Pre-Planning Averts Possible Waterside Disaster

Pre-Planning Averts Possible Waterside Disaster

Philadelphia Fire Department’s Strategy Contains Fire, Following Fatal Alcohol Blast in Vast Publicker Plant

A Special Report to FIRE ENGINEERING

Editor’s Note: Few cities in this country present greater explosion and fire hazards than Philadelphia, Pa., as attested by reports previously published in this Journal.

Only the steps taken by the Fire Department under the able leadership of its Fire Commissioners Frank L. McNamee and George E. Hink (the latter also Chief of Department) have circumvented more than one disaster.

These steps include pre-planning for possible emergencies; training of personnel in the attack (and defense) plans; procurement of the necessary facilities to bolster these attack plans—heavy duty hose and fittings; high pressure equipment (serving as “pipeline units”); special service apparatus carrying foam, wet water and all other specialized extinguishing equipment; respiratory protective equipment in volume, etc.

Previous reports have detailed the application of some of these facilities to modern fire control. The following account throws still more light on the workings of this Department in time of crisis.

The Editors are indebted to the Commissioners and their staff for this enlightening report. Special appreciation goes to Captain J. T. Gibbs, who prepared the study, and to Lieutenant Robert Kennedy, official department photographer for the excellent illustrations.

SITUATED on thirty-five acres and fronting on the Delaware River at Bigler Street, Philadelphia, Pa., is the processing and manufacturing plant of the Publicker Industries, Incorporated, the largest distillery in the world. Among the products processed and manufactured here are denatured alcohols of forty-five government formulas, pure alcohol of 190 and 200 proof, butyl alcohol, butyl acetate, ethyl acetate, acetone, iso-amyl alcohol, acetic acid, acetaldehyde, proprietary solvents, refined fusel oil, carbon dioxide and various feeds and fertilizers.

The sprawling plant area contains twenty buildings and more than thirtylive outside storage tanks, and maintains one thousand workers operating around the clock.

Plant Has Vast Security Facilities

To protect this highly productive installation, the Publicker plant operates under strict safety procedures and maintains a plant fire brigade equipped with the following appliances; three fire pumps, with a rated output of 2,750 gallons per minute; all buildings sprinklered and supervised by A.D.T. and Consolidated Alarm Systems; twenty-five plant fire alarm boxes; gravity feed sprinkler tanks, with a total water content of 175,000 gallons; hose manifolds .servicing twenty 2 1/2 outlets; nine city fire hydrants and fifteen private plant hydrants; 3,350 feet of 2 1/2 hose and 1,300 feet of 1 1/2 hose; ten flexible hosepipes with 2 1/2 shut-off nozzles and various size tips; six 1 1/2 shut-off nozzles with 5/8 tips; fog nozzles; three 500 gallon per minute Hale trailer pumps; one crash truck; one hundred and fifty 15-lb. carbon dioxide extinguishers; twenty-five 50-lb. carbon dioxide extinguishers; fifteen 4-lb. carbon dioxide extinguishers; two 40-gallon wheeled foam machines; ten 2 1/2gallon foam extinguishers; fifteen 5gallon pump tanks; one hundred and fifty 2 1/2-gallon pump tanks; fifty onequart vaporizing liquid extinguishers; two hundred and fifty 2 1/2-gallon soda and acid extinguishers; fifty fire axes.

Bonded Warehouse “A” and Denaturing Plant are located in the northeast section of the plant property (see diagram), and it was in this building on the morning of May 26, 1,955, that fire and violent explosions presented to the Philadelphia Fire Department a running challenge that lasted for one hundred and forty-six hours to the time Chief Hink announced the “all-out” at 10:10 a.m.. June 1.

General view of fire operations north side of fire area, showing pumpers in operation from draft and Fire Boat No. 2 with monitor nozzles in operation. Streams are being directed into area of bonded warehouse and denaturing plant, and also placing water curtain between fire building and still house.

Philadelphia F. D. Photo by Robert Kenndy

It was shortly after 8 15 a.m. on Thursday, May 26, that a fire and explosion activated the building sprinkler system and registered tbe initial alarm, resulting in tbe dispatching of Engine Co. No. 53, Ladder Co. No. 27, Fire Boat No. 1 and Chief Hugh McGoniglc of the 1st Battalion.

The sprinkler alarm registered at 8:20 a.m., followed by A.D.T. Box #3665, located in the plant area, at 8:21 a.m. At this time, the initial explosion had torn away the upper part of the south wall and a section of the roof to tbe east, and tbe entire building was inChief of Department, George E. Hink, realizing the gravity of the situation due to the highly volatile contents of the fire building and tbe immediate exposures, ordered the fifth and sixth alarms to bo sounded.

Occupancy a Major Hazard

Before considering the attack-pattern it would be well to explain the fire building, its contents and operations and the immediate exposures to this building that, as was explained, was entirely involved in fire upon the arrival of the first due companies. The building, of brick construction, was four stories in height with a pent house and was ocvolved in fire fed by the highly volatile contents.

The first arriving officer, Captain Whalen of Engine Co. No. 53, immediately requested the second alarm by fire radio which registered at 8:25 a.m. Battalion Chief McGonigle sanctioned Captain Whalen’s request and ordered the third alarm at 8:28 a.m. Deputy Chief William Talman, commanding the 2nd Division, ordered the fourth alarm at 8:30 a.m., and Deputy Commissioner, cupied as a bonded warehouse and denaturing plant. The personnel complement normally assigned to this building consisted of eleven plant workers and five employees of tbe federal government operating as Alcohol Tax Unit gaugers.

The 8:00 a.m. inventory, on May 26, showed that the following contents were in storage and/or processing tanks, scale tanks and drains in the fire building: 99,350 gallons of 190-200 proof alcohol; 78,500 gallons of denatured alcohols of various government formulas; 4,000 gallons of methyl isobutyl ketone; 400 gallons of kerosene; 500 gallons of diethyl phthalate; 600 gallons of ethyl acetate; 600 gallons of C.P. wood (methanol); 750 gallons of acetone; 3000 gallons of benzol; 270 gallons of ether; 270 gallons of diethypthalate; 270 gallons of aqueous ammonia (29%); 108 gallons of eucalyptol; 108 gallons of nicotine solution; 162 gallons of pyronate; 270 gallons of dipple oil; 54 gallons of CS 501; 108 gallons of tertiary butyl alcohol; 270 gallons of acetaldol; menthol and thymol stored in fibre cartons.

Photo showing portable deluge guns in service in area between exposures to the south and fire building. Fire officer in foreground had made adjustment of deluge gun. Presence of railroad tank cars didn't help the situation any. Where possible men were held back of immediate damage zone.

Philadelphia F. D. Photo by Robert Kennedy

Fire officer has close call. A plank, hurled by explosion at Publicker Plant fire in Philadelphia, narrowly misses unidentified officer on roof.

Philadelphia F. D. Photo by Robert Kennedy

Fire and vapor cloud resulting from most violent of the many explositions that occurred during fire fighting operations at Publicker Industries, Inc., plant in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Inquirer Photo by H. Carter

High angle view of operations, south side of fire building. Carbon dioxide gas holder tank is in right foreground with boiler house and still house in background. Not a very comfortable place in which to operate.

Philadelphia F. D. PhotO by Robert Kennedy

Dangerous Exposures

The immediate exposures to the fire building were: to the north, a 180,000 gallon storage tank containing 75,000 gallons of ethyl acetate and 30,000 gallons of aqueous ammonia in a 180,000gallon storage tank; to the south, a carbon dioxide gas holder with a capacity of 75,000 cubic feet, 3,000 gallons of acetaldehyde in a 10,000-gallon storage tank and a two-storied building housing the firm’s ice plant; to the east, a fermentation building, unoccupied except for office and locker room space and two 180,000 – gallon alcohol storage tanks, one being empty and one containing 75,000 gallons; to the west, office building, boiler house and a still house with thirty stills containing ethyl alcohol, acetone and btityle alcohol, and with total contents of 5,000 to 6,000 gallons.

Advance planning by the Philadelphia Fire Department, coupled with modern equipment and constant training of fire fighters in the application of modern fire fighting techniques, set the pattern for the attack, which finally contained this raging fire in its building of origin and permitted the safe return to their stations of the two hundred and fortyone officers and firemen who responded.

Only fourteen injuries were sustained by the fire fighters in attendance, and practically all injuries were ot a superficial nature.

There is no doubt that the weekly planning conferences conducted by Chief Hink and attended by Assistant Chief Clarke, the Deputy Chiefs of both Divisions and the Chief Officer in charge of training, contributed much to the successful conclusion of this grave emergency which, with its initial explosion, resulted in one plant worker being killed, two other plant workers and a government gauger missing and serious injury to five plant employees. Philadelphia’s vast industrial areas, which are among the greatest in the world, are of great import to the Fire Department and the wide-spread hazards inherent in these industries and the fire protection to be afforded them are constantly on the agenda for discussion at the Departmental Planning Conferences. Therefore, the outstanding job of containment that was accomplished at the Publicker fire was no accident. It evolved from the Department’s ability to know the hazards and to know beforehand, by advanced planning, how to successfully combat these hazards.

Southeast section of Building A after fire. It was in this area of the building that the first explosion occurred. Twisted metal attests force of the blasts.

Philadeiphia F. D. Photo by Eobert Kennedy

The Problem of Attack

Chief Hink, with the aid of Assistant Chief Clarke and Deputy Chief Talman, set up the attack-pattern of using heavy streams for coverage of primary exposures, actual extinguishment in the fire building, and for the dissipation of the vapors that were being generated as a result of the fire.

The constant training of Philadelphia’s fire fighters resulted in the quick set-up and efficient deployment of the many appliances that the Department now has for the discharging of master streams. Booster pumpers, equipped with deck guns, were backed into the most accessible vantage points; in addition to the fire boat normally assigned to respond. Chief Hink ordered two additional fire boats, which not only contributed to a constant large-volume supply of water, but permitted nine moni tor nozzles to discharge their heavy streams into the entire fire area.

Numerous portable deluge guns were deployed around the entire perimeter of the fire and three ladder companies were moved in to discharge streams from ladder pipes into its very heart. A total of thirty-five master streams, using the appliances previously explained, were deployed and in service minutes after the arrival of the companies.

This strategy, similarly used in successfully combatting the recent Barrett fire (FIRE ENGINEERING. May. 1955), once again was employed to great advantage as it permitted the fire fighters to remain in safe areas as the appliances discharged their streams, unattended. This pattern paid off, too, when, at approximately 9:30 a.m., a violent explosion occurred in the southeast section of the fire building and sent a fire and vapor cloud hundreds of feet in the air and caused an instantaneous heatflash that would have seared anyone near the fire building.

The large volume of water from the many straight and heavy fog streams dissipated the heat from the flash and also any hot fall-out that may have been contained in the fire-cloud. It is assumed by Chief Hink and the plant management that this explosion, probably the most violent during the process of the fire, was caused by the ignition of the contents in a separate cubicle on the fourth level of the fire building which held two 9,000-gallon tanks filled with SDA-29 denatured alcohol and three 2,600-gallon tanks containing a total of 3,000 gallons of benzol.

If a panoramic view could have been seen of the entire plant area and its environs it would have presented a picture of an excellently planned battle. This view would have presented a fullscale application of the attack pattern previously set up in the planning conferences previously mentioned in this summation; the land pumpers drawing from plant and city hydrants and operating from draft all along the north pier; the three fire boats from the Departmont’s Marine Division deployed in such a fashion that their large-volume monitor nozzles could be used to advantage and at the same time, deliver an unending supply of water; the deck guns from the trailer pumpers along with the ladder pipes and the many portable deluge guns rimming the fire with heavy streams; the first aid stations set up in readiness by the Rescue Companies; the Chemical fleet units, SS-100 and Chemical No. 1 geared for foam application if needed; the small pick-up trucks of the Repair and Special Service Section hustling about the whole fire area maintaining operating apparatus in peak condition, pooling stand-by pumpers, supplying fuel and performing the many specialized tasks delegated to this unit.

Portable deluge guns operating from roof of ice plant and from street below 3 1/2 high pressure line center foreground being supplied by fire boat.

Philadelphia F. D. Photo by Robert Kennedy

Pumper No. 53, first arriving engine company, had drawn vacuum while operating from hydrant. Not having sufficient water supply from hydrant, suction was then placed in pooled water in front of fire building and pumper continued operating from draft supplying two 2 1/2-inch water lines to deluge gun.

Philadelphia F. D. Photo by Robert Kennedy

Cooperating Agencies Geared for Disaster

The cooperating service agencies, too, all so much a part of Philadelphia’s fire protection plan, were present and contributed much to the successful conclusion of the fire-battle. These included the Mobile Communications Unit, operated by personnel of the Electrical Bureau, which maintained constant contact with the Fire Alarm Room at City Hall and established a communications command post along with the operation of a public address system throughout the entire foreground. This unit also supplied Chief Hink and other command officers with walkie – talkie facilities. Present also were the Chief Police and Fire Surgeon with his staff, who supplied immediate medical aid to those injured and who were also set up for major casualty operations; Police Department command personnel with district officers and patrolmen, who operated strict security and traffic control; the Water Department supervisory and emergency repair personnel on the scene for the immediate repair to the water system if rupture or breakdown had occurred.

The strategy employed by Chief Hink and his command officers in the use of master stream appliances was carried on throughout the entire operation. Karly consultations with plant safety and supervisory personnel indicated to Fire Department command officers that the bulk of the flammable liquid content of the fire building was miscible with water, and dilution was maintained long after the actual fire was extinguished.

Hand lines were used only at a minimum for the purpose of cooling secondary exposures and controlling incipient fires ignited by flying embers following the many explosions. The importance of a modern marine firefighting division was definitely established as the three fire boats that responded provided an on thc-scene high pressure pumping system and delivered a total of 39,008,000 gallons of water. Fire Boat .Vo. 1 remained at the fire scene, constantly pumping, for a total service time of 127 hours and 30 min utes.

Although control of the fire was established during the morning of May26, the full six alarm assignment was kept at the scene because of the constant threat of re-flash of the escaping volatile fumes. However, early in the afternoon of the 26th, the companies that responded on the latter alarms (Continued on pane 617) were returned to their stations. As periodic explosimeter readings indicated that the vapor concentrations were lessening, more companies reported to their quarters.

Pre-Planning Averts Disaster

(Continuei from page 595)

The unit? of the first alarm assignment remained on the foreground during the night of May 26, in conjunction with a detail of two officers and ten firemen. Engine Co. No. 53, the first due company, had a total service time of 60 hours and was returned to its Station, 8:32 p.m., May 28, after which the detail remained.

A conference, attended by Chief Hink, Deputy Chief Talman, Lieutenants McKendry and Hoffer of the Fire Marshal’s Office, C. P. Reiff, Plant Safety Engineer, Martin Goldstein, Superintendent of Bonded Warehousing and Denaturing Area, Criminal Investigation Officer Alexander McGivern, and J. S. Tunnell, Chemical Engineer of the Department of Licenses and Inspections, was conducted during the morning of June 1, at which time Chief Hink announced that his survey of the fire area revealed that no fire remained.

The Chief sounded the official “all out” at 10:10 a.m., on this date, after which he transferred the jurisdiction of the fire building to the plant management and the Department of Licenses and Inspections. Because of the fact that three men were still missing and believed to be in the fire building, Chief Hink ordered a detail of Fire Department personnel to remain at the scene.

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