Fatal Tanker Collision Sparks Destructive Fire
But cooperative fire fighting plan functions to save crossroads community from major catastrophe
VENICE, OHIO (population about 300), is located nine miles southwest of Hamilton in Butler County at the intersection of U. S. By-Pass 50 and U. S. 27. Like thousands of similar communities, Venice (named Ross on the maps and postal records) has no industries and its few stores and business establishments are clustered around the highway junctions.
The village lias no domestic water supply system, or fire hydrants, although it maintains a fire department of about 40 volunteers and operates a 500-gpm pumper and water tanker. Its fire station is located on Route 27, a block from the intersection of Routes 50 and 27. The community has electric and telephone service, but no fire alarm boxes.
In August 1955, the Butler County Association, which embraces both paid and volunteer forces, presently headed by Chief Kent Shoemaker of Oxford, organized the County Mutual Aid Program. The move was spearheaded by the late James Ovcrley, plant protection supervisor of the Champion Paper and Fibre Co. and fire coordinator for the Butler County Civil Defense Corps. Fire Chief George L. Schlotterbeck of Hamilton, served as its first president.
Under this mutual aid plan, all of the fire departments in the county, large and small, combine to provide mutual aid to any stricken community. The disaster which struck Venice was the first major test of the organization, which includes 26 fire departments with a total of 847 men and 77 vehicles. Only two of these departments are full-paid organizations.
At approximately 3:40 p.m. on July 30, a tractor-tanker owned by the Gulf Refining Co., heading northward on Route 128 (By-pass U. S. Route 50), collided with a passenger car proceeding northwestward on Route 27. It is said the driver of the latter vehicle, Adolph Woodrey, 82, apparently drove through a red light at the intersection where U. S. Route 27, 128 and Ohio 126 join Layhigh Road. At any rate, the tank truck driver Albert Koewler swerved his heavy vehicle but struck the smaller one and capsized.
The tank truck was reportedly the most modern type and was built in 1955. It included all approved safety devices. It carried a full load of 7,000 gallons of gasoline located in six campartments at the time of the crash. Following the impact, as the truck turned on its side the compartment lids swung open, and some 4,000 gallons of the fuel drained into the street and flooded the intersection, including Woodrey’s passenger car w’hich was partly crushed. It was disclosed later that the tanker’s compartment covers were not fastened securely at the time of the crash.
Koewler jumped from his truck as it went over and suffered only a minor head injury. Woodrey, although he managed to escape from his auto, was caught by the flareup w hen the gasoline spillage ignited and was burned to death. It is said that the vapors were touched oft by sparks from fallen power lines brought down by the collision.
Within seconds the intersection became a flaming cauldron, involving a filling station, a restaurant, a cafe and bar, several homes and a number of automobiles. The flames also cut off power fines and some 300 telephones in the area. Fortunately, all persons in the immediate vicinity of the accident were able to escape, although a few who were trapped in some structures had to be rescued from the unexposed sides. A number of motor cars were driven from the service station, but five parked cars were destroyed or badly damaged by the intense heat and flames.
Aid comes quickly
As the flaming fuel flowed south down Route 128 carrying with it destruction for more than 450 feet, searing buildings, cars, power and phone poles and trees as it went, fire alarms were turned in by an 18-year-old youth and a bartender.
The boy ran the 50 yards to the fire station while the bartender managed to get a phone call through. Another witness called the county sheriff’s office and shouted, “Send every, piece of fire fighting equipment you can find.” The sheriff put through the calls for aid, one of the first being to the Hamilton Department.
The city’s fire headquarters received the call at 3:55 p.m. and Chief George Schlotterbeck immediately dispatched Engine 2 from the municipal building, which arrived at the scene approximately 12 minutes later. The chief, who accompanied his force, together with Deputy Chief Willard Gillespie, Assistant Chief Ralph Lenehan, Captains Ketterer and Stoeckel and three firemen, found two volunteer companies already working on the exposures when he arrived. These included six buildings, a large cafe, two large dwellings, the gasoline service station, a grocery store and a night club and dance pavilion; also six automobiles, the tanker and other property.
The Hamilton unit was the first to pull in equipped with foam to go to work on the tanker itself. Chief Schlotterbeck ordered his crew to operate on the heart of tire fire, using 3 per cent liquid foam, with three Rockwood proportioned. The tanker fire was brought under control within 20 minutes. There still remained 2,000 gallons of gasoline in the tank truck and this was later transferred to another tanker, after which the compartments were purged with foam to prevent reignition.
An immediate and pressing problem for the incoming fire fighters—aside from the possible saving of life—was water supply. As there is no water system in the village, it was necessary to transport all water used in extinguishing the fire in tankers, except of course, the supplies contained in the booster tanks of pumpers.
This water was secured from the Meadowbrook swimming pool about three-quarters of a mile distant. One pumper and a portable pump were stationed at the pool to keep the tankers supplied. High pressure awl low velocity fog, foam (it is interesting to note that only three of the 30 and more incoming units were equipped for such operation) and straight streams were employed to gain control of the threatening situation.
The press and witnesses agree that the entire extinguishing operation was handled with remarkable skill and speed. Chief Schlotterbeck in his report to FIRE ENGINEERING says: “Enough praise cannot be given the Butler County Fire Association for the way the mutual aid plan operated. At one time we had 32 pieces of equipment on the scene working with very little confusion, and in a very’ professional manner. Without this aid the Village of Venice, Ohio, would have been destroyed.”
Fire forces answering the calls for aid included Hamilton, Fairfield City, I’ airfield Township, Oxford, Ross, New Baltimore, Miamitown, Liberty, City View Heights, Reily, Overpeck, Seven Mile, Dunlap, South Middletown, Middletown, Millville, Williamsdale, South Madison, Mayfield, Hooven, Trenton and Whitewater, Ind.
Industries send aid
Assistance was also dispatched by the Champion Paper and Fibre Co., Armco Steel Corp. and National Lead Co. These firms sent oxygen and resuscitation and rescue equipment as well as fire fighting equipment and personnel. In addition, officers of the Butler County Sheriff’s Department. Hamilton Police Department, State Highway Patrol combined with township constables and personnel from Fairfield City, Hamilton County and other nearby communities to maintain order. Also, the units of the Hamilton Chapter American Red Cross set up canteen and relief stations. An emergency hospital was improvised in the rear of the Venice Pavilion to treat stricken firemen and others. Eight fire fighters were injured, most of them treated for smoke poisoning.
Property loss estimates ran as high as $150,000. Destroyed or badly damaged were the Venice Castle, a restaurant (along with adjoining seven-room residence); the L. & D. Service Station; the seven-room residence of Mrs. Ida Lohr and a large residence of Mrs. Ada Buell. Less severely damaged were the Venice Pavilion ami several other structures which suffered burns from sparks and blisters from radiated heat. Also, five automobiles. exclusive of the tanker and the car of the victim, were totally or partially burned.
Fire companies converging on the scene of the disaster encountered increasing traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, as the news of the trouble was flashed throughout the countryside. Many workers coming off shift from factories in the area and excited residents of the village helped swell the throngs which in the early stages interfered with fire fighting operations. It was not until ropes were set up and sufficient law and order personnel were on hand to control the crowds that order was restored.
Radio and TV reports were quickly forthcoming, crews being sent out from Hamilton and Cincinnati at the first flash of the holocaust. These, together with the heavy pall of smoke that rose high in the sky in the early stages and the noise of responding fire forces, helped incite the curiosity seekers to take off for Venice.
This incident, occurring as it did in a typical American crossroad community under nonnal conditions of time, weather and traffic, offers food for several pertinent observations:
- This is a type of disaster to which every community, however small, is subject wherever such flammable cargoes are permitted to travel busy thoroughfares.
- Such incidents can and frequently do create hazards to life and property’ with which local disaster forces are totally unequipped to cope.
- Only participation in an organized mutual aid or disaster plan is insurance against such emergencies developing into full-scale conflagrations.
- Every fire department should be provided with foam and other facilities for fighting Class B fires such as eventuate with highway and aircrash accidents.
- Mutual aid plans should include provision for modem radio communication facilities for dispatching and relocating fire forces, and for their direction to the fire ground.
- Predetermined procedures of command, and centralization of communications and information concerning disaster facilities (inventories of personnel and equipment) are essential.
- Inventories should include locations of available water supplies and every effort should be made to develop such supplies in all vulnerable areas.