Volunteers Control Warehouse Fire Before It Extends to LPG Storage
A fully involved fire in an LPG distributor’s warehouse threatened to spread to three large storage tanks before it was controlled by volunteer fire fighters in central New York State.
The old saying, “It can never happen here,” is seldom heard in Sennett. Believing that it could happen, Sennett volunteer fire fighters had already taken extensive training on handling hazardous materials. Thorough knowledge of the diverse hazards in their fire district—commercial buildings, a shopping center, factories, a bulk tank farm, a county rest home, a lumber yard, agricultural and residential buildings—is stressed in pre-fire plans and drills.
This knowledge was put to the ultimate test on the afternoon and evening of last Nov. 22 when Cayuga County Fire Control received numerous phone calls of an explosion and fire at the Texgas plant on N.Y. Route 5. Witnesses a quarter of a mile away felt an explosion. Others state that they saw a large fireball rise into the sky.
The two Sennett fire stations responded, sending a 750 and a 1000-gpm engine, a 1000-gpm tanker-pumper, a 1500-gallon tanker, a heavy rescue vehicle, and a light utility vehicle.
Texgas is the area distributor of bottled LPG used in homes, commercial establishments and on the farm. The plant facilities consist of an officeshowroom and a large U-shaped warehouse used for storage of merchandise. Inspection, painting and filling of up to 100-pound cylinders also takes place in the warehouse. Two horizontal stationary tanks with a combined storage capacity of 48,000 gallons of LPG are just north of the warehouse. Local delivery trucks and larger customer storage vessels are filled in an area outside the large warehouse. A railroad spur enters the north side of the site. Railroad tank cars bring the fuel supplies to the plant.
The first responding Sennett engine, still a mile from the scene, reported to fire control, “Heavy smoke showing, notify the state police and the sheriff to begin traffic control and cordon off the area.”
Warehouse fully involved
Three and a half minutes after the notification of the fire, Sennett’s Engine 1 was on the scene reporting “full involvement of the warehouse with fire spreading towards the two storage tanks and a rail car.” Initial efforts were made toward cooling the large storage tanks to prevent a BLEVE.
The first line stretched was a 2 1/2-inch hand line from Engine 1 to the north side of the property. This was used to wet down the storage tanks. Water supply was from a hydrant north of the property on Route 5. Engine 1 was parked at the intersection of Route 5 and Chestnut Ridge Road, well away from the end of the largest tank.
Assistance was requested with a call to the Weedsport Fire Department for a deluge gun. The Sennett tanker/ pumper began laying hose from a second hydrant south of the scene to Sennett’s Engine 2, from which two hand lines were stretched to fight the warehouse fire and to protect the office-showroom.
Engine 1 and a Weedsport engine supplied the deluge gun and kept a steady cooling shower on the large storage tanks and the rail car. A “portable pond” was set up for tankers to unload and augment the water supply for the deluge gun operation. The Throop Fire Department was asked to move an engine to the Sennett Village station but was rerouted to the scene with needed large-diameter hose.
One thousand feet of hose were stretched by the Throop engine from the Weedsport engine, up and over the railroad bridge on Route 5, to a hydrant near the intersection of County House Road and Route 5. However, use of this hydrant was limited because the 8-inch main was taxed to capacity by the full use of two hydrants closer to the fire.
Called for more tankers
A call was sent out for more tankers. The Owasco Fire Department sent two 1500-gallon tankers. Elbridge, Flemming, Port Byron and Throop also responded with tank trucks. A portable pond was then set up at this new location. The Throop engine pumped this supply over the bridge to the Weedsport engine.
Fifty-three minutes into the alarm, fire did reach and partially involve the railroad tank car, but it was pushed back. Damage was limited to the paint and insulation on the car. There appeared to be no venting of the 750 gallons of fuel left in the tank car.
There were problems with exploding barrels of some flammable liquids and with numerous small LPG tanks venting and burning from their valves. Fortunately the only fire fighter injury was a minor one.
During the fire fighting operation, problems arose with crowd and traffic control. Sennett Fire Police closed down Route 5, and tried to reroute traffic around the scene. Cayuga County sheriffs deputies worked to control a major traffic problem at the nearby shopping center. Nearby Owasco was asked for additional fire police to hold the spectators at a 3/4-mile distance. Cayuga County Office of Disaster Preparedness Auxiliary Police were also activated to augment the fire police forces.
Cooperation from the mutual aid departments was very good. Departments from as far away as 18 miles were involved in either the actual fire fighting or on standby duty at unoccupied stations. The need for a command post to guide incoming apparatus was realized during the operation. Coordination between the two different radio frequencies is also necessary when two counties operate at a fire.
—photo by the author.
Workman William Young of Texgas told Sennett Fire Chief William Feocco that he had just completed filling the large storage tanks and had closed the valves when he heard a dull thud from the warehouse area. Entering the building from the north end, he encountered smoke and ran to the front loading dock area seeking a fire extinguisher. There, he saw heavy dark smoke and a deep orange glow. “The whole building seemed ablaze,” Young said. He received first and seconddegree burns to his right forearm and wrist in trying to use an extinguisher on the fire.
The cause of the fire is tentatively listed as electrical. It is believed that a 100-amp power line, running the full length of the warehouse under the floor, shorted inside the conduit. The short is believed to have occurred from vibrations of the machinery in the warehouse, causing the insulation to wear through. The conduit then heated and ignited the underside of the 50-year-old floor, made of two layers of tongueand-groove planks.
The structure rests on a foundation about 3 feet above the grade. Due to problems with surface water run-off, the foundation is well sealed. The thud heard by the worker is thought to be a backdraft explosion that occurred when the fire finally burned through the floor. Parts of the foundation were found to have been blown outward. Additional oxygen was supplied when the worker opened the sliding door at the loading dock. Then, as he said, “The whole building seemed ablaze.”
Sennett fire fighters remained at the scene almost five hours. Initial estimate of the damage is $250,000. Texgas Corporation plans to rebuild the warehouse but in a different configuration and using an all-metal structure.
Note: Information for this article was in part supplied by Chief William Feocco and Captain William Rizzieri of the Sennett Fire Department, plus onthe-scene observations by the author.