Truck Crash Fire Creates Problem on 7-Mile Bridge
Fire fighting in the Florida Keys can become somewhat unique when it must be done on one of the many narrow bridges that link the islands.
The longest of the bridges, the famed Seven-Mile Bridge, connects the south end of Marathon to the lower keys. Built in 1905 as a railroad bridge, it was later widened to a mere 20 feet and paved for autos in the early ’40s.
At 10 p.m. last May 31, Marathon Fire and Rescue members were alerted by beepers to a “vehicle fire on the north end of the Seven-Mile Bridge.” The initial response was Engine 35 and Rescue 36. Engine 35 arrived on the scene to find a tractor-trailer moving van with the cab and forward portion of the trailer fully involved in flames. An auto fully involved in flames could be seen about 150 yards down the bridge.
Second alarm ordered
Deputy Chief Randall Mearns immediately ordered a second alarm which brought all remaining personnel and 2500-gallon Tanker 38.
A quick check with the driver of the truck disclosed that all occupants of the truck had escaped, the trailer was fully loaded with three houses of furniture and a 1946 Jaguar roadster, and the truck had just been filled with 200 gallons of diesel fuel.
The car had crossed the center line and slammed into the truck, ripping the left fuel tank from its mounts. The spilled diesel fuel ignited and flames quickly spread to both vehicles. The truck ricocheted off the sides of the bridge for about 150 yards before becoming wedged against the railing.
The driver of the car was pulled from the burning wreckage by Sheriff’s Deputy William Leonard, but had died from injuries sustained in the collision. Leonard was taken to Fishermen’s Hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.
As hose lines were being pulled from Engine 35 for the initial attack, the truck’s right fuel tank dropped from its mounts, spilling an additional 100 gallons into the inferno. The flaming diesel fuel was controlled with 1½-inch foam lines. However, the suppression of the burning fuel consumed most of the water in Engine 35’s 1000-gallon booster tank.
Because the bridge had small drains that were rapidly plugged with debris, only a slight amount of burning fuel could be pushed through the drains to the water below. Also, the level bridge roadbed and the 10-inch curbs at either side prevented a runoff of fuel in any direction.
Chief Michael Puto arrived to find the burning fuel well under control, but the wind-wipped flames had engulfed the entire trailer. He decided to await the arrival of the needed water on Tanker 38 before attacking the trailer. The bridge’s height of 32 feet above high water made drafting out of the question. Puto then called for mutual aid from Big Pine Key Volunteer Fire Department to assist on the bridge and from the Conch Key Volunteer Fire Department to stand by at Marathon Station 2.
Upon the arrival of Tanker 38, a forceful attack was made on the t railer using three 1½-inch lines. The density of the packed furniture and the apposing wind made extinguishment difficult. Approximately 2000 gallons of water had been pumped onto the trailer before it was considered under control. The remaining 500 gallons in Tanker 38 was pumped to Engine 35. This water, along with water from Big Pine Engine 30, was used to contain the trailer fire while Tanker 38 was backed nearly 2 miles down the narrow bridge. It took nearly 40 minutes to back the truck off the bridge, refill at the nearest hydrant and return.
Spot fires extinguished
Final extinguishment and overhaul operations took nearly three hours and required a third filling of Tanker 38. Engine 35 remained on the scene until 11 the next morning to extinguish spot fires while DOT crews cleared the wreckage. The bridge remained closed for an additional four hours while road crews checked the structure and repaired the badly burned road surface. Total damage to the truck, contents, and the bridge was estimated at over $160,000.
The lack of water, the wind, and the amount of fuel were all considered to be contributing factors to the extensive fire. Our department is planning to purchase floating pumps that can be lowered from a bridge to supply water faster and more adequately in the future.
Marathon operates from two fire stations; Station 1 in the south end of town houses 750-gpm Engine 35 and Brush 37, a four wheel drive brush unit. Station 2, about 4 miles north, houses Rescue 36, a 750-gpm rescue-pumper with a 500-gallon tank, and Tanker 38, which has a 750-gpm front-mount pump.