Port Mobile Barge Explosion

(February 21, 2003)

For operations in the waters of Arthur Kill South, Box 4197, 10:22 hours. Marine Company 1, Fireboat John D. McKean on the occasion of the fire and explosion aboard Bouchard gasoline barge at Port Mobile, Staten Island, demonstrated courage, teamwork, spirit and cool determination. Operation was as follows:

On receipt of the alarm, Marine Company 1's officer Lt. Tom Piambino ordered the boat ready for foam and water operations and requested the boat manpower be supplemented with land units due to the initial Department radio reports of fire and explosion at Port Mobil terminal. Manhattan Dispatcher assigned Ladder 12, Engine 24, and Battalion 2.

On arrival at the scene the Fireboat McKean was ordered by Marine Battalion Chief William Siegel to cool down the bow section of a second gasoline barge (Bouchard 35 ) which had been exposed to the initial explosion and resulting fire. This barges cargo of gasoline had been partially offloaded but still contained 344,000 gallons of gasoline along with flammable vapors in tanks that were emptied just prior to the explosion. Members of Marine 1, Engine 24, and Ladder 12 operated four out of six of the Fireboats monitors onto the barge in an effort to keep it from exploding. Pilot Tom Harnisher had his work cut out for him because the Fireboat had to constantly be maneuvered around the barges port, starboard, and bow to allow cooling water to be applied to the large surface area. After approximately one hour of performing this operation, all monitors were shut down. A scan of the barge bow section was done by Lt. Piambino with a thermal imaging camera and it indicated that the barge was still hot and needed further cooling. Operation of the four monitors was started again and continued for approximately one more hour. At this time the cooling streams were shut down and Marine 1 launched its 13' Boston Whaler with Firefighters Paul Ruckdeschel And Dan Mayott aboard. The members were instructed to scan the entire barge with the thermal imaging camera for heat. After scanning the entire hull, the members reported that everything looked normal except a 10' by 10' section starting 2 foot above the water line in the bow. This area showed hot and was warm to the touch. Information was ascertained from the barge Captain that this area on the interior of the barge was 75' by 25' by 10' deep storage compartment containing combustible material.

At this time we began to suspect that there was a fire in this compartment caused by the initial heat from the exploding barge. This information was relayed to the Marine Battalion Chief. Within minutes of this observation the barge Captain reported to Marine 1's officer that three empty gasoline tanks that adjoined this forward storage area were venting out flammable gasoline vapor under pressure from 2 vent stacks on deck. Marine Battalion Chief Siegel was again advised of these unfolding events.

The Marine Battalion ordered FDNY members to board the barge and make an assessment of what was happening below deck. Marine 1's officer assigned Marine Engineer Stark to this dangerous task due to his extensive knowledge of ship design and construction. This action left the Fireboats engine room short handed, but Engineer Marshall and Wiper Donovan took up the slack making sure we kept our maneuvering and fire pump capabilities ready for use at a moments notice.

As suspected it was confirmed that there was a fire in the forward storage compartment and it was heating up the gasoline tanks filled with flammable vapors. Marine 1's officer ordered the barge personnel off the vessel and this information was relayed to the Marine Battalion Chief and Division 8 Chief. The situation was now extremely critical, not only for the Port facility, but the safety of all FDNY members on scene was at stake.

Opening of the hatches on deck of the barge to fight the fire was extremely dangerous, especially in the terminal. At this time the U.S. Coast Guard ordered the barge out of the terminal and towed several miles to anchorage #44, a remote area of the Arthur Kills. The Marine Battalion Chief ordered Marine 1 to accompany it. Further scanning of the bow area with the thermal imaging camera showed the heat increasing in the storage compartment of the barge.

En route to the anchorage Marine 1's officer and Battalion 2 chief discussed worst case, best case scenarios. An attack strategy was planned and it was decided that once at the anchorage we would open the hatch on deck of the barge and attempt to fight the fire.

Once at the anchorage the fireboat again tied up along side the burning barge. Two 2 ˝ inch lines were stretched to the deck of the barge. Members of Engine 24, Ladder 12, and the Chief from Battalion 2 boarded the vessel VIA a straight ladder from the deck of the fireboat. The hose lines were hoisted up. Ladder 12 members carefully opened up one hatch at great risk to the barge, members on deck and the fireboat. Finding a smoke condition Engine 24 proceeded to operate the hose line into the storage compartment, extinguishing the fire with the use of a distributor and controlling nozzle. In total three hatches were opened and operated into involving great personal risk to all FDNY members. Once again the hull was scanned with the thermal imaging camera finding temperatures were back to normal, and the empty gasoline tanks were no longer being heated and pushing flammable vapors out of its vents. The tenacity, bravery and skill of all of the FDNY members on the Fireboat averted a disaster.

On conclusion of operations at the anchorage, Marine 1 was ordered back to Port Mobil, the site of the original explosion and fire. On arrival, there was a report of a missing person possibly alive on the original barge that had exploded. Marine Battalion Chief Siegal directed the Fireboat McKean to this location. Members of Marine 1 boarded the partially sunken and damaged vessel, performing a search, resulting in the recovery of the barges second missing crew member. He had perished in the original explosion. The body was removed by members and transported to the fireboat Kane and delivered to shore.

Members of the Fireboat John D. McKean, Engine 24, Ladder 12, all operated with professionalism, dedication, and bravery above and beyond in the face of grave danger in this unusual situation, up holding the tradition of the New York City Fire Department. Each Company was awarded a Unit Citation for this operation noting a “Job Well Done."

By, Lt. Thomas Piambino

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