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Fire in the Sky: Emergency Response

2009 October 29

A loud thump woke me up. I looked at my startled husband as he yelled, “Let’s go get the kids.” I stood as our concrete house shook, and grabbed an iron post from the bed to keep my stance. “An earthquake,” I mustered as we exited our room and noticed the hour:12:25 a.m. In the hallway, my eldest daughter hugged me while asking what was going on. Fortunately, our youngest children did not wake up. In our dining room, the window screens were on the floor and the chandelier was swinging from side to side. My brother-in-law phoned to say there was fire in the sky. My immediate thoughts were about an airplane accident. I opened our dining room side door to find the sky changing colors from red to orange to violet. We looked for a radio and soon learned the cause of such chaos: fire at the Caribbean Petroleum (CAPECO) tank farm less than a mile from our home.

image of fire at petroleum plantWhat was a long awaited weekend all year long – we were holding our Halloween party – turned into an emergency response for me. Within ten minutes of the explosion, I called our Response and Remediation Branch Chief who in turn called the National Response Center.

As a public affairs specialist in the San Juan office of EPA, I had dealt with minor emergencies; this, however, was a real environmental threat since various drums containing jet fuel, Bunker C, diesel and other petroleum derivatives were on fire. The CAPECO facility is located on Road #28 in an area that encompasses three towns: Guaynabo, Bayamon and Cataño and is next to Fort Buchanan, a large military base. The San Juan Bay is two miles away and wetlands and minor water bodies are nearby. The reason this emergency hit home is because, aside from living nearby the facility, I drive down this very same road at 5 am to go to the gym at Fort Buchanan. The tanks are visible from the road.

The first few hours were frantic as federal, state and municipal agencies tried to contain the fire and activate all emergency protocols to ensure the citizens in this largely populated area were not affected. An Incident Command Center was established within 18 hours at a sports facility in San Juan, and we were deployed to work. The media and citizens needed accurate information. We worked hard to provide it.

I must say I have learned more from this experience than I have before in my seven years at EPA. While the fire is out, now the real work begins. I will keep you posted.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Ike Myle permalink
    October 29, 2009

    I would say it is true. The experience seeing and breathing is diffetrent. I was working in New York during Sept 2009 just across the street of WTC. It was some experience I would say…

    Nature sunshine

  2. Jackenson Durand permalink
    October 29, 2009

    Close to our native home appears. This image is never a green or blue color.
    I know the role of the Caribbean after our wonderful Amazon for the Ozone conservancy.
    In my native country, when I used to wake up early in the morning, my town altitude location allowed me to observe the greatest capital sky. In my observation, I used to see a red orange color sky. I have being understood that pollution was the master piece of this sky colored.

  3. Bob Bowen permalink
    October 29, 2009

    The information was interesting – but – as an emergency response specialist, a retired engineer and senior logistician I cannot understand why it took 18 hours to establish an incident command center.

    I have had emergency response command centers begin to be formed within the first 1/2 hour and fully functional within 3 hours. Apparently you do not have an adequate emergency response plan and infastructure in your area. GET ONE!

  4. Lisa permalink
    October 29, 2009

    We rely on oil for so many things, yet it can cause so much damage when things go wrong.

  5. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    October 29, 2009

    Marine tanker terminals and tank farms and refinaries can be major problems. And it only takes one spark from a piece of malfunctioning equipment or a cigarette butt carelessly tossed out by a staff member to set them off. You were lucky, you were prepared. I went through a similar experience when I was living with my mother in Orange. The foreign flagged tanker San Sanena blew up at one of the tank farms in Los Angeles Harbor, sent a fireball into the sky and even though Orange is some distance from Los Angeles Harbor we did get a little bit of shaking. The explosion blew the tanker into three pieces with the stern winding up on the dock flattening a watchman’s hut. Glass windows were knocked out of homes and stores over a wide area of San Pedro. The cause was a mate on the ship tossed a cigar butt into an empty oil cargo tank and the butt set off oil fumes in the tank. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  6. BrendaEPA permalink
    October 30, 2009


    Thanks for the encouraging words about this blog. However we (EPA) were not the ones who established the ICC. It was the state. We had personnel on the site within 2 hours of the explosion and one person back in the office within 45 minutes of the incident. Our teams from mainland USA arrived within 12 hours.

    Our response was coordinated with the state and other federal agencies thus the need to wait for the state to establish an ICC.

  7. Johnny R. permalink
    October 30, 2009

    The petroleum fire in San Juan was an industrial disaster with localized environmental consequences; but is the EPA prepared for a truly environmental disaster, like a Caribbean tsunami, or a water pollution emergency, or an earthquake, etc.?

  8. lseamore permalink
    January 21, 2010

    More and more calamities are making it’s way to the surface. The quake that hit Haiti recently is one that is really devastating. I would really feel safe knowing that EPA have already prepared for something of this magnitude.

  9. Francesco Rizzuto permalink
    July 6, 2010

    Yes, oil refineries and terminals are dangerous places, but only because the oil companies are unwilling to pay for adequate safety measure that would ensure against the occurrence of explosion and fire. These tanks do not have fire detection and fire suppression systems and many lack even lightning rods. Companies take a “consequence versus probability” approach to risk management which is a fancy way of saying they can afford to let it burn. Unfortunately, EPA and the CSB agencies are only empowered to make recommendations, not levy fines or force these corporations into a more protective attitude. It’s all money to them while the public ultimately pays the price both in dollars and environmental damage. Inexpensive technology is available to make these places safe but nobody in the boardroom is willing to pay for it. Their argument is that minimal fire code compliance is enough. Ask anybody in San Juan now if this is true. Thirty years as a fire protection engineer specializing in fuel tank farms tells me it isn’t.

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