Mykawa Train Yard Vinyl Chloride BLEVE
The Houston Fire Department experienced a tank car incident on Mykawa Road resulting from a train derailment on October 19,1971. Two tank cars of vinyl chloride monomer ignited. There were six cars total of vinyl chloride and one each of acetone, caustic soda, formaldehyde, plasticine, and butadiene. The butadiene tank car experienced an explosion. Photographs and video of this incident have been circulating through the fire service for years showing a firefighter (Andy Nelson) on an aerial ladder engulfed in flames and smoke following the explosion. There was some reservation about the contents of the derailed cars but officials were slow to identify the cargo. A second explosion claimed the life of Inspector Truxton J. Hathaway and severely burned Firefighter Andy Nelson. The blast also burned 37 firefighters and civilians. Two foam trucks arrived at the scene and put out the fire in 40 minutes. The railcar derailment was believed to have been caused by poor track conditions combined with too few railroad cross ties.
It was thought that it was the Mykawa incident that motivated Chief V.E. Rogers (a district chief at the time of the incident), who was also burned at the incident, to form a hazardous materials team in Houston. However, the team was formed as a result of Rogers attending a fire chiefs' conference at which a presentation was made by Ron Gore about the new Jacksonville, FL, Hazardous Materials Response Team. Rogers returned home and directed McRae, then a district chief, to organize Houston's hazmat team.
Borden’s Ice Cream Explosion
On Sunday, February 2, 1983, a call reported an ammonia leak at the Bordens Ice Cream plant on the corner of Milam and Calhoun (now St Joseph Parkway). The two-story brick building with a basement occupied the whole downtown city block. Fire companies from Fire Houses 1, 7, and 8 responded. On arrival, the crew knew that they would have to go in the building to turn off a valve to control the leaking anhydrous ammonia vapor. Several events delayed firefighters from entering the building before the explosion occurred that certainly would have caused firefighter injuries if not death. Before they entered the side door the on-duty plant maintenance engineer informed the firefighters that he knew where the valve was and would be willing to go in with them. The firefighters put an air pack on the engineer and started through the door when he had second thoughts about his safety.
The firefighters then backed out of the doorway and went around the corner to the other side of the building. Once they reassured him he would be safe, they started back toward the side door. Before they reached the door they felt the ground shake and a fire ball shot out of the doorway in which they had just been standing. Hazmat personnel had not yet arrived on scene when the explosion took place, and that may have saved them from injury and death as well. The force of the blast was so strong that it picked up a nearby manhole cover and propelled it into the windshield of a nearby parked car.
At the time, there was a great deal of surprise among firefighters that ammonia would burn or explode. Previous procedures were to enter the building with chemical protection and stop the leaks. Following the Borden plant incident, procedures were changed to ventilate the building thoroughly before entering to plug leaks. Ironically, 25 years later, Fire House 8 was built on the same block.