Cleveland Fire Department Reports on East Ohio Gas Disaster
Supplemental Revised Information on Causes, Losses and Fire Department Operations
THE task of totaling up the losses in dead, injured and property in Cleveland’s East Ohio Gas Company tragedy is about completed and little remains to complete the history of the unusual disaster but the final formal reports of the numerous investigating agencies.*
The first such report—and the one in which readers of FIRE ENGINEERING will no doubt be most interested, is that of the Cleveland Fire Department made through its Bureau of Fire Education, Emmet H. Byrne, Battalion Chief, Commanding.
Chief Byrne’s report is published almost in its entirety, even though it reiterates certain particulars in our initial account of the disaster.**
Initial Fire Department Operations
Report from Captain A. Balder of Engine Co. No 19 who was on duty in quarters about A mile in a Southwesterly direction from the center of the fire said that their attention was attracted by a strong wind which rattled the windows in their quarters and seemed to shake the building. They immediately ran outside and were met by a blast of hot air and could see flames up over the tops of the buildings between them and the fire.
He went back inside, called the Fire Alarm Office and told the operator to pull Box 1346 at East 55th St. and St. Clair Ave., and make a 2-2 Alarm to the box. The Company started to leave quarters, but the fire had traveled so fast he stopped the apparatus in front of quarters, went back in and tried to contact the Fire Alarm Office again. The time box was turned in at 2:43 P. M. Signal 2-2 at 2:45 P. M.
By this time every fire alarm box in the area of a mile or two was turned in and telephone calls were swamping the Office causing considerable confusion and some delay in his being able to contact the Fire Alarm Office again. He finally made contact and ordered a 5-5 Alarm turned in and gave instructions for directing the responding companies to proper locations to fight the fire. Time of Signal 5-5 was at 2:46 P. M.
The company then left quarters and responded in a Northerly direction to a location on East 55th St. as close to the fire as possible. By this time Chief Officers and other companies were arriving on the scene. Calls were sent in for additional help and the companies present were placed at strategic locations attempting to stop the spread of the fire.
The Second Flash
About 20 minutes after the first flash, a second flash went up apparently from the second tank when it ruptured, sending tremendous heat waves, flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the air. There was no loud report of an explosion, just a terrific rush of flame, hot gases and smoke.
This flame and hot gases spread in all directions. The outside edges of the rich gas mixture in the center of the gas concentration would ignite upon reaching the proper mixture with air and burn so rapidly that it was continually spreading to, and, dissipating the heavier concentration of gas in the center with air. This seemed to create a rolling heat wave in all directions. Some of this heat seemed to carry up over buildings close to the fire and then drop down some distance back and ignite buildings some distance away.
When the tanks ruptured, the rock wool insulation became saturated with the liquid gas. The rock wool was scattered all over the area and considerable of it in small pieces was carried by the heat waves long distances from the center of the fire. These pieces acted as fiery torches and landed on building roofs and other combustible material, starting a large number of additional fires. Live sparks and embers were also carried from burning buildings to areas some distance from the fire.
Chemical Plant Threatened
To the Northwest of the tanks were a group of small homes and 75 feet to the West of the last home a chemical plant was located where a considerable amount of dangerous chemicals and gas was stored. The fire extended by radiated heat over a space of about 1,500 to 2,000 feet of vacant area including a wide street and railroad right of way and communicated to these homes. This fire in itself was a major fire and companies had to be dispatched to fight it and keep it from reaching the chemical plant.
The U. S. Coast Guard Fire Boat C. G. 64022 F, under command of Commander James, DCGO (PS), Lieut. Kretchmar COTP and Chief Engineer C. R, Hoskins, CBM was pressed into service and under direction of the Fire Department Officers did some very efficient work in assisting in keeping this fire from reaching the chemical plant.
This fire had gained tremendous headway before the City Department was able to get companies to work on it. Houses on both sides of the street were burning fiercely, high tension electric wires were down, blocking the street and necessitating exceptionally long hose layouts to reach the fire. The Fire Boat was located about 2,500 feet from the fire, they laid out 2,000 feet of 21/2″ line and wyed 2 lines from that, one 600 feet and one 500 feet and with 3/4″ nozzles and 150 pounds engine pressure they had 2 very good streams.
* Hearings have been completed, and tentative conclusions reached by the investigating committee composed of ten laymen and engineers appointed by Mayor Frank L. J. Lauscher; however, no report has been released at this writing. The National Board of Fire Underwriters advised that a complete report is in preparation to be released in December.
** See original account in November, 1944 FIRE ENGINEERING.
This tire was stopped before reaching the chemical plant.
In the area South of the tanks, gas accumulations in various sewers, in underground electrical conduits, wellholes. basements, buildings, or other depressions were continually exploding, blowing manhole covers many feet in the air, blowing up pavement all over the area, rupturing water lines, sewers, electric service, blowing out hundreds of plate glass windows and residence windows, partially demolishing some and completely demolishing other buildings causing many fires and injuring many people including 26 firemen, none of whom was injured seriously. Manhole covers were blown out of manholes as far away as 3,500 feet.
These gas accumulations in the sewers would become ignited in some way: they would start with a sudden hiss, then a rush of flame and hot gases would come from the manhole, followed in a very few seconds by a terrific report of an explosion underground which seemed to ignite all the gas accumulated in that area, buildings and all. These explosions were happening very often.
One of these explosions blew up the pavement under a fire department pumper putting it and the fire hydrant it was connected to out of service.* Several minutes later a second explosion occurred in the same location blowing a crater in the street 25 feet deep 30 feet wide and about 60 feet long. The pumper is about 25 feet long; it dropped into the hole, rear end first and the front end was even with the street level. The force of the explosion broke a big hole in a large intercepting sewer, ruptured the water supply and underground electric system.
One Half Square Mile Area Involved
An area approximately 1/2 mile square (160 acres) was directly involved by propagation of the heat although we have reports from people who were at least 1/2 mile distant from the seat of the fire in several directions who felt the heat so intensely that they had to move further away.
An area approximately million square feet. 29 acres, was completely gutted, consuming everything combustible including factory buildings, homes, automobiles, public utilities equipment, even destroying or damaging fire hydrants, railroad cars and steel rails.
This fire was handled in about the only effective way a fire of this type could be handled, by placing first line companies as close to the fire as possible, surrounding it to keep it from spreading. Second line companies were put to work on fires that had gained considerable headway in the surroundings outside the area. Third line companies, auxiliary firemen and volunteers were dispatched with apparatus and extinguishers to take care of fires that had started some place in the neighborhood from embers, etc., to cover exposures and to assist wherever needed.
Caution had to. be used so as not to extinguish burning gas from open pipes or other sources allowing accumulations that would cause additional explosions.
•See illustration in November FIRE ENCINEEEINC.
Photo Courtesy “Gas Age”
It was also necessary to detail firemen to direct volunteer searching parties to visit the many buildings in the area looking for bodies. Many were found in a very bad state and were removed by fire, police and military personnel that night (Friday, Oct. 20th).
Up to this writing the board of inquiry into the cause of the East Ohio Gas Co., fire of October 20th, 1944, have been unable to determine the cause of the fire or the cause of the rupture of the first cylindrical tank.
Much testimony has been given by persons who were working for the Gas Co. (or in the adjacent laboratories) a few of whom were near the tanks and lucky enough to escape and from others in a neighboring plant who happened to be looking toward the tanks when they noticed frost clouds flowing along the ground around the bottom of the tank just before the fire started. These persons who were 800 or more feet away warned other workers in the office to leave at once.**
Before they could leave by the front door the fire had started, the heat had reached their building and they all had to jump from windows on the side of the building away from the fire. They all escaped but they had to run for their lives. Several were scorched but not seriously. This building was a well constructed brick and concrete 2 story building but was damaged considerably.
Many theories have been advanced by technical experts as to the cause of the inner tank rupturing, the one most generally heard attributing it to the extreme low temperature (250 degrees F. below zero) under which the gas was stored. This made the metal of the tanks as brittle as glass and the vibrations of the ground caused by heavy trains going by and by hea_____ hammers in the industrial plants nearby, caused the metal to crack and open up, releasing the contents which vaporized and burned with explosive speed and force, completely demolishing the cylindrical tank first and about 20 minutes later, the spherical tank.
The rock wool insulation (of the cylendrical tank) was carried several hundred feet in all directions; it was more than a foot deep in places and saturated with the gas, it burned for hours like asbestos covering on a gas grate.
Each spherical tank when full, contained liquid gas in the equivalent of 50,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas at normal temperatures and pressures. The cubical contents of the holding spherical tanks is 97,000 cubic feet.
The cylindrical holder contained the equivalent to 90,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas at normal temperatures and pressures and had a cubical content of 176,000 cubic feet.
Both tanks were reported to be filled which means that a total of approximately 273,000 cubic feet, or 2,042,040 gallons of liquid hydro carbon were released.
The natural gas is lighter than air, rating about .61 and the liquid gas is about .4 compared to water.
The weight of the fuel alone in the spherical tank when full was approximately 1,210 tons and in the cylindrical tank, approximately 2,198 tons.
After the fire had been controlled three locomotives were brought to a siding near the tanks and temporary steam lines laid several hundred feet into the regasifying mechanism. After necessary repairs were made the plant was put into operation under this temporary setup, the liquid fuel was regasified and discharged into the city mains, removing this hazard. This work took about a week.
The wiml velocity at no time was greater than 11 miles per hour which was very fortunate for all of us. It was from the North and Northeast, blowing the heat and flames against the 2 remaining tanks which were filled to capacity with liquid gas. This presented a very serious hazard, each tank still containing the equivalent of 50,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas, in a liquid state.
**Editor’s Notr: Testimony thus far reteased by technical investigating bodies tend to confirm the belief that there was a leak in one of the heavily insulated spherical tanks and that this preceded the fire. However, the fact that technicians best qualified to deduce the cause and effect from what they saw of the fire’s start died in the holocaust probably means the true cause will never be known.
Remaining Tanks Threatened
On Sunday, the 2nd day after the fire started and after the fire had been practically extinguished, a smoldering fire was discovered in the cork insulation in one of the remaining spherical tanks. Acting 2nd Assistant Chief, John O’Brien, Assistant Safety Director Louis B. Weinacht with members of Hook & Ladder Company No. 11, Rescue Squad No. 1 and an engineer from the company who constructed the tanks and an engineer from the East Ohio Gas Co., climbed to the top of the tank, removed the manhole cover and discharged the contents of 8 CO’, 15 lb. extinguishers into the space, sealed it up and left it stand.
Cork Still Smoldering Next Day
The following day the cork was still smoldering. Captain Chas. E. Eisenhart and his assistant Thomas White of the Bureau of First Aid with an engineer from the gas plant mounted to the top of the tank, removed the same manhole cover and dropped several hundred pounds of dry ice into the space where the cork was burning.
The following is a summary of the manpower and equipment used and the losses;
27 Engine Companies
7 Hook & Ladder Truck.
2 Rescue Squads.
1 Hose Company.
1 Coast Guard Fire Boat and crew of 20 men.
1 Assistant Chief.
9 Battalion Chiefs.
10 Pieces of Auxiliary Fire Equipment from Industrial plants, etc.
6 pieces of Auxiliary Fire Equipment from other locations.
235 Regular Officers and Firemen on duty.
150 Regular Officers and Firemen off duty reporting back for duty.
125 Auxiliary Firemen reporting.
70 Industrial Fire Brigade members.
86 Hose Lines laid out.
133 persons dead, 67 of which are unidentified, and an unknown number of missing.
Losses arc as follows:
79 Houses totally destroyed.
35 Houses partially destroyed.
2 Factories totally destroyed.
13 Factories partially destroyed.
217 Automobiles totally destroyed.
7 Large Trailers totally destroyed.
1 Large Tractor totally destroyed.
East Ohio Gas Co.; Telephone Co.;
Railroad: Fire Department; Western Union; Cleveland Transit Co.; and Utilities, a combined total loss of all of above, approximately $6,000,000.00.