OVER 100 SIMULTANEOUS FIRES
Photos by Ken Carl and Cecil King
Within minutes after a gas line accident, the 17-man volunteer fire department in Centralia, Mo., had more action than it had seen in years. Mutual aid became very important.
A city street worker severed a control line leading to a regulator station, sending a blast of high-pressure natural gas through low-pressure gas lines serving over half of Centralia, Mo.’s gas customers on Jan. 28, 1982. The resulting blowtorch effect in gas driven appliances — water heaters, gas ranges, furnaces — touched off over 100 fires, large and small, throughout the central Missouri city of 3500.
While cleaning out a culvert with a backhoe, Alvin lacobs, Centralia s street superintendent, ripped out a 6-foot section of 3/4-inch gas line The line served as a pressure monitoring device between a low-pressure main and a gas regulator, which controlled the flow of gas moving through the high-pressure line at pressures that could have reached 70 psi The lowpressure line operated at about 1/4 psi.
When the line was severed, a pressure gage incorrectly told the regulator that the low-pressure line held no gas pressure at all. The state fire marshal later reported that when the regulator opened completely, gas surged through the low-pressure system at 41 psi, a pressure increase of over 16,000 percent of normal.
The intimidating scope of the disaster became immediately apparent to members of the Centralia Volunteer Fire Department as a few of them climbed to the roof of a home on their second call of the morning. From that vantage point, fire fighters saw smoke rising from businesses and homes in every area of town. While well-equipped to manage the day-to-day fire fighting chores of a small town, the department was unprepared to simultaneously fight so many major fires.
The fire department needed help — fast.
Help on the way
Help was already on the way. At the dispatcher’s desk at city hall, Centralia Police Chief lames Hollis had little trouble sizing up the disaster; telephone lines into the police and fire departments were hopelessly jammed with gas-related fire reports, and the foyer of the police department had quickly filled with people reporting other fires.
As the fire department began its longest day, the police chief began calling other communities in the immediate area with which the city shared mutual-aid agreements. Within 30 minutes of the 10:30 a.m. accident, the first of 150 fire fighters, 35 fire trucks and eight ambulances from 21 communities rolled into Centralia.
Coordinating a fire fighting effort of such a magnitude called for fast decisions and good judgment. Most of the visiting fire fighters and emergency personnel had never visited Centralia before, so street names and numbers meant nothing. Finding fires was no trouble — smoke rising from Centralia could be seen in Jefferson City, some 40 miles to the south — but the number of calls demanded that some kind of central dispatching system be put in place quickly.
“We had great organization,” said Centralia Fire Chief Terry Mansfield the week following the fire. Organization of the dispatching system was put in the hands of Chief Steven Paulsell of the Boon County Fire Protection District and Centralia’s Assistant Chief Lannie Patton.
Paulsell explained that as fire units neared Centralia, they were contacted by radio and given assignments. Citizen-volunteers, who appeared at city hall by the dozens as the morning wore on, were also sent to meet incoming units at the city limits and guide the trucks to the assigned fires. Units not reached by either one of those methods were dispatched directly from a staging area adjacent to city hall.
Volunteers were also assigned to ride with the visiting units to guide them around the city. Because decisions about which fires to fight were sometimes made in the field, runners were used to keep city hall informed when a unit moved from one fire to another.
Hit and run
Speed was the order of the day. As Paulsell told a reporter after the fire, “Firemen were taking 10 to 15 minutes on a fire that normally would have taken two hours to be certain it was out.” When it became clear that a building was either lost or saved, the fire fighters moved on.
Fire fighters had their hands full in Centralia that day. Even so, a quick response from not only the Centralia Fire Department but from city residents helped limit early damage in the first half-hour before outside help arrived.
In the minutes following the accident, dozens of people ran through residential and business neighborhoods shutting off gas meters. A downtown hardware store owner just stood back and nodded when people ran in his door to borrow pliers, wrenches and other tools with which to turn off gas meters. The gas surge lasted for nearly an hour before utility crews could shut down the low-pressure system, so dozens of homes were probably saved by the quick work of local fire fighters and residents who recognized the problem and began shutting off gas meters.
Even so, some homes were doomed from the start, particularly those with basement gas furnaces that were operating at the time of the initial surge. More than once that day, state fire marshals walked into burned-out hulks to see the classic V-shaped pattern of a furnace fire that had shot up, feeding on anything that would bum.
Some homes were destroyed simply because the equipment and manpower were not available. In the frantic early minutes of the fire, a dazed woman stood at the back of the dispatcher’s office. “I guess we’ll just have to let it burn,” she said as she watched police frantically trying to keep up with the torrent of incoming calls, each reporting a new fire.
She was not the only person to accept a bitter defeat that day. Centralia Fire Fighter Marvin Rodgers had to leave his own burning home to fight other fires, just as Rodgers left work for the fire station, he received a radio message to go home immediately. When he arrived, he found smoke coming out from under the eaves. Rodgers used five fire extinguishers on his home before he realized it was lost.
“It’s kind of hard,” Rodgers said later, “to know you can’t put it out and have to close the door and walk away.”
Rodgers fought fires with the rest of the Centralia Fire Department until well past midnight. Fate continued to frown on Rodgers, however. Around 3 a m., shortly after going to bed at his mother’s home, he received a call to fight another fire, this one at his place of employment, a mobile equipment maintenance shop owned by the A.B. Chance Co. Rodgers lost mechanic tools in that blaze.
By midafternoon Thursday, reports of new fires had begun to dwindle and the visiting fire departments were sent home one by one. Mopping up existing fires was left to the Centralia department. The weather that day had been unusually mild for the end of january, but the weather service was predicting high winds. And so. Central fire fighters kept an uneasy eye on smouldering ruins of nine completely burned-out buildings and some 30 heavily or partially damaged structures.
Insurance investigators later figured that Centralia had suffered just over $1.3 million in damage in the Ian. 28 fires.
The anticipated high winds did not materialize that evening, just before midnight, a grimy and exhausted Mansfield walked into city hall for his first break after 14 hours of continuous fire fighting. Mayor Burton Knowles, a former fire chief, ordered Mansfield to withdraw his men from the smoldering fires to allow them some rest. The fire department, he reasoned, could still react to new fires in less than three minutes, so |us! where the fire fighters slept did not matter.
The fire fighters refused to disperse, however Returning to city hall, Mansfield announced, “I’ve got 17 hard-headed firemen out there who aren’t leaving until the last fire is out.”
At a 7 a m meeting Friday, Jan. 29, the city began to assess the effects of the Centralia fire. Despite the financial losses, injuries had been held to a minimum A spokesman from the Centralia Clinic reported that city residents and fire fighters had suffered only five injuries — two cases of smoke inhalation, one moderate burn injury, a minor hand injury and a heart attack. All recovered.