Heat generated by chemical decomposition destroyed more than 22 tons of tricholorisocyanic acid, a caustic bleaching agent, sealed in an intermodal shipping container. The orientation of adjacent stacked containers blocked access through either end to reach the runaway decomposition, said Dan Wood, VFRS’ Assistant Chief for Emergency Operations.
Wood served as the incident commander during the March 4 emergency at the port’s Centerm container terminal. Emergency responders were on scene within 11 minutes, but port workers had already evacuated, Wood said.
“As the incident progressed, it became an issue as to where we could find a machine operator to move some of the containers out of the way,” he said. “It took us quite a while to have an appropriately trained operator safely move some of the unaffected containers during the operation.”
Acrid smoke smelling of bleach billowed under pressure from the swollen steel container, forcing officials to issue a shelter-in-place order that would eventually cover nearly 50,000 people as the day-long emergency progressed.
Vancouver, population 700,000, is Canada’s largest city on the Pacific coast. During business hours, commuters from surrounding communities swell the population to 1.2 million squeezed into only 114 square kilometers (44 square miles). With water on three sides, Vancouver is the fourth most densely packed city in North America behind New York City, San Francisco and Mexico City.
The city lies 38 km (24 miles) north of the U.S.-Canadian border. Much of the intervening area falls within the jurisdiction of Port Metro Vancouver, the third largest port by tonnage in North America. The port’s 28 marine cargo terminals handled 140 tons of cargo in 2014 alone.
VFRS is the primary responder providing fire protection and emergency response for the port, Wood said.
In Canada, folks refer to the local fire station as the “fire hall.” VFRS, staffed with 740 firefighters, operates 20 fire halls across Vancouver, Wood said. Those fire halls boast 62 pieces of heavy apparatus. However, the port does not have its own specific fire hall.
The weather on March 4 was sunny and clear with very little wind, Wood said. “The wind at the port is fairly predictable,” he said. “It usually comes in from the north in the morning and switches to an outflow wind at about dinnertime.”
About 1:40 p.m., VFRS received the first report of a container fire at the Container terminal on the south shore of Burrard Inlet, Wood said. “The smoke was spotted by staff working from an overhead gantry crane,” Wood said. “They had eyes on the container, its Manifest number and its location. It was immediately identified as a dangerous goods container.”
Arriving firefighters were met at the gate by officials with DP World Vancouver, who operate the terminal, and Port Metro Vancouver security, he said. “It is a secured federal port protected by Canadian border services,” Wood said. “There is security at all entry points.”
As per their training, the firefighters took a position upwind of the smoking container. However, a reconnaissance by the primary fire attack crew soon disclosed that having firefighters on the ground would be little or no help.
“We couldn’t get water on it,” Wood said. “The container was on the ground with nothing above it. But other containers stacked around it were blocking the doors at either end. We had no access to the doors.”
As it turned out, applying water was far from a good idea.
“In discussion with CANUTEC (Transport Canada’s dangerous goods emergency response center), which is the Canadian version of CHEMTREC, they said the product reacts with water,” Wood said. “It decomposes at a high rate, creating the heat that was causing all the smoke.”
Given the access issues and the container being well sealed and under pressure, controlling the radiant heat to surrounding containers and knocking down particulates in the smoke plume became the operational strategy.
Large unmanned master streams to cool and to control the smoke plume were the primary tactics used.
Inside the container, the tricholorisocyanic acid came processed as palm-sized tablets used to sanitize swimming pools. Pressure building from the rapid decomposition forced smoke through four relief vents in the container, Wood said. Heat from the decomposition also melted rubber gaskets sealing the container doors.
Use of a piercing nozzle designed to penetrate the steel container and deliver water inside would only accelerate the decomposition, Wood said. If the container could not be completely flooded, the only alternative would be to let the reaction run its course. Initially, the 4,000-foot exclusion zone around the container included much of the port and surrounding neighborhoods. With better information from CANUTEC, that exclusion zone gradually shrank during the course of the emergency to allow many port operations to resume.
“It took us about 45 minutes before we identified the exact hazards involved,” Wood said.
A strong oxidizer, tricholorisocyanuric acid is harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Having activated Vancouver’s Emergency Operations Center, the fire chief ordered residents of the city’s Downtown Eastside and Grandview-Woodlands neighborhoods to stay indoors, close doors and windows and turn off air conditioning.
“There are lots of residences up close to the port,” Wood said. “We had 30-to-50 story residential towers nearby. There were a lot of people watching the event and affected by it.”
Issuing the shelter-in-place order became a much bigger problem than monitoring the smoking container, he said.
“We had to get the order out, move people out of the smoke plume, forecast where the smoke plume was headed and shut down the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems in our daycare centers, schools and elderly care homes,” Wood said.
In less than an hour, VFRS elevated the emergency status at the port to three alarms, bringing in 16 units and nearly 50 firefighters, including the department’s hazardous materials team.
“We got DP World to give us a manifest of the closest containers around it so we could be sure there were no others with dangerous goods affected by the heat or any possible explosion,” Wood said. A sand berm prevented contaminated runoff entering Burrard Inlet.
Concern about an explosion arose from the tremendous pressure building inside causing the steel shell of the container to visibly bulge, he said.
“The container was having a bad day,” Wood said. Firefighters who approached the container used standard bunker gear and breathing apparatus rather than hazmat protective gear, he said.
“Chemical suits offer very little flash protection in situations involving heat,” Wood said. “A flash fire would turn the suit into shrink wrap. We would never put our hazardous materials responders anywhere close to heat without some sort of flash protection.”
What would seem like a simple logistics issue of finding a forklift operator willing to move the surrounding containers took at least four hours to resolve, Wood said.
“It took us quite a while to get one of the managers to the site so we could fit him for SCBA to wear while using a forklift in the 100-meter exclusion zone,” Wood said.
Having to give a crash course on using SCBA at the scene is highly unusual, he said.
“We have a company that does probably 90 percent of our post-fire demolitions,” Wood said. “We’ve trained them to use breathing apparatus if the environment is still terribly smoky. But this was different.”
By 6:30 p.m., authorities declared the hazmat emergency under control and lifted the shelter-in-place order. Yet, VFRS would remain on scene nearly 19 hours total until the container could be opened and the last of the runaway decomposition extinguished.
“There was a lot of misinformation about what was in that container,” Wood said. “We waited until the contents cooled and everyone had gone home before we opened it.”
Port operations except for Centerm terminal resumed within 27 hours of the initial alarm. Full operations at Centerm did not resume for more than two days.
The cause of the runaway decomposition has not been determined, Wood said.
“The container still had padlocks on the doors so nobody entered it,” he said. “It had come off an inbound ship and was actually on the ground at the port about 20 hours before the incident.”
No problems were reported with four other containers unloaded carrying an identical cargo.
Maritime law makes it difficult for firefighters to track dangerous goods coming into and leaving Port Metro Vancouver, Wood said.
“The shippers must declare if it is a dangerous good, but they don’t declare it to the city of Vancouver,” he said. “Because it’s a federal port, the cargo essentially goes from the boat to the port and usually onto a train or truck where it is shipped out to the U.S. or eastern Canada.”
VFRS maintains good relations with local railroads who alert firefighters when dangerous goods are being shipped through Vancouver.
“We generally know what they are but not how much there is,” Wood said. “They give us a wide parameter for times that the product will be moving. And with ongoing training with port, rail and shipping partners we are moving closer to a safer more efficient emergency plan for the monitoring and planning for Dangerous Goods emergencies in the City of Vancouver.
According to the Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney later told the Vancouver City Council that while the term “shelter-in-place” is accepted terminology among emergency responders, many people approached by police and firefighters wearing breathing apparatus had no idea what it meant. Future emergency plans will address using more descriptive terms to alert the public.
In Vancouver, telephone emergency notification for public safety only covers city facilities such as libraries and community centers, Wood said. The system does not include private telephones.
“We’ve always talked about a reverse 911 call system,” Wood said. “Our emergency management department has been exploring it but it is not in place yet.”
Despite the communications issues, Vancouver residents behaved far better in the aftermath of the emergency than many American communities. A single refinery fire in California in 2012 sent more than 15,000 people to area hospitals complaining of health issues. Only 20 people were admitted the same day as the fire.
In Vancouver, only 13 people went to the hospital reporting symptoms related to the March 3 incident. None were admitted for treatment.