Four-Alarm Fire at Chemical Plant Causes Decontamination Problems

Four-Alarm Fire at Chemical Plant Causes Decontamination Problems


Fire apparatus along U.S. Route 1 (bottom) drafted from the canal when hydrant supplies proved inadequate. Only one narrow road, just behind elevating platform, led to plant.

A four-alarm fire at a chemical plant in Lawrence Township, N.J., included a series of explosions that ripped the roof off one building and sent a column of black smoke so high that it was visible for 10 miles. Several hundred nearby residents were evacuated to avoid potentially toxic fumes.

During the attack by fire fighters, disputes arose with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New Jersey State Police over who was in charge of the scene.

Lawrence Township, located just north and bordering the state capital at Trenton, occupies 20 square miles and has a population of 32,000. The eastern edge of the township along Alternate U.S. 1 is a heavy commercial area. A bit farther east, along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, are a pair of chemical plants dealing in hazardous materials.

Fire protection is furnished by three fire companies: Slackwood Fire Company, Lawrence Road Fire Company and the Lawrenceville Fire Company. Each unit operates independently in its area under its own chief. Each company has three pumpers. Slackwood is equipped with an 85-foot elevating platform and Lawrenceville with a 100-foot ladder.

The fire broke out at the Saturn Chemical Company, located at 1600 New York Ave. in an industrial section adjacent to Route 1, at 2:32 a.m. last Aug. 21.

Familiar location

After the alarm was transmitted, Dale Robbins, second assistant chief of first-due Slackwood company, saw the towering column of black smoke while he was en route to the station. He correctly surmised that the fire was at the Saturn Chemical Company. The plant was no stranger to the fire fighters. They have been to three major blazes at this location in the past seven years, which prompted Chief Rudy Fuessel of Slackwood to prepare an extensive mutual-aid plan.

Robbins immediately ordered both the Lawrence Road and Lawrenceville companies to respond. Upon receipt of the alarm via radio, according to the plan, neighboring Hamilton Township automatically dispatched one pumper.

Saturn Chemical produces resins and thinners for industrial and commercial paints. Within the plant were 27 tanks for the storage of mineral spirits, xylene, styrene, vinyl toluene and butyl acrylate—all ingredients for a potential disaster. Adjoining the plant to the south was the Hydrocarbon Research, Inc. plant with two 125-foot-high cracking units. Hundreds of drums of flammable hydrocarbons were stored in the yard directly adjacent to the fire.

Access and water problems

The location posed problems of access and water supply for arriving fire fighters. Only one narrow road led directly to the fire. Slackwood’s first-due engine went directly to the Saturn Chemical yard and hooked up to a hydrant, only to find there was not enough water to supply it. Robbins ordered the firstdue Lawrence Road pumpers to lay in with 4 and 3-inch lines from a hydrant approximately 1000 feet from the fire. Slackwood’s second pumper was to hook up to a street hydrant. Lawrenceville, commanded by Chief Earl Wilbur, also laid in with a 4-inch line approximately 1500 feet to a 10-inch water main on New York Ave.

Robbins directed his aerial platform into the yard to operate directly on the fire and had Prospect Heights’ ladder pipe placed in service to cool the barrels in the yard of the Hydrocarbon Company. Wilbur also positioned Lawrenceville’s 100-foot ladder in the rear of the yard to protect exposed tanks.

Water supply officer

Assistant Chief James Yates of Lawrence Road set up two pumpers along New York Ave. and had a deluge gun from one pumper play on the involved tanks at Saturn. Yates also was designated by Robbins to be the water supply officer.

When Hamilton Fire Company arrived on U.S. 1 to draft from the canal directly beside the road, Chief Don Kanka called for Hamilton’s ladder in order to place a ladder pipe in operation. Kanka then called for mutual aid from the Enterprise Fire Company, Colonial Fire Company and Rusling Hose’s ladder, as well as additional assistance from the Hamilton Fire Company.

Slackwood requested West Trenton’s aerial platform and Penning Road’s hose wagon with 2000 feet of 4-inch hose. Orders were to draft from the canal and operate ladder pipes across the area onto the exposed tanks. Responding units also stretched 4-inch lines across 6-inch girders spanning the 35-foot-wide, 6foot-deep body of water. Deluge guns were carried across the narrow span of girders and a line was laid across to supply Lawrenceville’s ladder.

This operation resulted in a complete shutdown of U.S. 1 in both directions. Fire fighters faced a fire in 12 8000gallon-capacity tanks that had been in a corrugated metal building. The building was destroyed in a blast before the arrival of any of the fire companies. Robbins’ main concern in addition to controlling the fire was the protection of 13 tanks of solvents just 30 feet from the main fire, and a 75X200-foot shed 50 feet to the north containing hundreds of 55-gallon drums of product.

Outside interference

The New Jersey Division of Environmental Protection (DEF) under Paul Giradina, director of health management, responded from nearby Trenton. DEP hampered the operation by refusing to allow the owners of the plant into the fire area. This was of serious concern to Robbins and Fuessel because the owners were the only people in a position to advise the fire fighters as to what hazards were involved.

The DEP personnel also ordered fire fighters to set up deluge guns and then get “out of the area,” an order which the chiefs refused to obey.

Samples of air taken by DEP showed the presence of hydrogen cyanide, a dangerous poison, and xylene and styrene, both suspected carcinogens. However, Giradina was able to determine that all of these were at less than half of the levels considered dangerous.


Lawrence Township Civil Defense Director John Kubilewiz ordered the evacuation of that portion of the township east of Alternate U.S. 1 as a precaution against potentially deadly fumes and the possibility of a major explosion. Police evacuated about eight blocks of residents who were directed to the Slackwood Fire station as an evacuation center. They were allowed to return to their homes about 5 p.m.

Companies approaching from the west could not reach the canal to draft, and hydrants in the immediate area had sparse supplies. Water Liaison Officer Yates, in attempting to solve the water problem, directed Prospect Heights to lay 900 feet each of 3 and 2 ½-inch line in relay with the DeCou Fire Company, which laid a 4-inch line 1000 feet to a hydrant located on a 16-inch main on the west side of Alternate U.S. 1.

This resulted in the complete shutdown of both U.S. 1 and Alternate U.S. 1, and created a major traffic problem in the area for the New Jersey State Police, Lawrence Township and Trenton Police, Mercer County Sheriffs Department and the Mercer County Fire Police.

Police issue orders

At one point, the New Jersey State Police “ordered” Fuessel to shut down the operation on U.S. 1 to relieve the traffic jam, another order with which the chief refused to comply. When Fuessel declared the fire under control at 4:35 p.m., U.S. 1 was reopened to traffic.

Mercer County Airport dispatched its fo|im unit to the fire but it was not placed in service because its approach was blocked by early arriving pumpers. Hamilton Township’s hazardous material response team was on,location and stood by in proximity suits, but their services were not required.

Numerous mutual-aid companies covered vacated stations in the area, with the City of Trenton sending a pumper to the Slackwood station.

Slackwood remained on the scene until 11:35 p.m. Later Slackwood discovered it had lost 1000 feet of 4-inch hose, 1200 feet of 3-inch and 600 feet of 1 ¾ -inch hose which could not be reclaimed, as well as 25 pairs of boots and nine Nomex coats that had to be destroyed. They had a major clean-up job to do on their apparatus, as did other responding companies.

Three fire fighters were treated for smoke inhalation. They were the only injuries reported.

Plant owners estimated their loss at $2 million. The owner stated the plant would be rebuilt on its present location. DEP representatives emphasized that more stringent construction and chemical handling standards would be required before a permit for a new plant would be issued.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Fire fighters and a westerly wind kept fire from the open storage shed (right) containing 300 drums Of finished product

—photos by Warren Kruse, Trenton Times.

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