Honoring the service of local firefighters ought to include taking every possible step to protect the lives that first responders put on the line every time they respond to a fire.
Unfortunately, in the case of the inferno last August at TCI of NY in Ghent, newly-uncovered evidence suggests that key officials may have ignored a direct warning which came well in advance of the company’s catastrophic August 2012 fire.
A report from February 2012 clearly demonstrates that the use of highly-explosive sodium metal at TCI (a processor of PCBs) was made known to multiple officials at least five months beforehand in a State Homeland Security report obtained by Patti Matheney of GhentCANN.
In the post-mortem discussions of the August disaster, it has been widely noted that scores of firefighters narrowly cheated death, withdrawing from the scene only moments before more than a dozen explosions rocked the Ghent night sky.
“We were only minutes away from bagpipes and flag-draped coffins,” Churchtown Fire Company 1st Lieutenant Nathan Chess wrote in a brave open letter to the community:
It is only based on sheer luck that a serious loss of life was avoided. It was only based on basic “off the cuff” comment by the company’s “keyholder” that the responding units were advised that there was a substantial amount of solid sodium stored in the plant. ... When exposed it creates an exothermic reaction and produces hydrogen gas (i.e.: Kaboom!).
Similarly, West Ghent Fire Chief Jim Cesternino praised TCI employee Tim Coons as a “guardian angel” and “hero” for rushing to alerting firefighters on the scene to the presence of sodium:
Coons was on scene and was able to provide us with information about some of the building contents. Providing that information to us saved firefighters lives.
However, neither luck nor guardian angels should have been needed that night, as the presence of sodium (and the danger it posed when doused with water) had already been reported to top County and West Ghent emergency managers earlier in the year. Nevertheless, documents show that water was sprayed into the building near this sodium, immediately touching off explosions.
Documents disclosed by The New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services now show that several key officials were alerted to the use of sodium metal by TCI subcontractor Power Station Subservices (PSS). Moreover, the explosion risk posed by sodium was described specifically.
On February 29th, 2012, Investigations Branch Deputy Chief Randi Shadic forwarded a report on TCI’s previous fire in several trailers outside the building in January. That earlier fire caused some $300,000 in damages and led to an extensive investigation of its cause. Page 7 of this widely-circulated February report said that in the wake of the January fire,
TCI staff provided Material Safety Data Sheets ... to the fire investigation team. The MSDS Sheets are for the products routinely handled, stored, produced and disposed of by both TCI and PSS. One of the products used by PSS identified as “40% Sodium Dispersion in Transformer Oil” is identified as being capable of “spontaneous combustion in moist air”. The same product is identified as “reacting violently with water.”
Copies of this report were sent by Homeland Security to West Ghent’s Cesternino, Columbia County Fire Coordinator James VanDeusen (now retired), and New York State Police Investigator William Mulren working out of the Livingston barracks on Route 9.
Again, this warning came five months prior to the much more dangerous and disastrous one in August.
Still, NYS Homeland Security’s interviews suggest that on the night of the second fire in August, the presence and danger posed by sodium at TCI came as news to leadership on the scene.
In an interview with investigators, Cesternino notes that Coons alerted him to the sodium sometime shortly after 10 pm at the scene of the fire -- and that he asked for “more information” about it, and asked for another company’s foam truck to be called in.
Nevertheless, the West Ghent chief’s interview and those of rank-and-file firefighters from the many companies responding indicates that teams were told to “drown” the fire via the roof.
This led, in the narrative of one Stockport firefighter, to an almost immediate reaction:
“Once we got a truck we used a deck gun and were spraying it through the overhead door at the rear. Initially we had the stream pointed to the right. I had them move it to the left or west and when we did the building started to rumble. It sounded like a hundred people pounding on the metal building and the fire really took off. Then we heard what sounded like a propane tank exploding. We had to pull back and hide behind the roll off dumpsters
Despite the “news” from Coons that sodium was in the building, and the request for a foam truck, Cesternino reports that
The plan was to surround and drownd [sic] the fire. Claverack was able to spray water through the top of the overhead door of the loading dock.... As soon as they started spraying water things started reacting inside the building. I was out front and a big blast of smoke came out the front. I could see what looked like camera flashes going off inside. The crews in the back were reporting explosions on the radio and saying they had to get out. I ordered an evacuation...
It is thus doubly perplexing and troubling to read that in spite of the warning from Homeland Security five months before, plus the warning from Coons just after the fire was discovered, firefighters were sent to douse parts of the building with water. It is of course possible that the sodium might have started exploding anyway, had any wet materials in the building come into contact with it as the fire progressed .
But the direct cause-and-effect described in these interviews—pops, reactions and explosions resulting from water sprays—leads to the hard conclusion that the risk may not have been adequately communicated to those putting their lives on the line for the community.
Also of note from these documents: The Columbia County Fire Coordinator’s office had requested Shadic’s unit’s assistance with determining the “origin and cause“ of the earlier January fire in part because it occurred “in the general vicinity of what had been a series of suspicious or incendiary fire[s],” Shadic stated in a January 27th email.