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New Report: FFs Didn't Know The Danger They Faced

New Report: FFs Didn't Know The Danger They Faced

The Post-Crescent via YellowBrix

May 20, 2010

ST. ANNA — Fire Chief Robert Thome said Wednesday that firefighters didn’t realize they faced a metal fire Dec. 29 when they responded to a burning trash bin outside a foundry.

The contents of the trash bin exploded after firefighters sprayed streams of water and suppressant foam onto the fire. The blast killed volunteer firefighter Steven Koeser and injured eight others.

“If you know it is a metal fire, you don’t put water or foam on it,” Thome told The Post-Crescent. "You go with a dry chemical or sand, or you just leave it burn itself out.

“We didn’t realize that at all, that it was a metal fire.”

The state Department of Justice Fire Marshal’s Office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department conducted a 5½-month investigation of the explosion.

Their 69-page report, released Tuesday, said the trash bin contained aluminum alloy shavings and 55-gallon steel barrels of aluminum oxide dross, or slag, from Bremer Manufacturing Co., a foundry that makes aluminum sand castings.

Investigators, however, were unable to determine the origin of the fire in the open-top trash bin.

Thome said he was frustrated with the inability of investigators to pinpoint what started the fire or what was burning in the trash bin. He said without those answers, the tragedy cannot provide insight for firefighters across the country who might encounter similar situations.

“If you don’t know what was going on (in the trash bin), you can’t consider the explosion the result of what we did,” he said.

Bill Cosh, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the ATF has a laboratory to simulate fire events but opted not to proceed with the simulation in this case.

Thome, a state-certified Firefighter 1 with 31 years of experience, was among the first to arrive on the scene. He observed an 18-inch “cherry red” hotspot on an outside wall of the trash bin.

He also saw fire in a pile of aluminum shavings in the trash bin, but he said he thought the fire was burning cutting fluids among the shavings. Cutting fluids are used in machining to cool and lubricate.

Thome said the fire department had firefighting plans for the building and contents of Bremer Manufacturing, but it had no plans for what could be in the trash bin.

The investigators’ report lists safety instructions for materials used at Bremer Manufacturing.

Safety instructions for aluminum casting alloys caution against using water or moist sand during firefighting. The instructions say a fire or explosion “may occur when material is in the form of dust and exposed to heat or flames, chemical reaction, or contact with powerful oxidizers.”

Another document recommends that for fires involving aluminum fines or chips, firefighters should use dry sand or Class D (combustible metals) extinguishing agents. “Do not use water or other liquids, foams or halogenated extinguishing agents,” it says.

“We obviously didn’t know what we had there,” Thome said. “It still kind of makes you scratch your head. Was it a one-in-a-million shot where everything came together in there to cause the explosion? We don’t know that.”

The investigators’ report said no further investigation is required and recommended that the case be closed.