City did an outstanding job putting out tanker fire

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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It'll probably take weeks to determine what caused last week’s propane tanker fire in downtown Lincoln. The fire caused the two-day evacuation of about 10,000 residents and all downtown businesses. What was immediately recognized, though, is how well city employees handled the potential time bomb, without any loss of life or injuries. While the on-fire tanker was filled with propane, it had the capability to destroy part of the city. Lincoln City Manager Jim Estep is commended for his level-headed leadership throughout the ordeal. Without Estep’s delegation of responsibilities and his commitment to residents’ safety, the event could have had terrible consequences. While public-safety officials fought the fire and put their lives in danger, Estep had the final say on operations. Last week, TV crews and other newspapers reported on Lincoln’s precarious disaster-in-the-making. Lincoln could have been the subject of devastating news that Kingman, Ariz., facing similar circumstances, experienced in 1973. Thankfully, because of Lincoln’s dedicated city and area public safety representatives and a dose of good luck, Lincoln did not become another propane inferno. On July 5, 1973, 11 firefighters and a gas company employee in Kingman lost their lives. More than 100 others were injured, including firefighters on permanent disabilities, police officers, passer-bys and spectators. The deaths and injuries were from a catastrophic BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion), following a fire that broke out as propane was being transferred from a railroad car to a storage tank. “Lincoln’s circumstances last week were real similar,” said Kingman Fire Chief Chuck Osterman on Monday. “We watched it when it was on the wire. It was real eerie, similar to our situation. We were extremely hopeful that we were a lesson learned, a study case in the industry. Obviously, the fire chief there did. If something came out of it positive from our situation, it’s that they did some engineering changes and double walled the tanker – a tank inside a tank – so there’s a vapor space to dissipate the vapor.” But Lincoln’s fire could have turned into a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion, our city manager told me right before a press conference during the fire’s second night. Estep knows. In a two-day period, he attended at least 15 briefings held by fire officials, law enforcement and utility representatives on the disaster. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” Estep told me before the press conference. Last Friday, Estep explained why the situation was so dangerous to the city’s residents and businesses. “No one really knew what the condition of the tank was until we either did the hot tap or burned off the propane,” Estep said. “It could have exploded into a BLEVE event. Anything could have happened until the hot tap was done or the propane burned off. You just don’t know. We didn’t want people to let their guard down, that it’s OK, because that’s when people get hurt.” Estep especially praised four “key” city staff for their efforts last week. “Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt took control of the public-safety operation side of the event and Lincoln Police Chief Paul Shelgren took control of those law-enforcement agencies working with us,” Estep said. Estep also commended assistant city manager/chief financial officer Anna Jatczak and public-services director Mark Miller. “Mark coordinated his department with road closures,” Estep said. “Anna really took control of the logistics of the event. She handled all the food, donations and supplies, and documented all expenses (from renting fans, buying water and food to staff time) for reimbursements we hope to get from the responsible parties or state emergency funding.” Miller also filled in “to make any decisions, especially those dealing with financial and bringing in more supplies,” when Estep finally took a nap the second day. These five city employees weren't the only ones working, although City Hall remained evacuated a week ago Tuesday and Wednesday. Besides the approximately 60 police and fire staff “working around the clock,” Estep estimated that 25 employees from his department, Jatzak’s, Miller’s and the development services department helped with road closures, traffic control, bringing generators, “anything we needed for support at the command center and shelters.” Within hours of the evacuation order, city staff provided food and water to the 200 firefighters and police officers called to Lincoln. “The first day, there was no time to find donations so city employees purchased from Safeway, went to Beach Hut Deli,” Estep said. “What we had to do was set up the fire department with tables, organize lunch, plan dinner. The group of responders was growing by numbers – it was 250 at that time. At the midnight meal, for the next shift, we had to provide breakfast.” By that Wednesday, donations started appearing, Estep said. Sam’s Club, WalMart, Lowe’s and Thunder Valley Casino, for example, brought in “tons of food.” City employees were “unbelievable” during the emergency, according to Estep. “Staff worked together. They didn’t have to be there because we had enough people volunteering,” Estep said. “But everyone volunteered. I was ecstatic. The camaraderie and dedication these people had were amazing. They took the initiative if there was a lull. It was an incredible team effort.” Estep calls the first Lincoln firefighters to arrive at the tanker “the real heroes.” “Our initial response saved thousands of lives. That was our firefighters putting water on the tank to cool it but not putting out the fire,” Estep said. “If the flame was put out, gas could have ignited at any time. Our first firefighters did the right thing by cooling down the tank. These firefighters were the real heroes. They put their lives on the line.” I'm grateful for the city employees’ actions last week. I’m among the many residents thanking them for helping make sure that Lincoln remained safe during last week’s emergency.