Two employees of Liquid Transport Terminals, on Dickerson Street in West Bainbridge, were welding on a large chemical holding tank when it exploded at about 11:15 a.m., according to Bainbridge Public Safety.
Although firefighters were told the two men were welding, what exactly caused the liquid holding tank to explode is not yet known and will require an in-depth study, Major Ryan Wimberly of Bainbridge Public Safety said Thursday.
Liquid Transport Terminals has seven large holding tanks that industrial businesses can rent out to store various chemicals. The chemical holding tank contained a mixture of about 80 percent water, 20 percent sodium hydrosulfide. NaHS is used in various industries for applications including, but not limited to, agricultural, dyes, pulp mills, leather working and other chemical processing.
Sodium hydrosulfide can be flammable at hot temperatures, however, firefighters can’t say for sure that it was the welding that caused the explosion, said Climax Volunteer Fire Chief Jeff Kelly, who works closely with Bainbridge Public Safety and was at the fire all day Wednesday. It would depend on factors such as what temperature the welding process was at, whether or not any other chemicals were being stored in the tank and to what degree the tank was being ventilated to prevent pressure buildup–and none of those facts were immediately known, Kelly said.
According to Public Safety, Christopher Coker, the assistant manager at Liquid Transfer Terminals (or LTT, as it is commonly known) was welding on the outside of the tank with the help of a co-worker, Randall Logue. The two men were working at the top of a ladder approximately 40 feet above the ground. They were almost finished with their work when the explosion happened. Coker was still at the top of the ladder, while Logue was climbing down the ladder to get something and was about one-fourth of the way up the ladder.
The explosion, which happened at about 11:15 a.m., was powerful enough to be heard and felt for some distance away. The force ripped open the metal top of the holding tank, sending pieces of it flying into the air. The metal that remained on the top of the tank looked as if someone had used a can opener to peel open the lid of the tank, firefighters said.
Kevin Dowdy was at a Bainbridge-Decatur County Chamber of Commerce Board meeting at the Earle May Boat Basin. The chamber building is located almost directly across the Flint River from where the explosion occurred. Dowdy said those present heard a loud boom, the glass windows rattled and they immediately saw flames and black smoke rising across the river.
Bainbridge Municipal Court was being held at the Decatur County Courthouse in downtown Bainbridge. BPS’ Major Wimberly was one of several officers gathered in the 3rd floor courtroom when they heard the explosion.
“It shook the walls and one of our first thoughts was that someone had drove their vehicle into the courthouse,” Wimberly said. Officers and an EMS paramedic who was at the courthouse ran outside to see what had happened, only to witness the black smoke rising up from West Bainbridge. For the first hour after the fire, black smoke could be seen rolling into the sky from miles away. Many people commented on social media that they knew something bad had happened but weren’t sure what.
A 911 call of an explosion at Liquid Transfer Terminals went out on emergency personnel radios across Decatur County. Firefighter Jeff Kelly and Bainbridge Public Safety Officer Jason Barlow drove the first two fire trucks to the scene, taking Spring Creek Road and Butler Ferry Road to reach Dickerson Street, one of several small streets in West Bainbridge that were only paved in the past few years. The area where the explosion and fire happened are in a fairly out-of-the-way corner of West Bainbridge in between the Flint River, Spring Creek Road and the U.S. 27/84 bypass.
Kelly said the first thing firefighters did was check placards on the side of the holding tank that listed what it contained. They also used a laptop computer with a hazardous materials database on it to learn more about the chemical they were dealing with. Knowing they were dealing with a hazardous chemical, firefighters focused spraying water on the outside of the tank that exploded and another tank next to it, in an attempt to cool the tanks down and prevent any further explosions.
About 30 minutes after the fire began, as more firefighters and trucks arrived, they began spraying a special foam into the tank.
“Putting water into the tank would just cause the chemical to float to the surface and the fire would continue,” Kelly said. “The foam stays on the top level and acts like putting a blanket on the fire, smothering out oxygen.”
In all, firefighters used approximately 700 gallons of foam to put out the fire, BPS Major Wimberly said. BPS had a small amount of foam but the bulk of it had to be gathered and brought to the scene from a variety of sources. Motiva, which operates the oil terminals on Shotwell Street, gave firefighters two 55-gallon drums of foam that Decatur County Sheriff’s deputies helped arranged transport for. Fire departments from across Southwest Georgia brought firefighters, trucks, equipment and supplies (including more foam) to Dickerson Street, Wimberly said.
Once the barrels and buckets of foam arrived, firefighters used special nozzles to spray it through hoses. Some of the pictures taken from the scene of Wednesday’s fire appear to show firefighters using hoses to spray water, but it was actually foam being spread in and around the holding tank that was on fire. Firefighters and law enforcement officials went up in a Georgia State Patrol helicopter to survey the scene from the air. They brought back videos taken by the helicopter that firefighters could use to determine where they needed to spray more foam to control the fire.
Another task firefighters and City of Bainbridge employees took on early after the explosion was to evacuate all the houses in the immediate vicinity of the fire. The evacuation was partly out of concern that the chemical vapors–which could be plainly smelled in the air–would be spread by wind to the neighborhood. Also, firefighters wanted to make sure people were out of harm’s way if any other explosions occurred. The people who were evacuated ended up spending Wednesday night in local motels, with financial assistance from the Bainbridge Salvation Army.
As many as 100 firefighters from Bainbridge and the surrounding area were at Liquid Transport Terminals during the peak of the fire, some of them actively fighting the fire and others standing by to relieve the first wave. A command center tent was set up, where firefighters could suit up and seek shade and water when they got hot. A couple of fire departments had brought equipment that refills the oxygen tanks firefighters use to breathe while fighting the fire.
Bainbridge Public Safety Police Chief Frank Green and BPS Fire Chief Doyle Welch were among a group of officers who could be heard on emergency radio frequencies coordinating response to the fire. Decatur County Fire and Rescue Chief Charlie McCann, Sheriff Wiley Griffin and his deputies, as well as the Georgia State Patrol also provided support.
One of the concerns firefighters had while they worked to bring the massive fire under control was that they knew that if the sodium hydrosulfide burned, it could give off toxic vapors that could harm not only those at the scene but also be carried by the wind, which was blowing at about 7 miles per hour to the north west on Wednesday afternoon.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials came to the fire scene and used portable air sensors to determine the levels of the chemicals in the air. BPS Cpl. Brian Boyett, one of the firefighters suited up in full turnout gear, recalled a couple of times when firefighters had to back off from the holding tank after the air sensor detected a high level of chemicals in the air. Another sensor took readings from water in a nearby ditch.
Firefighters also had to deal with the heat, which was in the 90s degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday afternoon. They also had to contend with the heat radiating from the flames in the massive fire. Paramedics in three ambulances, some of whom were off-duty and came in to work, were standing by at the scene to treat anyone who had trouble breathing or became overheated. Four BPS officers had to be taken to Memorial Hospital for heat exhaustion by day’s end.
“Because this happened so suddenly, and the firefighters were busy for several hours trying to contain the fire, a lot of them got dehydrated,” Major Wimberly said. “We definitely appreciated the food, water and Gatorade that people brought to us while we worked.”
By about 3:15 p.m., firefighters had the fire under control, though not fully out. A storm came in and blew away some of the foam, causing the fire to flare back up a couple of additional times late Wednesday afternoon. The last firefighters to leave the scene did so at about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. The area around Liquid Transport Terminals was re-opened to vehicle traffic on Thursday morning, and the evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes.