BROOKLYN MILL BASIN FIRE
Largest oil blaze in New York since 1919
A RUNNING STREAM of fire fed by a mixture of fuel oil, gasoline and solvents for a time threatened the entire Mill Basin section of Brooklyn with destruction. Beginning on May 10, at about 3:45 p.m., the fire involved storage tanks of the Sinclair Refining Company at Strickland Avenue near Avenue U, and caused burning at the vents of buried tanks in the adjoining Gulf Oil yard. Fortunately, none of the tanks exploded, but liquid fire poured into Mill Basin (a branch of Jamaica Bay), attacked small boats and a Navy patrol boat, and edged slowly toward shore installations until stopped by the fireboats. The New York Fire Department received the alarm at 3:46 p.m. and Box 4137 was transmitted.
The fire originated in a diked trough, 300 feet long, which carried the fill and draw pipes for the 17 Sinclair tanks. It extended from the furthermost tank to the water’s edge passing under a warehouse en route. The trough also branched oft to service a pump house and a truck-loading rack. Workmen, making repairs to the piping between Tanks 1 and 2 reported that gasoline had leaked into the trough and ignited. The fire immediately flashed along the trough to the pump house and the warehouse, completely involving both structures.
Damaged piping then permitted 50,000 gallons of gasoline from Tank 1 and 42,000 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil to run into the trough and add to the already tremendous blaze. The warehouse, which had a dock on one side and a truck-loading platform on the other, held 17,000 gallons of petroleum products in cans and drums, plus about 5,000 gallons of antifreeze. It measures 200 feet by 50 feet and was one story high.
The Gulf Oil Company to the east of the fire was the most hazardous exposure, not only because of its contents and proximity, but because of a stiff wind that was blowing the intense heat directly upon it. This yard contained bunkered storage tanks holding 1 million gallons of gasoline and 16 smaller above-ground tanks separated from the Sinclair yard by a concrete and brick wall. To the north of the fire was a group of new homes which were evacuated to a depth of two blocks by firemen. West of the yard was an open storage area used for piling and other material employed in dock work. The north side was the basin, upon which floating fire threatened a boat marina, a small shipyard, factories and other installations.
Arriving firemen were hampered by a limited water supply. There were only four hydrants in the adjoining streets, and relay operations were put into effect to bring water from the more distant hydrants. Access to areas for drafting water was also limited by waterfront installations and a large open barge that was tied up on the west side of the fire. However, eight companies did find space at the water’s edge and went to work. With the arrival of the fireboats, water was no longer a problem. Land companies went aboard, either to work the boats many stream appliances, or to stretch lines to the shore.
The lieutenant in charge of the first company to arrive sent in a second alarm at 4:02 p.m., and the fire eventually went to an eight alarm when Chief of Department George David sent out a third-alarm borough call to Queens at 4:57 p.m.
Land companies attacked the fire from the three available sides. On Strickland Avenue (south side of the yard), the first engine company went to work with a foam line from a hopper. It eventually supplied three foam lines all directed from as close as possible, into the trough servicing the tanks. Other units set up portable monitors and trucks with ladder pipes were put into operation. In addition, several hand lines were used. On the east side of the fire, five pumpers at draft were used to supply portable monitors, foam lines and the turret pipe of a hose wagon. Hand lines filled out the picture.
On the west side, three pumpers at draft, in addition to pumpers at hydrants, supplied another group of hand lines plus turrets and monitors. While no attack could be made directly on the water side, three companies were sent across the basin, and using foam lines, directed them into the water to stop the advance of the floating fire.
Many of the streams were directed not at the fire, but at the tanks which lined both yards. These cooling streams were mainly responsible for preventing the involvement of these tanks and possible explosions. Probably the toughest position at the fire was the east side, toward which the heat and smoke were pushed by a stiff breeze. However, in spite of the barrage of water and foam that was applied to the flames, the fire would not die down. Inaccessibility on the water side, and the constant supply of fuel from the leaking tanks made the land units’ job almost impossible.
No fireboats are assigned on the box but three were special-called shortly after the fire started, from their berths in the upper harbor. They had an average run of 18 miles bucking adverse tide and wind and were about an hour and a half in arriving. They were still sorely needed when they did arrive. Marine Company 8 (Governor Alfred E. Smith) was the first boat in. The firemen-sailors already had their lines placed and pipes aimed including a bow pipe set up for foam. The boat first tackled the liquid fire that was spewing from beneath the warehouse in an ever-widening crescent; and then moved up the basin to put out fire in small boats and the naval patrol boat. While extinguishing fire in the latter, whose sides were burning furiously, the bow fender of the fireboat caught fire. This was quickly extinguished with a hand line stretched from a turret.
Marine Companies 7 (Wagner) and 9 (Wilks) arrived soon after. The three boats, nosing into the flame, extinguished the fire in the water at the dock’s edge and eventually in the warehouse. Marine 8 at one time was using a bow pipe supplying 3,500 gallons of foam per minute, a 3-inch monitor, four 2-inch monitors, plus three hand lines to augment land supplies. Marine 9 had almost the same setup as 8, and Marine 7 used a 3-inch valve pipe, and two pilot house monitors. While fire officials anxiously watched the tanks in both fuel yards, the fire began to darken down, but not until three hours after its start was it officially declared under control.
The fire attracted thousands of spectators who had to be ordered away for their own safety by the police. Damage was estimated at more than a million dollars. It is said this was the largest fire of its type in New York City since the Standard Oil Co. blaze at Greenpoint in September 1919.