Barge Explosion at Port Mobil

In the beginning
Staten Island. Thirteen thousand years ago, glacial rivers cut the valley that is now the Arthur Kill; the waterway that separates the borough from New Jersey. Thus was the beginning of the industrialization of the Staten Island waterfront. In recent times, the busy waterfront once was home to US Navy Homeport and Proctor & Gamble. Still using the Arthur Kill is Mobil Oil, now part of ExxonMobil.

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
My night tour on Staten Island ended at 0700 hours. I was due in Brooklyn for ordered overtime 6 hours later. Since it made little sense for me to drive home and try to fall asleep only to have to wake up in a few hours, I decided to retreat downstairs to the locker room. Finding a chair, I set my alarm and napped.

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.

The call
It began with a single telephone call at 1010 hours from a relatively calm caller. He reported a huge propane explosion at the end of Sharrotts Road including his opinion that there were going to be fatalities. Most dispatchers, by listening to a caller's voice can tell if they're being truthful or lying. This caller had the tone of voice that made you say, "Batten down the hatches".

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!
One of the deputy directors of communications arrived around 1030 hours and began overseeing the operation. Because this incident had the potential to escalate further, he decided that we would fill every vacant firehouse. Under usual fire conditions, we can make do by filling only a majority of the houses. However, with the threat of escalation and the time it takes Brooklyn units to get to the western edge of the borough, he decided to saturate the Island.

The incident commander had his hands full. A fuel barge owned by Bouchard Transportation, while off-loading 4 million gallons of gasoline, exploded. The shock wave shook the Island. The resulting fireball engulfed the entire barge and part of the fuel dock. A stone's throw away sat another loaded barge. Besides attempting to extinguish the fire on the barge, the chief also had to try to prevent a second incident involving the other barge.

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 aftermath
Though partially submerged, the barge continued to burn throughout the day and into the night. At 2018 hours, units on the scene discovered the first of 2 fatalities. Ultimately, the barge's captain and mate died in the explosion and a Port Mobil employee received severe burns.

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.