CROCKETT (CBS SF) — A closed gate and a fire suppression system that wasn’t activated may have hampered efforts to extinguish Tuesday’s massive fire at the NuStar Energy tank farm in Crockett, according to Contra Costa County officials.
“I was told by the fire chief that as employees left, the (fire suppression) system was not activated,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.
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“The full details will come out at the conclusion of the investigation, but the preliminary reports are that there is some concern that the fire suppression system was not activated there was a slight delay in getting in,” Gioia said.
The fire broke out at the facility just before 2 p.m. and burned two massive tanks holding ethanol. The blaze burned for hours, resulted in the closure of Interstate Highway 80 and shelter-in-place and evacuation orders for the surrounding communities.
No injuries were reported.
Steve Hill, a spokesman for the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, confirmed that when fire crews arrived on the scene, they found the gate closed.
“There was some initial delay getting to the site, Hill said. “The gates were closed. Whether they were locked or not, I don’t know.”
“That in and of itself isn’t particularly unusual,” Hill said. “I don’t think that it hand any kind of impact on the outcome of fighting the fire.”
Hill also confirmed that the fire suppression system wasn’t operating when the first crews arrived.
“I know that our first engine reported that the fire suppression system was not active,” Hill said. “I don’t know if that’s because it wasn’t activated or if it failed.”
Once inside, they said all but one worker left the facility without activating the fire suppression equipment. And that one remaining worker could not tell them what was in those two burning tanks and the adjacent tanks. So for a while, firefighters didn’t know what type of fuel they were dealing with.
“Those on scene should be able to quickly identify the product in each tank. That is the practice. So that’s concerning,” said Giola.
A NuStar spokesman says due to terrorism concerns, “The gate is locked, 24/7, per our MTSA – Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 security plan. As soon as the firefighters arrived at our terminal, we immediately opened the gates for them.”
The NuStar spokesman also said because the fire was burning so fast, their workers didn’t have time to activate the fire suppression system before evacuating. He said it wouldn’t have matter anyway since that system is designed to put out small fires.
NuStar did not answer why following a major explosion, those gates weren’t already opened, in anticipation of first responders.
Gioia says had it involved rescuing people, firefighters would have lost precious time.
“That’s concerning because it would delay — whether it’s seconds or minutes — every second counts in fighting this type of fire,” said Gioia. “We don’t want to make a final analysis until we have all the facts from the investigation. But some of the preliminary information coming in is concerning and raises a red flag.”
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