A Fire with Lessons in Gasolene Storage

A Fire with Lessons in Gasolene Storage

The following instance of a fire in a private garage through the leakage of gasolene from an underground storage tank contains some important lessons which fire chiefs will find of interest. The account is from a report by the New York Board of Fire Underwriters:

The building situated at 143 East 40th Street, New York City, is a 3 and 1 story ordinary brick structure with a basement under front portion. The first floor over basement is of reinforced cinder concrete construction between steel I beams. The beams are protected toy arch construction on webs and 1 1/2 to 2 inches of cinder concrete on flanges. The basement sidewalls are of stone, cement covered.

Occupied by A. De Lamar as a private automobile garage on 1st with chauffeurs’ dwellings on 2nd and 3rd. The heating plant is located in basement and consists of one asbestos covered sectional boiler and one small water heater, both use coal fuel and are connected to suitable brick flue. An oil separator is also located in basement in a 4-inch hollow tile enclosure from floor to ceiling, wdth one opening through 1st floor about 2 ft. square, protected by a sheet metal trap door. The entrance to basement is from the street, outside of building. A hydraulic gasolene storage system was installed in 1912 on premises by the Hydraulic Oil Storage Co., (a concern now out of business.) It consisted of one 275 gallon gasolene tank, located underground, under side walk above basement floor level and near coal chute. A water pipe is attached to the bottom of the tank and connected to the city water supply and sewer; gasolene is admitted to the tank from the fill box at curb; fill pipe is vented by a vent pipe terminating at ceiling of 1st floor. This vent pipe contains an automatic valve to prevent discharge of gasolene out of vent pipe. By means of a valve, water is admitted into bottom of tank, forcing the gasolene out of pipe connected to top of storage tank and leading to draw off station on 1st floor; which is equipped with gauge and proper hose and nozzle. This water valve also controls the sewer connection to tank and permits of tank drainage when filling is desired. The water and gasolene pipes pass through the basement and are exposed about 12 inches below the ceiling.

Smoke was seen coming from the street opening leading to basement by a person on the street who turned in fire alarm at a corner box. The fire department arrived a few minutes later and the men lead by Thomas Murtha, acting battalion chief, entered the smoke filled cellar with hose. The presence of gasolene vapors were readily detected. The sectional steam heating boiler was not in use and contained no fire but the small water heater was in use and contained a coal fire which supplied the necessary means for igniting the gasolene vapors. As water was poured into the basement the gasolene present therein, floated on top of the water and raised with the water level until the level of the fire box of the coal fuel water heater was reached or nearly so, igniting the gasolene vapors. After the firemen had been in the basement a short time an explosion of gasolene vapors occurred, seriously injuring two and less seriously seven other firemen also three men employed by the Consolidated Gas Company, who were standing at the opening on the street leading to basement. About 15 minutes later, there was another less violent explosion and at intervals thereafter several minor explosions occurred all of which produced more or less black smoke, but only in the first explosion were flames visible. A hole was broken through the 4-inch hollow tile enclosure containing the oil separator and the iron trap on the 1st floor opened, in order to provide an additional vent other than from the street entrance, for the basement in order to facilitate fire-fighting. Water was used in large quantities and the entire basement flooded with about 4 ft. of water extinguishing the fire in the coal fuel water heater and thus preventing further explosions. The gasolene storage system was emptied. The illuminating gas supplied to the house was cut off during the course of firefighting, shortly after the first explosion.

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Fire Lessons in Gasolene Storage

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Examinations of the premises later, revealed in the basement, two small charred wood boards nailed to front wall; the enamel on gas meter was in part burned off, but meter otherwise was in good condition. A deposit of black soot was on walls and ceilings; 4-ft. high wood partitions used for banking coal, showed no indication of damage, either by fire or explosion. On the first floor no damage was sustained other than the deposit of black soot on walls, ceilings, automobiles, etc., contained thereon.

Two days later a test of the gasolene storage system was made by the bureau of combustibles, under the supervision of Mr. Dixon and Mr. Michaels. The water supply pipe of the gasolene storage system was directly connected to house water supply pipe, which in turn is connected directly to city water main, and a water gauge installed. The entire gasolene storage system was then filled with water under city water pressure, which registered 55 pounds. An examination of the system was undertaken paying particular attention to the exposed gasolene and water pipes in basement and all joints and fittings, but no leak was observed, the pressure gage however, dropped from 55 to 35 pounds in about a lapse of 30 minutes time. There was observed in the tile lined coal chute leading from street to basement, a damp condition, but as this chute contained some coal and dirt, the cause of the dampness was questionable; also the drop in pressure may have been due to air pockets in the system. Since the only part of the system that indicated visible signs of a defect appeared in the coal chute, it was decided to test the underground 275 gallon gasolene storage tank and the pipe leading from basement to tank.

The following day after the necessary connections were made and the coal chute thoroughly cleaned the storage tank was filled with water under 55 pounds pressure and the coal chute closely observed. Slowly the pressure gauge indicator receded and dropped 22 pounds in 25 minutes. At the third joint up of the tile lined coal chute, a small stream of water emerged and ran its course down the chute into the basement, indicating the presence of a leak somewhere in the tank or pipe leading from basement thereto, or more probably at the connection of the pipe and tank. The fill pipe was next tested in a similar manner, but no appreciable drop in pressure or leak was observed. Thus the defect in the gasolene storage system was discovered.

In this system as in a great many other gasolene storage systems, the gasolene storage tank was located under the sidewalk, or underground outside of the foundation walls of the building, and the gasolene pipe leading from the tank to the filling station which is generally inside of the building passes through the foundation walls of the building. It is probable that due to settlement of the tank or to settlement of the building itself, a leaky condition may occur in any gasolene storage system, since the pipe passing through foundation wall of the building is usually tightly cemented in, and in case of the settlement of either tank or building a strain is placed on the pipe, tank or the fittings in pipe, expecially where the pipe is attached to the tank.

Conclusions. This fire and explosion has emphasized some important points in connection with the safeguarding of installations of gasolene storage and filling stations.

  1. —That the storage of gasolene under gravity or pressure head is more hazardous than tanks buried below the lowest floor and depending on suction pumps to remove the gasolene. This tank had a gravity head due to the fact that it was buried under the sidewalk above the level of the basement floor. As a result, gasolene which seeped through the orifice due to the loose connection either through the tank or at the pipe connection thereto, flowed by gravity through the coal chute on to the cellar floor. The fact that a moderate amount of water pressure was put upon the tank and its fittings to force the gasolene out, served to increase the amount of the gasolene leak.
  2. —The gasolene pipe leading from the tank was tightly cemented where it passed through the foundation wall and any unequal settlement of the tank and the building would put a strain on the pipe connection which principally caused the leak in this case. It would therefore seem important to fill in around pipes where they pass through such walls with some flexible material so as to give some allowance for settlement.

New Chief for Kalama, Wash.—M. F. Corrigan has been elected chief of the Kalama, Wash., fire department.

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