Fires in Flammable Liquids Swell Life and Property Losses
Current Disasters Involving Processing and Storage of Petroleum Products Emphasize Human Fallibility and Need of Broader Safety Measures
Editor’s Note: Spring, 1948, ushered in a series of disastrous fires, most of them accompanied by explosions, in the field of flammable liquids, particularly the processing, storage and handling of petroleum products.
Two of these fires are of special interest to students of fire control. Both were costly in loss of life and property. Both threatened widespread destruction, located, as they were in an area of concentrated hazards. And both were controlled only after most strenuous efforts of fire fighters, utilizing all the tricks in the firemanship pharmacopoeia.
These two fires, that in the Consolidated Gas Company plant in Everett, Mass., on May 15, and that in the works of the Koppers Coke Company, in Kearney, N. J., on May 17, are described in the following.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Fire Chief William Wandras of the Kearney Fire Department and Asst. Fire Chief Scott of the Everett Fire Department, both of whom were in charge of fire fighting operations on these respective fires, also the cooperation of correspondent Philip M. Cronin for his account and illustrations. Others who kindly contributed source data for this account will no doubt recognize their handiwork.
FIRE, preceded by an explosion, tore through part of the twenty-one acre plant of the Boston Consolidated Gas Co., Everett, Mass., May 15, 1948, killing one man and causing damage variously estimated at from $2 million to $4 million before it was controlled by fire fighters from half a dozen municipalities.
The disaster, worst in Everett since 1928, when nineteen men were killed in the same area, brought to light weaknesses in the fire protection systems in occupancies where hazards are great and resulted in the Everett City government cracking down on several of the largest industrial concerns which come within the protective district of its fire department.
Dehydrator Reported Source of Fire’s Start
Investigation by fire, police and plant officials following the holocaust located the source of the trouble in dehydrator No. 7 in the Dehydration plant, located in almost the exact center of the closely grouped buildings and highly flammable oil and other storage tanks.
It is believed that a ruptured steam line inside No. 7 caused the contents of this unit to be forced through a 10″ overflow line from the 49′ level into the wells and over adjacent property. About 70,000 gals, of tar, light oil and water was scattered over a large area and once the vapors ignited—from a cause not disclosed—a terrific blast followed. This is said to have resulted in a second explosion in one of the nearby sludge tar tanks, which spread the roaring fire rapidly through the three nearby structures and across Rover Street toward the exposed Eastern Gas & Fuel Associates benzol and by-products plants and propane storage tanks.
Serious Exposures Threaten a Vast Conflagration
The Boston Consolidated Gas Co. plant is located in Everett, Mass., a city of Greater Boston, contiguous to Charlestown and separated from it by the estuary of the Mystic River. The plant, which covers an area of approximately 1,000,000 square feet, is situated in about the center of the Everett industrial area and approximately 500 yards from a residential section of South Everett.
The plant is reached through two points of access, one from Rover Street, which borders it on the south, and one from Beacham Street on the west. As is shown on the accompanying diagram, the latter thoroughfare divides the Consolidated plant from the properties of the Colonial Beacon Oil Co., while Rover Street separates the plant from the hazardous installation and storage supplies of Eastern Gas & Fuel Associates. Southeast of the Consolidated properties and separated from them by railroad tracks, are the coke ovens and batteries building of the Eastern Gas & Fuel Associates. To reach the Consolidated installations via Beacham Street, the route is past the Colonial Beacon properties through the Eastern Gas & Fuel plant.
The exposures of this latter company included the benzol plant, measuring approximately 100 feet x 150 feet; the by-products plant, 100 feet x 140 feet, and the group of storage tanks, the total having a reputed value of $20,000,000. The Colonial Beacon properties include a refinery, storage farm and oil loading wharf on the estuary which, at the time of the fire, was occupied by the large tanker S.S. Orville Harden. Oil was being pumped from the tanker to the Beacon Oil Refinery plant. It is said part of the Eastern Gas Associates plant was shut down at the time of the fire, while its tanks were being steamed out. Had this installation become involved, the fire could conceivably have spread through the entire district.
Located north of the Consolidated plant, and within its boundaries, are three large gas holders, with capacities of 5 million, 6 million and 10 million cu. ft. of gas, respectively—the latter said to be the largest gas storage container in the East. These were all less than 600 feet from the fire area. One relief holder having a capacity of 500,000 cu. ft., was located within the burned area and another of 1,000,000 cu. ft. capacity was situated only about 225 feet from the heart of the blaze. West of the heart of the fire, also about 250 feet distant is situated three oil storage tanks with a total capacity of 2,000,000 gals.
The Boston Consolidated Gas Co produces water gas which is the main constituent of household illuminating water gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, is produced by blowing steam over white hot coke; butane, benzene, propane and other highly flammable organic solvents are manufactured there.
Destruction Will Exceed $2,000,000
The fire destroyed or badly damaged installations in an area of over 150,000 square feet. Totally destroyed was the shop building, measuring 30 feet x 80 feet; a brick shed, 40 feet x 80 feet; the brick office and storehouse, 30 feet x 80 feet, and most of the tar dehydrating plant installation, together with . tar processing and tar storage and settling tanks. Six automobiles and a truck also were consumed. Partially destroyed was the laboratory, about 40 feet x 40 feet, and the huge generating plant of approximately 160 feet x 80 feet. This building rising to the height of nearly 8 stories, and valued at $2,000,000, had part of its walls blown out and one end entirely gutted. Damage was also done to gas, steam, water and other pipe installations which honeycomb the area, and to numerous small sheds. The destruction of the small brick supply building is reported to have wiped out the entire company fire equipment.
One life was lost, that of Frank Amata, who was killed when he was blown out of the pump house, where he was on duty to go into action in the event of just such a blast, to prevent the spread of fire. His body was found over two hours later about 20 feet from where the shed had stood and out of which he was lifted by the blast. Four other workers had a narrow escape when they were nearly trapped in the generating plant. They were uninjured. Loss of life would have been much greater were it not for the fact that the disaster occurred late Saturday afternoon when only sixteen men of the normal staff of 130 were on duty.
Explosion Preceded Fire
It was at precisely 5:14 P.M. when an explosion in the Consolidated plant shot a pillar of smoke and flame high in the air and sprayed blazing oil over the main office building, and machine shop and laboratory. These structures were quickly involved and the blazing liquids had spread across the roadway to the benzol plant before the first-due firemen were near the scene.
Photo by Philip Cronin
Photo by Philip Cronin
The initial detonation was heard over a wide area and the flash of the blast was observed on Tufts College Hill, six miles distant. The smoke column was visible a great distance and served to alert fire forces over a wide area, as well as to start a stampede of the curious to the scene.
The Everett Fire Department records the receipt of the first alarm at 4:15 P.M. Five Everett fire companies in charge of Assistant Chief James A. Scott responded. In a report to FIRE ENGINEERING, Chief Scott said that because Box 365, the first one of many received at fire headquarters, was located at the gate of the Colonial Beacon Oil Co. and known as that company’s box, he responded via Beacham street. This brought him in the rear of the Boston Consolidated Gas Company property.
Even before he reached the scene of the fire Chief Scott realized the seriousness of the task facing him and while still en route, notified fire alarm headquarters to strike a third alarm, skipping the second. He says, further, that upon arrival, and after a very quick survey, he was running back to his car to send in a fourth alarm by radio when Boston Fire Commisisoner Russell Codman, Jr., stepped up to him and volunteered the help of six engine companies of the Boston Fire Department: this aid Chief Scott gladly accepted. It is disclosed that Commissioner Codman also found his car radiophone helpful; he received the report of the Everett fire over it and this, coupled with the towering smoke signal, impelled him to respond. This Boston assignment, and the later special calls for additional help, together with the activating of the area’s mutual aid system, made unnecessary a fourth alarm.
According to Chief Scott, the first alarm Everett companies and part of the third alarm assignment responded to the fire by way of the entrance that took them through the Eastern Gas & Fuel Associates plant. The six Boston companies responded via Rover street, which is on the Charlestown-BostonEverett boundary line.
Photo Couretsy Asst. Chief Scott, Everett Fire Department
Photo Couretsy Asst. rmet Scott. Everett Fire Department
By the time the first alarm companies had reached the gate of the plant, the flaming oil was already cascading across Rover street and threatening the tanks of the Eastern Gas & Fuel Associates plant. Flames were involving overhead pipe lines leading to the benzene producing plant and other installations, and radiated heat threatened the huge gas storage tanks at the north end of the Consolidated property.
The initial points of attack, therefore, were upon the flowing fire to the south, and the setting up of protective curtains and streams to hold the fire from the gas storage tanks. A small shed on the Eastern property was already engulfed when Chief Scott began his battle to confine the fire at that point. This operation was successful, and extension was cut off, but at the price of the spread of the fire within the main Consolidated installation itself. It is reported that foam was used in helping control the street fire.
According to Chief Scott, the Consolidated fire hydrants were not used because of the difficulty in reaching them. The 14-inch main along Rover street and the Eastern Gas & Fuel plant line off the city main provided initial source of supply, with pressure at 60 PSI. Once the Rover street hazard was removed, firemen turned their attention to extinguishing the flaming buildings on the Boston Consolidated Gas Co. property. By this time the Boston companies were on the scene. Engine 32 of that department was placed between the Consolidated company’s laboratory and office building where its deck gun did effective work.
Fire in the remains of the old abandoned 1,000,000-gallon relief gas holder (see diagram) gave the fire fighters considerable trouble; so, too, did the flames in the extensive and complicated overhead pipelines carrying gas, and combustibles. Here the municipal firemen were aided by plant workers. The inaccessibility of hydrants in the premises of the Boston Consolidated Gas Co. plant necessitated some long stretches of hose lines and placed a heavy drain on the city water supply system in the neighborhood of the plant. At one time it was reported there was a serious drop in water pressures and at no time was there ample supplies of water available to all the fire forces.
When the fire threatened to spread further toward the River the large Esso tanker S.S. Orville Harden was quicklv moved into the middle of the estuary. Two of Boston’s fireboats were special called and stood by at the Colonial Beacon wharf ready to provide auxiliary water supplies if needed. Meantime, mutual aid assignments from neighboring Somerville, Chelsea, Revere and Malden had moved in to cover empty Everett fire stations. The wisdom of this strategy was attested when these aiding units handled a number of other alarms, two of them being false, during the period before Everett companies were returned to quarters.
Smoke Said to Have Caused Rain Storm!
The weather at the time of the fire was cloudy with intermittent showers. The temperature was 65° F.; wind, northeast at about 20 MPH; barometer, 29.80 inches, steady.
According to press accounts, an unusual phenomenon occurred during the height of the fire. The smoke from the blaze was so dense, weather bureau officials said, that it caused rain in Braintree and Weymouth, nearly fifteen miles away. Rain is formed when moisture in the air collects on small particles such as smoke or dust; when the heavy black column of smoke billowed upward and mixed with the low hanging clouds, rain was precipitated.
According to informed officials including Chief Scott, the conflagration, like so many that have preceded it, was the indirect outcome of concentrating large storages of highly flammable liquids and combustible buildings engaged in hazardous manufacturing occupations within a confined area. Contributing factors, also, are said to have been the narrow, two-lane roadway into the plant; the inadequate water supply in the plant grounds, particularly; the extensive exposure hazards and the policy of fencing in the area.
New Safety Regulations
Following a long conference with Company and fire department officials, Mayor James F. Reynolds of Everett threatened to close down the Eastern Gas & Fuel Associates, Boston Consolidated Gas Co. and the Koppers Tar & Chemical Co. plants unless they complied with new safety recommendations. These included the following:
EASTERN GAS & FUEL ASSOCIATES :
- —A new 20-inch water main to be laid from Second street into its property, connecting with the present Company water system, which is to be revamped in its entirety.
- —A new road to be constructed from East Locust street into the Koppers Tar & Chemical Co. extending through the plant under the trestle, along the front of the coal pocket to the Rover street extension, to the rear of the laboratory building extending along the waterfront into the Mystic Iron Co., with one exit to Rover street.
BOSTON CONSOLIDATED GAS CO.: 1.—A new water system be installed for fire protection only.
2.—A new road be constructed from Beacham street to the main road leading to Rover street.
3.—A new road and all other roads be properly marked as to their destination.
KOPPERS TAR & CHEMICAL CO.: 1.—A new water system be installed for fire protection only, at once.
It was stipulated by the City that if these recommendations are not complied with, the licenses of the beforementioned companies should be revoked.
Chronology of Alarms and Response
4:14 P.M. Box 365, Street box located at Colonial Beacon Oil gate, 1/4-mile from fire. Everett Engs. 1, 2, 3 and Ladders 1, 2; Asst. Chief James A. Scott, Everett.
4:15 P.M Box 363 NSO (not sent out)
4:15 P.M Box 353 NSO
4:16 P.M Box 371 NSO
4:16 P.M Box 37 NSO
4:16 P.M Box 354 NSO
4:16 P.M. Box 372 ADT
4:16 P.M. Box 371 ADT
4:19 P.M Third alarm (second alarm skipped) by radio from car of Asst. Chief Scott, enroute to fire. Everett, Engs. 4, 8: Ladder 3; Somerville Eng. 2; Chelsea, Engs. 2, 4; Ladder 2: Revere, Engs. 3, 4; Malden, Engs. 1, 4; Somerville, Eng. 3.
4:19 P.M. Box 8216, Chelsea, Call to Everett
4:19 P.M. Box 92 Revere, Call to Everett
4:20 P.M. Box 8216 Boston, Call to Everett
4:20 P.M. Box 8, Malden, Call to Everett
4:21 P.M. Box 13-365, Somerville, Call to Everett
4:20 P.M. Boston response direct to fire, Engs. 32, 50, 10, 26, 5. Eng. 50 covering at Central Fire Station; Ladder 22 covering at Hancock Street Station, Everett.
4:25 P.M. Box 21 False alarm (all out 4:32 P.M.)
4:37 P.M. Box 365 Special call, Engs. 23, 31 (boat) 44 (boat) Boston. To fire (boats stood by).
4:50 P.M. Box 365, Special call, Rescue 3, Boston, to fire.
7:33 P.M. Box 327 False alarm (all out, 7:41 P.M.)
Covering apparatus: At Central Station, Everett: Boston Eng. 50, Somerville Ladder 2; Hancock Station, Malden Eng. 3, (Comb. A) Boston Ladder 22. Ferry St. Station, Revere Eng. 5.
There were also two Everett ambulances and one Metropolitan Red Cross ambulance at the scene.
Twenty-five Companies at Fire
Total companies at the fire: 21 Eng. companies (2 boats); 3 Ladder Companies and one Rescue Company. Boston Engine companies all equipped with tenders. Working strength at fire: approximately 250 men, including approximately 50 plant employees.
Everett Suffers Second Serious Fire
Almost before the investigation into the Boston Consolidated Gas Company fire was completed, the City of Everett suffered another serious fire in an installation involving petroleum products.
This fire occurred in the plant of the Triangle Oil Company on Norman at Kelvin Streets, Everett. The Triangle Company processes crank case oil and the fire involved its main building, a two-story wood, metal-covered structure, 180 feet by 30 feet in area.
The hot fire—cause undetermined at this writing, threatened the power substation of the Malden Electric Co, across Kelvin Street, and the large General Electric Company foundry and warehouse buildings, approximately 200 feet distant across Norman Street. Dwellings in the rear of the Triangle plant, located 100 feet south of the company’s stills, were also exposed to radiated heat and flying embers.
As in the Consolidated fire, the mutual aid plan of the area was put to good use, out of town companies locating in empty Everett fire houses.
The alarms and responses were:
10:39 A.M. Box 328
10:42 A.M. Second alarm, by radio to fire alarm headquarters
10:45 A.M. Third alarm by radio to fire alarm headquarters
In operation at the fire: Engines 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 and old No. 4 and Ladders 1 and 2 of Everett. Engines 5 and 32, Boston; Engines 1 and 4, Malden; Engine 2 and Ladder 2, Somerville. A total of 11 Engine and 3 Ladder companies.
The weather was clear; wind west, at 15 MPH. No firemen were seriously injured. Loss is estimated at $20,000.
Photo Courtesy Asst. Chief Scott, Everett Fire Department