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'Lake of fire' at plant

20 June 2011

A combination of hazards confronted Omaha firefighters who responded to an explosion and fire at a manufacturing plant in Nebraska recently. The state is located on the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States and its largest city is Omaha, where the incident occurred.

During the incident the Nebraska Machine Products building was spewing black, acrid smoke as fire crews responded shortly after 10:30 am. A wastewater and oil evaporator inside the plant had exploded, and the smoke from the fire soon was visible for miles. Three workers in the plant had been burned in the blast. When crews arrived at the building, 9370 N. 45th St., they were told that one worker still might be inside, said Assistant Fire Marshal Jim Gentile. Firefighters entered the 36,000-square-foot structure and started searching as others knocked a hole in the roof to release heat and smoke. The crews inside pulled back after they learned that everyone had been accounted for, Gentile said. It took nearly four hours to bring the four-alarm fire under control. About 70 firefighters, including command staff, responded. The injured were taken to Creighton University Medical Center in serious condition, but later they had been upgraded to fair condition. Company co-owner and president Ron Rosso said the most serious injury was to a worker who suffered smoke inhalation and fluid burns. The man was described by another employee as a forklift driver who had been about 10 feet from the explosion. Doug White, who works at Nebraska Engineering Co., said his plant was evacuated shortly after 11 am. Then, White said, he heard a loud explosion and within minutes, firefighters arrived and power was disconnected to his plant. Crews fought the fire from the outside, spraying foam and water into the structure for hours. The 55 to 60 workers who had been inside the Nebraska Machine Products plant stood about 50 feet from the building's east entrance, upwind from the heavy smoke that blew to the south. Many were concerned about how they would retrieve their vehicles, which were parked west of the plant, because their keys were in the building. Earnest Crosslen was standing under a tree after exiting the building's east side, on the other end of the plant from where the blast occurred. Crosslen, who had been about 75 to 100 feet from the evaporator, said, “It just blew up. I heard a boom. Then I saw a ball of fire.” Rex Tupper, a plant employee from Council Bluffs, said he was around a corner when he heard a “bang.” Tupper looked toward the explosion. “I saw a lake of fire and just ran,” he said. A half-hour after the first fire call came in, the blaze intensified. The building's sheet-metal walls buckled and flames inside could be seen through gaps in the walls. It was my baby,” Osorio said. A third alarm was issued at 11:10 am. The fourth went out at noon as flames and fireballs jumped a parking lot to ignite barrels and chemicals stored about 25 to 30 yards west of the plant. Isidoro Osorio thought he had moved his 2004 Ford Explorer out of harm's way after the fire broke out. But the flames that ignited the barrels spread to stacks of wood pallets and then to Osorio's and another worker's vehicle. By 12:15 pm, the 29-year-old's Explorer was a burned-out shell. Had Osorio not moved it, the recently purchased SUV would have been fine. Matt Starr was much more fortunate. Starr, 60, was close to the evaporator when the explosion occurred. He said he heard a “whooshing” sound before flames shot into the air. Starr, a 14-year employee who works in quality assurance, said he bolted toward a dock door on the building's west side. He said he could feel heat on the back of his arms and head as he ran. He slipped suddenly as the blast pushed him forward. Those who saw him fall told him later that a wall of flames rushed over him as he headed outside. He made it to safety, the hair on his head singed. “I was pretty lucky,” he said. The fire finally was declared under control just before 2:15 pm. One firefighter who became overheated was carted down the hill to a parked rescue squad for treatment. Gentile said inspectors remained at the plant after fire crews left shortly after 5 pm. Rosso said a small fire at the plant shut down production for a few hours about 10 years ago. This fire, of course, was much worse, although firefighters were able to keep flames away from the office on the building's east end. The company, founded in 1966, manufactures machine parts.

(Article courtesy of Omaha)

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