Fumes Threaten Many in Puerto Rico Chemical Fire
In terms of dollar loss the fire did not amount to much. But in its lethal possibilities and the punishment given fire fighters, a recent blaze in the Hato Key district of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is worth recording.
The fire started from an unknown cause in a large warehouse on O’Neill Street, occupied by the Import-Export Corp. It originated in a small attached frame structure in which were stored tanks, drums and cylinders of chlorine and ammonia.
The alarm was received by the fire department about noon and three fire companies responded. The Hato Rey station is only a few blocks distance, but by the time its crew arrived, the storage section was heavily involved and toxicfumes were invading the area.
Chief Ulises Velizquez who responded with the first assignment, immediately summoned additional forces from the central station in Santurce. Twenty firemen participated in the brief but gruelling struggle.
Several 2 1/2-inch and 1 1/2-inch lines were brought to play on the fire but at the outset fire fighters were forced back by the heavy concentration of ammonia and chlorine fumes. Six firemen including Chief Antonio Rivera Ruiz from the central station and a corporal were overcome and hospitalized in the action. Also hospitalized was an occupant of a house next to the warehouse who was unable to escape before being overcome. Twelve other persons were affected by the fumes and gases.
With an entire residential area to leeward of the warehouse threatened, firemen and police ordered evacuation of all exposed residents within a several block area.
Witnesses told firemen and police that three consecutive explosions were heard about the time the fire started. The fire quickly consumed the combustible material in the storage section and burned through a heavy connecting door into the main building which was heavily stocked with fertilizer, building materials and other combustibles.
Prompt action by firemen in the warehouse stopped this extension before serious damage was done. Streams of water and water fog were directed on the unexploded chemical containers to reduce the pressures which threatened to burst many of them. These included 55 large yerbicide tanks, 10 chlorine and 20 ammonia cylinders and drums of other chemical products.
—Photograph by “El Imparcial”
With the danger of toxic fumes removed, residents were permitted to return to their homes. Each house was visited by firemen and the occupants instructed to open all doors and windows to air out the interiors. This was necessary because people had closed up their homes for fear of an explosion.
The president of the Import-Export Corp. requested an investigation into the cause of the fire, which was undertaken by the fire and police departments.
Fire Chief Raul Gandara, who heads the Puerto Rico Fire Service, responded and directed final overhaul operations. He credited the department’s modern respiratory protective equipment worn by firemen with enabling crews to press their attack on the dangerous blaze.