hazard occupancies and one of 14 businesses using hazardous chemicals in Lodi, a borough of 27,000 residents in two square miles, with more than 600 commercial occupancies and 360 multiple-family dwellings. The Napp building, as would be expected in such a densely populated area, was in close proximity to residential and light commercial occupancies.
In 1969, a fatal chemical explosion occurred on the same site, which was then occupied by the Lemke Chemical Company. Four years later, another fatal chemical explosion occurred at the Mallickrodt Chemical Company, just one building away from the Napp site.
On the evening of April 20, Napp Technologies` afternoon shift was instructed to begin mixing a batch of chemicals that included 1,800 pounds of aluminum powder, 5,400 pounds of sodium hydrosulfite powder, 900 pounds of potassium carbonate, and eight liters (16 pounds) of benzaldehyde liquid (see sidebar). The mixing vessel was more than 11 feet high, mounted on two 20-ton blocks of concrete.
That evening the night shift had difficulty adding the benzaldehyde to the mixture due to a clogged injection nozzle, and the nozzle was removed for cleaning. It is believed that a small amount of water was inadvertently introduced when the nozzle was returned to the vessel. This water, it is believed, produced a reaction with the chemicals in the vessel, causing the mixture to smolder and produce a foul odor.
This was allowed to continue for 12 hours before workers called a plant chemist–there were no chemists on duty at the facility during the night shift as the result of personnel cutbacks. The chemist phoned in and instructed workers to add nitrogen to the mixture to counteract the smoldering. This had no effect; and as the smoldering continued, the pressure in the vessel continued to increase. The reaction was producing a flammable gas (see sidebar).
Members of the Napp day shift arrived at 0700 hours and detected a strong odor coming from the mixing vessel. They evacuated the plant. Four members of the shift and the plant manager reentered the area and began to drum off some of the chemicals from an unloading hatch at the vessel bottom, in hopes of saving at least part of the batch.
The personnel did not know that an explosive gas had built up in the upper portion of the vessel. When enough of the dry mixture was removed, pressurized flammable gas began to escape from the bottom hatch.
A sixth employee, a member of the fire brigade, also had reentered the building. He had stretched a 112-inch hoseline into the area from the pump house but did not charge it. A seventh employee, also a fire brigade member, entered the building.
At this time, the brigade member with the hoseline heard a very loud hissing sound. Then the vessel exploded, throwing him backward some 20 feet into a brick wall. Four of the men were killed instantly. A fifth sustained third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body and died 10 days later. The employee who had entered the area with the uncharged hoseline was burned on the arms and upper torso but walked out of the building under his own power and, after treatment, was released from a hospital that same day. The seventh employee experienced minor burns and exited under his own power; he was treated by EMS personnel and released.
The explosion and fire immediately devastated a large portion of the 50,000-square-foot production facility and roughly 40 percent of the adjoining 60,000-square-foot warehouse. Large chunks of concrete and parts of the mixing vessel were found as far as 1,000 feet from the Napp building. Several cars in the plant parking lot and in a used car lot 500 feet from the point of the blast were damaged. The flames extended 100 feet high, and the plume of smoke was reported to be 1,000 feet high and 10 miles long. The explosion was so powerful that one of the two 20-ton concrete blocks supporting the mixing vessel was blown 48 feet and penetrated a 36-inch-thick concrete and brick wall.
At approximately 0745 hours on April 21, 1995, the Lodi, New Jersey, 911 dispatch center received a call from approximately one-quarter mile northwest of the Napp plant, reporting a strong odor of gas in the area. Two police units were dispatched to the area. The temperature was cool, and there was a light drizzle. Winds blew lightly from the southeast but steadily at one to five mph.
At 0747 hours, the explosion occurred. The police officers investigating the odor complaint immediately radioed the dispatch center to notify the fire department. A general alarm of fire was transmitted to the Lodi Fire Department.
The Lodi Fire Department is a volunteer department comprised of 100 firefighters divided into three engine companies and one truck/rescue company, operating out of three stations. Fire Headquarters is located in the center of town, just two blocks from the Napp building. The department responds to approximately 250 fire calls a year.
I arrived first at 0750 hours. Arriving from the south, I observed a very large plume of heavy black smoke pouring out of the Napp building. There was no visible fire from the Main Street side. Windows on Main Street across from the Napp building were blown out; oddly, the Napp windows facing east were still intact. I moved to the north side of the building and through an open dock bay observed a heavy concentration of fire throughout much of the building. I immediately put out a call for mutual-aid assistance, for three additional engines and two truck companies. The Lodi Police Department quickly set up traffic control.
Engine 615 and Truck 613, stationed in Headquarters, arrived quickly. I directed the truck to the rear of the building to set up a tower ladder operation and Engine 615 to the northwest corner to protect the building`s internal flammable liquids processing and shipping area–from previous plant inspections by the Fire Prevention Bureau, our preplan dictated that this area be protected. Engine 615 dropped two supply lines at the hydrant at Main and Church streets and moved up Molnar Drive into position.
Members of Truck 613 entered the building and performed a quick primary search of the rear portion of the fire building. They found one employee, burned over 90 percent of his body, wandering around in a dazed state. He was removed from the building and taken by ambulance to the Hackensack Medical Center Burn Unit, where he died. The truck crew could not search further because the fire drove them out.
I directed Engine 614, with five-inch supply line, to the south side of the building to connect to a yard hydrant and supply the truck company already positioned at the rear. The yard hydrant, with a steamer and two 212-inch connections, was connected to a six-inch municipal water main off Main Street. The yard hydrant was part of the fire department`s preplan and had been used previously in other smaller fires in that area.
Engine 612 was assigned to the hydrant at Main and Church, directly in front of the building, to supply Engine 615 and set up a defensive operation for the two-story office portion of the building. The 612 crew received only 30 psi from the hydrant at their location. Lt. Chuck Cuccia directed firefighters to hand stretch two three-inch lines 400 feet up Church Street to the next hydrant. They were assisted by civilians. This brought pressure to 612 up to 50 psi.
At 0755 hours, then Chief of Department Sam J. Garofalo arrived and assumed the position of incident commander and established the command post 1,000 feet upwind of the fire. He assigned me as operations officer. He agreed with a defensive strategy to limit fire spread and protect exposures. Assistant Chief Richard Deperi arrived and assumed the role of sector commander in the rear of the property.
Garofalo met with the plant supervisor, who told him there were five people unaccounted for. The chief asked the supervisor what had caused the explosion and what was burning inside. The supervisor answered that he didn`t know, but that he thought it might be “a roof fire.”
Garofalo walked down the north side of the building to determine the extent of the explosion. By this time, fire was venting out of most of the northwest section of the roof. Much of it already had collapsed. The chief then ordered that no fire personnel, except for those attempting to establish a line in the flammable liquids area, enter the building under any circumstances.
The chief contacted me again to review and confirm our strategy. We had our four units on four sides of the building, preparing for a defensive attack. We reinforced to all companies that we were in a strict defensive mode and that they needed to use SCBA during attack operations, as per department SOP.
Command received Right-to-Know information on plant stock. There were hundreds of chemicals. It was estimated that 400,000 pounds of various chemicals were in the plant. Many of them, we surmised, were burning. It was determined that using foam as a suppression agent was inappropriate.
Mutual-aid fire companies from the South Bergen Mutual Aid Association began to arrive. Mutual-aid coordinators Chief Ron Phillips of the Wood-Ridge Fire Department and Chief Peter Donatello of the Rochelle Park Fire Department arrived at the command post. They were invaluable in getting the additional resources to the scene as requested by Chief Garofalo. Within 20 minutes, an additional seven towns had responded to the call, and more would follow as needed.
Meanwhile, the crew at the northwest sector, under the protection of a charged handline from Engine 615 (supplied by Engine 612), was attempting to enter the small flammable liquids shipping room just south and adjacent to the larger flammable liquids mixing room. From the exterior, it appeared that the fire was impinging on this area. An explosion blow-out panel was cut out with a power saw to serve as an observation hole. Visual inspection from this hole indicated that fire did not yet involve the space, but the south-facing fire door–the fire door separating the room from the main production area–had begun to fail and was glowing cherry red. There were numerous drums of flammable liquids lined up neatly in this shipping room.
Firefighters forced entry into the personnel door to this room and placed a portable deluge gun in operation on the failing fire door. A second line was stretched to the north loading area to protect the southeast side of the flammable liquids mixing room (see diagram). Finally, Engine 615 operated its deck gun over the mixing room roof into the “V” area formed by the flammable liquids mixing and shipping rooms.
This action early in the fire was a critical tactic in protecting the most vulnerable area of the building and preventing a second catastrophic explosion. It is estimated that there were almost 10,000 gallons of flammable liquids in the mixing vessels at the time of the fire.
As the mutual-aid companies arrived, five truck companies were assigned positions surrounding the building, with numerous engines assigned to supply them. Flow demands soon exceeded what the area water mains could supply. Five engines were positioned to draft from the Saddle River. This was a standard drafting operation, requiring two sections of hard suction line. Drafting from the river added an additional 4,000 gpm to the available fire flow.
In addition, two relay operations were ordered to further increase the available water supply. Five-inch supply line stretches of 2,000 and 5,000 feet were made into the neighboring towns of Hasbrouck Heights and Saddle Brook. Within 45 minutes, nearly 10,000 gpm were flowing on the Napp fire. In all, 11,700 feet of five-inch, 850 feet of four-inch, and 1,750 feet of three-inch hose were used to supply this operation. Engine companies within range of the building attacked the fire with deck guns.
The defensive firefight, assisted by fire separation walls and building construction, contained the fire to the Napp facility.
Within 30 minutes of the initial call, the Bergen County Health Department and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection were on the scene and monitoring air quality. This monitoring was extended as far as 10 miles downwind of the fire. It was determined that the fire was so hot that any chemicals involved were being incinerated and that the column of smoke was high and long enough so that any toxins were diluted before reaching ground level.
However, as a precautionary measure, Command decided to evacuate the surrounding three-block area. Approximately 300 evacuees were relocated to a school a safe distance away from the fire. Beyond that radius, residents were sheltered in place, with windows and doors shut.
At approximately 0825 hours, representatives of the New Jersey State Police; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and the State Office of Emergency Management responded to Chief Garofalo at the command post. In the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing just two days prior, these individuals expressed concern about the potential that the Napp explosion, too, had been the work of terrorists. This proved false.
Numerous other agencies, including the Bergen County Haz Mat Unit, the Bergen County Prosecutors Arson Squad, OSHA, and numerous local and state officials, soon responded. Garofalo established an interagency command center a block away at Fire Headquarters. Incident communications, resource needs, etc. were handled between Garofalo and Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Cassiello. Furthermore, numerous media representatives had descended on the command post. The Lodi Police Department escorted these individuals to a secure area, and Garofalo assigned an officer to serve as public information officer to provide briefings to the press and also work with agencies at the interagency command center.
Runoff from the firefighting operations began to discharge from the structure. This was monitored by health and environmental officials. The predominant runoff was a fluorescent green liquid, which looked much worse than it was. The State Department of Environmental Protection determined that it was fluorocine dye, a common ingredient in eye drops, and relatively harmless. However, it was decided to dike the areas leading to the Saddle River and route the runoff into the sanitary sewer system. This was a precautionary action to prevent contamination of the river.
Early in the operation, a decontamination area was established and a hot zone marked off. This hot zone surrounded the plant and the adjoining warehouses. All personnel were instructed to be in full turnout gear and wear SCBA before entering the hot zone. They were to pass through the decon area upon leaving the hot zone. This message was transmitted over all radio frequencies every 30 minutes.
Initially, there was a problem in the early stages of the decon operation in that the decon began to confiscate turnout gear as the personnel passed through the line, effectively terminating their ability to operate again. When word of this spread among personnel working in the hot zone, they became reluctant to leave the area for needed rest and rehab. This was remedied by establishing a warm zone between the hot and cold areas, in which personnel received a gross decon but were allowed to keep their turnouts until leaving the area permanently.
Later in the week, the Lodi Fire Department put out a recall of all turnout gear worn by mutual-aid fire department members and in need of cleaning. I arranged for a national turnout gear cleaning firm to pick up the gear and leave a loaner for anyone in need. Approximately 300 sets of turnout gear were sent out for cleaning and testing.
The fire was declared under control at 1030 hours. At 1440 hours, it was declared extinguished. Once the building was considered safe to enter, body recovery and fire investigation began, under the protection of handlines. Three-member teams were rotated in and out of the building during the body-recovery phase. The recovery operation took approximately three hours to complete. It was emotionally difficult for some of the members, and a critical incident stress team responded.
Several spot fires erupted through the remainder of the day and into Saturday, April 22. Heavy equipment was called in to remove debris and facilitate overhaul. Several mutual-aid units remained on the scene until Tuesday, April 25. Chief Garofalo maintained control of the scene until the following Monday, at which time the operation was turned over to the environmental cleanup company and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
The fire response during the height of the incident over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday amounted to 27 fire departments and 692 firefighters expending 9,737 man-hours.
The cause of the explosion and fire is still under investigation.
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
Fire department knowledge of the individual characteristics of high-hazard chemical facilities, learned through preplanning and frequent inspections, is critical to safe and effective response. Without prior knowledge of the flammable liquids areas in this facility, and without timely intervention to protect those areas, a second catastrophic event could have occurred–many more lives would have been lost and damage to the surrounding areas would have been tenfold.
Enforcement of the building and fire codes is critical. Proper code enforcement, coupled with swift and effective suppression operations, prevented the fire and explosion from affecting the flammable liquids areas. Fire departments must be proactive in the code-enforcement process; in areas where building and fire codes are lax or nonexistent, fire officials must “get political.”
History is replete with cases of industrial personnel attempting to handle incidents themselves and becoming defensive when incidents overwhelm them. Establish working relationships, open a dialogue, with key facility personnel. Perhaps the most important thing the fire service can gain from encouraging cooperation is an employee`s telling the truth about information that may be of critical importance to fireground operations. The fire department received very little information from plant employees at this incident.
The “big fire, big line” philosophy must rule in occupancies with a heavy and/or hazardous fire load. Stretching a 134-inch handline is a futile effort when the objective is to knock down a large body of fire.
Few fire departments in the country have the capability to handle large incidents in industrial facilities or even large residential occupancies. Develop and refine your mutual-aid system. Call for mutual aid early and often. Work to ensure consistency and continuity in the system.
Large incidents will draw an interagency response. The incident command system must be flexible to accommodate not only fire department operations but also the operations of numerous agencies with a stake in the incident. Establishing an interagency command center nearby but removed from the incident command post is important. Develop a system that draws on the expertise and assistance of other groups. It would have been impossible for Chief Garofalo to control this event without the assistance of the mutual-aid coordinators and other chief officers from surrounding towns, as well as the emergency management coordinator, who dealt with all the other outside agencies involved.
Even with Right-to-Know laws, involved chemicals in an incident such as this may be impossible to identify. Be conservative. Adopt a defensive strategy that calls for and enforces full protective clothing and SCBA. Be prepared at all times to withdraw if necessary.
Think ahead. Develop contingency plans. If the fire had reached the flammable liquid area, the plan would have been to evacuate all personnel and resume defensive operations, then stretch haz-mat booms across the Saddle River downstream of the incident. The Lodi Fire Department has a 1,000-gallon foam concentrate tanker, and this unit was prepositioned to the southwest in case it was needed. Engines 615 and 612 each carry 40 gallons of foam concentrate in preconnected tanks and were positioned to initiate a foam operation.
Local fire departments must drill with regional specialty units such as haz-mat teams. Regional teams must be able to fit into the local fire department system and requirements. A “takeover” attitude is counterproductive. At this incident, some problems in this regard were settled on the scene and workable procedures were established, but this should occur before–not during–the incident.
Preplan your water supply for your largest potential incidents.
Ex-Chief Sam J. Garofalo and Lieutenant Chuck Cuccia of the Lodi Fire Department contributed to this report. n
Left, minutes after the explosion, an ominous black cloud rises into the Lodi sky. Above, within 10 minutes of fire department arrival, fire vents freely from the collapsed roof. (Photos by Bill Tompkins.)
Left, remnant of the mixing vessel that churned a dangerous mix of chemicals that reacted violently when water was accidentally introduced. Right, a piece of the mixing vessel assembly landed on cars in a parking lot several hundred feet away. (Photos by Richard S. Wolfson, NJMFPA.)
(Top, left to right) Operations from the Main Street side. (Photo top left by Ron Jeffers, photo top center by Bill Tompkins, photo top right by Richard S. Wolfson, NJMFPA.) (Left, right) Operations from the rear. Forty-five minutes into the operation, fire forces had six aerial master streams, several deck guns, and numerous handlines applying some 10,000 gpm on the Napp fire. Municipal water supply was augmented considerably by drafting and relay operations. The fire was declared under control approximately 212 hours after the first units arrived. (Photos by Richard S. Wolfson, NJMFPA.)
Actions taken at the northwest corner were the key to the operation. The value of preplanning was magnified. (Top left) Under the protection of a handline, members cut an observation hole in explosion-relief panels prior to forcing entry into the flammable liquids shipping room in which they would position a portable deluge gun to hold back the fire. (Photo by Bill Tompkins.) (Top right) A deck gun operated by Engine 615 also was critical in holding fire away from sensitive areas. (Photo by Bill Tompkins.) (Bottom left) The dock area in the center of the north side of the building shows heavy fire. The large white tank and smaller silver tanks contain nitrogen. The blue structure at right is the east side of the flammable liquids processing room. A portable deluge gun was positioned at this location, completing the protection for the flammable liquids area. (Photo by Bill Tompkins.) (Bottom right) Inside the flammable liquids shipping room, with its neatly arranged full drums, shows the extent of damage to the fire door and just how close firefighters were to a second disaster–but the monitor did its job. (Photo courtesy of author.)
(Left) The bright green runoff was deemed harmless but nevertheless was diked and routed to the sanitary sewer. (Right) OSHA investigators pick through the remains of the Napp Technologies facility. (Photos by Richard S. Wolfson, NJMFPA.)
JOSEPH M. HARTMAN is second assistant chief and a 13-year veteran of the Lodi (NJ) Fire Department and serves as fire official for the borough. He completed Firefighter I, II, and III and numerous related courses at the Bergen County Police and Fire Academy and attended Bergen Community College, where he completed courses for fire protection inspector, industrial commercial specialist, and hazardous high-rise specialist.