Chemical Transport Fire Emphasizes Need for Tighter Safety Regulations

Chemical Transport Fire Emphasizes Need for Tighter Safety Regulations

Burned and broken carboy containers and cartons removed from fire-blackened trailer transport in Dallas, Tex. Note burned trailer, surrounded by transports to muffle an anticipated explosion, and fire fighters with high pressure and low velocity watch lines.Dallas fire fighters removing and overhauling containers of explosive and toxic chemicals following transport fire. Extinguishing task was made difficult by lack of authentic information of van's cargo. Note use of breathing equipment by men inside transport. Twenty-nine firemen required treatment in the operatio

—Dallas F.D. photos

TWENTY-NINE DALLAS, TEX., FIREMEN were sent to a hospital for treatment of inflamed eyes and for observation, after a peculiar occurrence involving chemicals.

On Sunday, June 8, at 1:09 p.m., Engine Company 42 was sent to investigate reported unusual conditions existing in a trailer van parked in the yards of the Central Freight Lines Company. When the company arrived, a strong, sweet odor permeated the area in spite of a 21-mph wind blowing from the south. This strange scent and the wisps of smoke which seeped from the trailer was the reason for the emergency call.

The 32-foot-long trailer van was parked among a long line of trailer transports in one of the Southwest’s largest truck terminals located in a semi-commercial district of the city. Posted around the sides of the big vehicle were signs which read “Danger.” Dull thudding noises from the inside of the van emphasized this point. Terminal employees reported four explosions before Engine 42 arrived on the scene, which was less than three minutes from the time the alarm was received.

As their first act, fire fighters immediately pulled the trailer van into an open drive between rows of trailers to facilitate the fire fighting operations and lessen the exposure hazard. A department radio message calling for a battalion chief was sent while the terminal supervisor went to get the bill of lading at the request of firemen. This document proved of littlehelp in determining how they should proceed. The meager description of the cargo revealed only the fact that the contents were 205 carboys of a flammable liquid with no other specifications. It was obviously an oxidizing material as it bore the red label. The shipment was being made from a chemical firm in New York to a firm in Orange, Tex. No special instructions or any indication of the chemical’s nature that would be of any aid to fire fighters were given on the bill.

While the situation was being sized up—actually a matter of seconds—more muffled reports came from the trailer. The decision to use a high pressure pumper was reached and Engine 11 was called to the scene.

It was now 1:20 p.m. and smoke still issued from the cracks around the door of the vehicle and settled heavily and ominously on the ground. A thin trickle of liquid dripped from the truck body, but no flames accompanied it. Tentative tests with water on the spilled liquid showed no reaction. Following these rough tests, a hole was cut high in the front of the trailer and a high pressure nozzle was inserted. Other trailers were located alongside the stricken van to serve as a cushion and divert the anticipated explosion away from the terminal building and the hundred-odd freightladen trailers in the yard. Explosions which eventuated, some more intense than others, continued to jar the area, but with no apparent increase in either fire or heat, and the truck’s body panels remained intact and the paint unblistered. As the water coursed through the hose lines, the pressure jerked the nozzle out of the hole, A minute later, however, with the nozzle firmly replaced, the pumping proceeded.

The application of water into the trailer had an immediate effect, and the explosions partially subsided. Success with the initial hose line led to the application of a second nozzle which was introduced in the side at the rear of the trailer. When this line came into play, all the threatening noises ceased.

During these tense moments, in an effort to gain additional data on the transport’s cargo, the terminal manager had telephoned the firm in Orange, Tex. Information from the firm’s chemist confirmed the fears of terminal and fire force personnel, while justifying the fire fighters’ speedy actions. It was disclosed that the 205 carboys contained a highly flammable liquid possessing highly toxic properties and subject to violent explosion.

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The decision to use quantities of water had already been followed, but the advice to stay away from the burning chemical had to be ignored if the blaze was to be quelled. By this time the deputy chief had arrived and taken charge of operations. He ordered the rear doors opened and the cargo flooded. In this operation the big lines were supplanted by small hand lines using 1 1/2-inch low pressure fog nozzles. Gas masks were necessary to allow the firemen to perform the overhaul of the damaged freight. The toxicity of tlie liquid had been recognized from the first and demand-type masks were placed in use.

Although the way bill listed 205 carboys, it said nothing of the chemical being of two different types. Even the chemist knew nothing of the cargo being mixed. One hundred sixty carboys contained the chemical “75 per cent T— Butyl Peracetatc with Benzene. The labels for this material read “Extremely flammable liquid, harmful poison, store in cool place (not over 100° F.) and protect from direct raps of the sun.” None of these carboys was damaged by the fire, but of the 45 remaining containers which held an unidentified liquid, only three remained intact. This was not discovered until the truck was unloaded, which operation was carried out under cover of a water spray for safety.

Further conversation with the chemist disclosed the fact that this unknown chemical, also used in the manufacture of plastics, was even more hazardous than the other and was to be kept at temperatures below 70° F. The three undamaged bottles which had not been shattered by the heat or the explosions, were taken to the city dump because the liquid had become discolored, and there destroyed. Observers reported that this set blaze, fed by the chemical, was quite intense, producing clouds of smoke.


The post-fire discussion brought out several factors bearing on this incident:

The chemicals were used in the manufacture of plastics and should not have been shipped in the same van.

  1. The highly dangerous carboys were supposed to be kept under 70° F. and verbal orders had been given to this effect. (When the 45 carboys had last been cooled, was not disclosed.)
  2. The trailer was a metal-top, uninsulated, non-refrigerated van and had been in the parking lot since the day before, in temperatures up to 95° F.
  3. A strange odor (most likely from the burned carboys) was noticed Saturday night, the 7th, but not being located, it was ignored.

The fire post-mortem, in turn, led to the conclusion that the shipment of dangerous flammables should be more rigidly controlled, both in interstate and intrastate commerce. It is the opinion of several veteran fire fighters who reviewed the case, that special instructions for safe handling and fire fighting of such hazardous materials should be carried somewhere on the bill of lading and posted on the outside of the trailer. Unusual precautions, like refrigerating, should also be made a part of the cargo record and responsibility for this undertaking should be noted.

Trailers like this, carrying such dangerous cargoes, are part of the scene in almost every American city of size. They come and go with little remaining to record their passage—unless it be the scars and debris remaining after an explosion or holocaust. The cargoes are vital to our defense, to our progress and to our way of life. Just as necessary are the means and the information to keep these cargoes routed to a safe destination and not to the focal point of a disaster such as the one described.

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