Despite the fire burning for more than three days, causing a 1-mile-radius evacuation and an initial retreat of firefighting crews, there were no injuries and there were no explosions. Yet, the situation was tense and unpredictable.
Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo told local media, “At the beginning of this incident, there was enough ammonium nitrate on hand for this to be one of the worst explosions in U.S. history.”
The fertilizer plant had about 600 tons of ammonium nitrate on site — 90 tons on rail cars and 500 in the burning building. And there was another 5,000 tons of finished fertilizer at the plant.
By comparison, on April 17, 2013 the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas had about 240 tons of ammonium nitrate that caught fire. That material did explode, killing 15 — 12 of whom were firefighters — and injuring 160 individuals. The blast left a 93-foot-wide crater and damaged 150 buildings. The devastation in North Carolina conservatively could have been double.
Radio traffic from the North Carolina scene ordered firefighters to abandon their equipment and rigs and evacuate immediately. “Leave any equipment in place; we got to evacuate the scene…. We’ll come back and get it. Leave your trucks, leave your equipment.”
Residential evacuation involved more than 6,500 people with many more being ordered to shelter in place — including students housed at Wake Forest University.
This was a bad scene that could have been monumentally worse. Here are three takeaways from this hazmat incident.
Fire and building codes matter — a lot. According to reporting by WGHP, the plant was built in the 1930s and the company was only required to adhere to codes from the time it was built. Sprinklers weren’t required in North Carolina until 1974. While eliminating these grandfathered loopholes is the ultimate goal, that can be a long and arduous process. Politics gets messy. In the short run, it’s critical to know where these threats lie and have a plan for keeping everyone safe.
Robots may or may not take all our jobs in the future. But today, they can do things that no human should or could do. As the Weaver scene progressed, drones were used to keep an eye on how the fire was moving. And a police robot was sent in to investigate a railcar packed with ammonium nitrate. Take inventory of what’s at your disposal when you must keep people out of harm’s way.
Live to fight another day. There are times when a full-on retreat is in order. This was one of those times. We can’t protect civilian lives if we ourselves become fatalities. In situations like this, hazmat team leaders will be the most qualified to get in the incident commander’s ear and sound the alarm about how dangerous the situation is. Evacuating when it is unnecessary can be undone, but sending crews back in. Not evacuating when it is necessary can never be undone.
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