Barge Explosion at Port Mobil
In the beginning
Port Mobil is a 203-acre site located on the southwestern corner of the borough. Its 39 above ground tanks have the capacity to hold 2.9 million barrels of petroleum products ranging from gasoline, to jet fuel, to home heating oil. The bulk of the fuel comes from an underground pipeline, but some quantity also arrives by way of barge.
Friday, February 21, 2003
The Staten Island C.O., built in the early 1960s to the specifications of a civil defense bomb shelter, has walls and floors 18 inches thick. Most outside noises can not penetrate the dense material so I knew nothing of what had occurred until the tug at my shirt around 1030 hours. It was one of the dispatchers on the day tour. He said, "You might want to come upstairs. There was a major explosion at Port Mobil."
The first thought I had was the same as everyone else's, another terrorist strike. The NYPD, also thinking along those lines, shut down all the bridges. I did not have time to dwell on that thought. The first thing I had to do was to see if the day tour supervisor needed another set of eyes and ears.
Under typical circumstances there is enough activity in the office to keep the supervisor busy. He or she must ensure that procedures are followed, responses are correct, ample fire coverage is maintained, all the while listening to the radio and anticipating the needs of the incident commander. The situation on the platform can go from normal to hectic in a flash, or a boom, in this case.
Ladder 76, though still not on the scene, confirmed that thought minutes later when they came on the air telling to us to "send everybody, flames are about 100 feet in the air". Battalion 23 still a few minutes away saw the plume and requested a second alarm. Division 8 heard all of this and requested a 10-60 (major emergency) response in addition to the second alarm.
Ladder 76 finally closed in on the correct location, Port Mobil, stated that there was a tremendous amount of fire, and requested a third alarm. Upon hearing that information, Division 8 requested a foam response and 2 fireboats.
Only 10 minutes into this incident we had 12 engines, 6 trucks, 4 battalions, 2 division chiefs, and a host of special units assigned. To put this in perspective, Staten Island has only 17 engines, 12 trucks, and 3 battalion chiefs; 3/4s of the firehouses were vacant.
Brooklyn, send help!
So began a slew of special calls for additional units. All foam units, both Purple K units, 2 additional satellites, extra engines and tower ladders. As land units pumped water onto the barge and pier, a tower ladder and fireboat applied foam to the second barge while tugboats tried desperately to get close enough to move it away from the fire.
After burning for over an hour, the fire began to burn itself out. The barge started to sink, and the land units started concentrating on the pier. The piping still had enough gasoline and vapors to keep the fire burning. The tugs moved the second barge out to sea around 1230 hours. A collective sigh of relief sounded in our office as we watched on the television the barge float peacefully down the Arthur Kill towards the Raritan Bay and out of harms way.
At 1249 hours, the incident commander had declared the fire "probably will hold". This indicates that he thought the incident probably would not escalate. The under control signal was given shortly thereafter but the job was no where near finished.
The pier smoldered for a few more days. Every 4 hours for the next 4 days we special called additional units to replace those that operated the previous 4 hours. We used some units from Brooklyn for relief rather than running ragged our limited resources, then having to back-fill the houses with Brooklyn units.
The fortuitous event here was that the gasoline burned off rather quickly without igniting the second barge. I shudder to think of what might have happened if, somehow, the fire had spread to the tank farm. You would probably have to change the name from Port Mobil to Crater Mobil.