Explosion in natural gas plant burns eight Ventura County firemen
RUPTURE of a 12-inch wet natural gas line caused a violent explosion and burned eight Ventura County, Calif., fire fighters, four seriously, last January 21. This blast was preceded by an earlier one at 1:05 a m., resulting in a fire that caused estimated damage between $130,000 and $150,000.
The plant, a $10,000,000 installation of the Pacific Lighting Gas Supply Company, is approximately one mile north of the City of Ventura in School Canyon. The area is known as the Avenue Oil Field District and is protected by the Ventura County Fire Department.
The fire was apparently caused by rupture of below-ground piping of an outlet header for three Shell Oil Company absorption towers which are located on Pacific’s property. The absorbers are cylindrical, approximately 5 feet in diameter and 50 feet high. They contain absorption oil, and serve to extract impurities from natural gas as it is pumped through them under pressure. Fed by oil released by the damaged absorbers, the fire continued to burn sporadically for some 15 hours in a crater created beneath the towers by the initial explosion.
Radiant heat spreads fire
Damage included the partial burning of three of four large wooden, induced-draft cooling towers, which were set afire by the heat radiated from the absorbers, more than 100 feet away. Before the fire was brought under control, eight county engine companies and two water tankers with a complement of 50 fire fighters had joined the battle.
Ventura County Fire Station No. 24 received a telephone call at 1:05 a m., reporting the fire. The company, under command of Captain C. D. Miller, responded at 1:07. En route, Miller advised headquarters by radio and requested the response of two additional engines and notification of Battalion Chief Kenneth Ayers.
Arriving at the scene at 1:12 a.m., Engine 24 faced a flowing oil fire. The flaming fuel, originating at the burning absorption towers, was running along a roadside gutter and, following natural drainage, flowed within 30 feet of the main compressor buildings and offices.
More help called
Captain Miller immediately requested the response of three more engines. The flames had now reached a point 600 feet below the absorbers, setting fire to dense brush along one side of the roadway and at the same time creating a severe exposure problem to the plant buildings on the other side. The flowing fire also prevented equipment from using the roadway which led to the area of the burning absorption and cooling towers.
The initial attack was centered on the gutter fire, at the same time providing protection for the exposed buildings. Water for the first-in companies was supplied by 1 ½-ineh yard hydrants. These produced considerable pressure, but lacked the volume required for effective attack on the raging fire. After about 15 minutes work the fire was nearly contained at this point and partially extinguished.
By this time Battalion Chief Kenneth Ayers had arrived and directed an incoming engine to proceed past the controlled gutter fire to a position near the fourth and only nonburning cooling tower. Beneath this was located a reservoir containing approximately 1,000,000 gallons of water used in the cooling operation of the towers. Hard suction hose was lowered into the reservoir and by drafting water, two large hose streams were brought into service in the area of the main fire. One of these was directed on the burning cooling structures while the other set up a protective curtain between the raging absorber fire and adjacent exposed facilities. Smaller hand lines supplied from the drafting engine %vere also pressed into service, playing cooling water fog on exposures and backing up the crews manning the heavier hose streams. After about one hour of fire fighting and the placing of additional engines around the main fire area, several lines had advanced to within about 60 feet of the base fire at the absorbers.
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NATURAL GAS EXPLOSION
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At 2:02 a.m., approximately one hour after the initial fire had started, a 12-inch wet natural gas line passing behind the absorber units and located above ground apparently weakened from the intense heat.
Gas companies had shut off the flow af gas through this pipe soon after the fire started. However, the shut-off valves were several miles apart and residual wet gas remained in the line between the closed valves. With the line unbled, the gas was still under pressure.
A violent explosion
The intense heat increased this pressure and the line ruptured with a violent explosion, knocking six firemen off their feet and momentarily engulfing them in a huge ball of flame. Rocketing away from the downed men, the pipe ripped loose from a connection approximately 100 feet below the rupture and, like a giant blowtorch, seared an area where County Fire Chief B. B. Haggard and Chief Ayers were standing, directing the fire fighting. The two officers received minor hand burns as they turned to retreat from the searing heat.
Chief Haggard estimated that in less than 45 seconds the seriously injured firemen were placed in staff sedans and were en route to the hospital. Four of the six firemen were confined to the hospital for several days with second and third-degree burns about the face and hands. The other two received less serious burns, and were released the following day. Both chiefs remained at the fire scene.
Chiefs Haggard and Ayers hastily reorganized crews dispersed by the explosion and the fire was brought under control within 30 minutes after the explosion. Chief Haggard later described the fire as “one of the worst in the history of the Ventura County Fire Department.”
Mop-up activities continued throughout the morning with one engine being held until late afternoon. This company was given the task of displacing gasoline in a 4-inch line passing below the burned absorption towers. This was unearthed by the initial explosion and for a time it was feared that it too might rupture, adding to the fire its highly flammable contents. The gasoline was moved from the fire area by pumping water through a valve opening a short distance from the absorbers.