Mutual Aid at Acetylene Fire
Punctuated by a series of explosions, a general-alarm fire at the acetylene plant of the Burdett Oxygen Company in Upper Merion Township, Pa., gave fire officers anxious command moments and proved the value of mutual aid.
At 11 p.m. last March 6, several phone calls alerted the Upper Merion Police-Fire Central Headquarters to an explosion and fire at the Burdett Company on Yerkes Road. In this Montgomery County township, which is protected by three volunteer fire companies, all industrial fires are automatic general alarms.
As firemen and police were responding, they saw the flames and heard the explosions. One of the first at the scene was Upper Merion Police Officer Carl DeHaven, who witnessed several explosions. One employee was injured and was taken for treatment to Sacred Heart Hospital in Norristown.
First lines stretched
The Swedeland Fire Company, in whose district the fire occurred, responded with two 1000-gpm pumpers and one 750-gpm pumper. The pumpers stretched 2 1/2-inch hose lines to a hydrant on Holstein Road, 600 feet away, and another on Schooline Drive, 1100 feet away. The Swedesburg Fire Company took a hydrant on Crooked Lane about 800 feet away, coming in with a 1000-gpm and a 750-gpm pumper.
On the opposite (north) side of the plant, the King of Prussia Fire Company used its three 750-gpm pumpers to relay from a hydrant over 1500 feet away on Yerkes Road. Shortly afterwards, the George Clay Fire Company of Conshohocken arrived and also stretched some 1000 feet of 2 1/2-inch lines.
Because of the intense heat and flames, as well as acetylene tank explosions, caution had to be exercised before firemen could enter the plant grounds, which were enclosed by a 6-foot-high chain link fence with the main gate on Yerkes Road. Also, there was a deep quarry hole just north of the company property.
Deluge guns set up
Firemen first set up two deluge guns fed by four 2 1/2-inch lines and also surrounded the building at a safe distance with several 2 1/2-inch hand lines.
In the meantime, as a precautionary move, residents from homes on Holstein Road and Philadelphia and Schenley Avenues, about 800 to 1100 feet away, were evacuated by police and firemen. Red Arrow Lines highspeed trolley service between Philadelphia and Norristown, with tracks on the east side of the plant, was temporarily halted.
When the explosions occurred, they usually shot upward through the roof of the acetylene plant, followed by billowing smoke and flames. Also, a shower of sparks ignited grass areas, creating a spectacle.
Under the command of Swedeland Chief Albert Keehn, who coordinated the fire attack with Chiefs Walter Gutkowski of Swedesburg, Kenneth Steinmetz of King of Prussia and Ted Campbell of West Conshohocken, the flames were brought under control in about an hour and a half.
Firemen then moved in with three 2 1/2-inch and four 1 1/2-inch hand lines to knock down the remaining flames. All the windows and doors of the plant had been blown out and the walls had many cracks. The building was, however, mainly gutted.
Other hazards nearby
The acting superintendent of the Burdett Oxygen Company, Fred Pichon, praised the fire fighters for confining the blaze to the acetylene plant. Adjacent to the building where the explosions occurred were tanks of propane gas as well as drums of acetone and some carbide. Pichon said plant employees fill cylinders with acetylene for welding. There were about 400 large and 200 small cylinders in the building.
Two employees were filling the acetylene tanks about the time of the explosion. One employee said that shortly before the explosion, he noticed one of the tank filling pumps did not seem to be working. The first blast rocked the area as he went outside to look at the pump.
The value of mutual aid was shown that night when an alarm was received shortly after midnight to the George Washington Motor Lodge in King of Prussia, a short distance from the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Schuylkill Expressway on Route 202. The fire companies on standby, Goodwill of Bridgeport at Swedesburg, Bridgeport No. 1 at King of Prussia, and Conshohocken No. 2 at Swedeland, responded. Fortunately, it turned out to be a malfunction of the electrical alarm system.
The Washington Fire Company of Conshohocken moved in to stand by at the George Clay Fire Company.
Apartment house fire
Shortly after 1 a.m., a general alarm, as is the usual procedure for large apartment buildings in Upper Merion Township, was sounded for a fire at the Tanglewood Apartment Complex in King of Prussia, a short distance from the Valley Forge Shopping Center. The standby companies again responded with three pumpers and a ladder truck. Two Upper Merion pumpers, relieved from cleanup at the Burdett plant, also responded.
The smoky apartment blaze forced the evacuation of eight families, totalling 19 persons, from Building H. Firemen located the blaze in the basement and used several l 1/2-inch lines to confine the blaze to that area. They remained on the scene for nearly an hour.
As an additional safeguard under the mutual aid system, the Hancock Fire Company of Norristown sent a pumper to Swedesburg and the Fairmount Fire Company also of Norristown, sent two apparatus to King of Prussia on standby alert.