Tropigas Tank Fire in Banking District
Tuesday, February 09 2010 @ 04:49 pm EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
Maybe Too Close? Great. As a journalist and a photographer it's always fantastic when you get official permission to be inside of the safety perimeter, because it allows you to get closer to the action and to capture scenes and angles that other's can't. My dad is a retired Chief of the Fire Department in New York and I have been running to fires with him literally since I was a little kid. As a teenager I would roll out with "the Chief" at 2:00 in the morning, with my trusty old Pentax K1000 and a couple of rolls of Kodak Tri-x 400. Anyway, let's just say I'm very comfortable around fire scenes. In this case I was pressed into service to help Maj. Aizpurua document the scene for his investigation.
Building and Vehicles On Fire: When I got there the building was fully involved, especially the top floor which was pretty much destroyed. There were also about ten to fifteen vehicles that were parked in the area that were affected by the explosion and the heat of the fire.
Liquid LPG Running Down The Street: An inspection of the scene indicates liquid LPG gas was running down the street. It eventually found an ignition source and caused the first explosion. There is one very important piece of information. One man was standing on the corner when the first explosion occurred. He ran down the street to his car which was parked just in front of the La America building. The hood of his car had been blown open by the explosion (from below). He quickly pushed the hood down and drove his car down to the end of the street and tucked it into a parking garage of a building in the area, before the second and third explosions. This is an important piece of information for the investigation because his car is the only one that was parked in the area during the first explosion, but that was not affected by the subsequent explosions. The hood of his car was deformed and pushed up from below by the explosion, enough to actually break the metal of the latch that holds the hood closed. The car had radiant heat damage on all sides. After the owner cleared the area, the second and third explosions occurred, damaging and destroying other vehicles in the area. I pointed out this particularly important piece of information to the fire inspectors.
Half Mile Evacuation Zone: After the fire department got the house fire under control I went with Maj. Aizpurua to the area directly behind the Tropigas tanker truck that caused the fire. He wanted me to take detailed and close-up photos of the valves and control surfaces of the truck. I started taking photos, but soon I noticed that ice had formed on several of the tubes and control surfaces. This means that there is leak, and the gas leaving the tank under pressure was causing the water to freeze on the outside surfaces. There was also a smell of gas. I pointed out the fact that the tank was still leaking to Aizpurua and I told him "let's get out of here." It simply was not safe to be there. I asked one of the representatives from the Tropigas company who had responded to the scene who had inspected the vehicle how much fuel was still in the tank and he said "about 65%." At that point I got on the phone and called my dad's cell phone in New York. I quickly explained the situation to him (3,000 pound LPG gas truck, involved in a fire, compromised due to the fire, leaking gas, still 65% full) and asked him "what is the safe or recommended evacuation zone for this situation." His response was simple - "half mile minimum, 360 degrees." I said "thanks, love you, later," and hung up. I relayed that information to the Chief of the Panamanian Civil Protection System (SINAPROC), the Chief of the Panamanian Fire Department, and the ranking office of the Panamanian National Police in the area. I explained the danger of the situation to them three tijmes to make sure they understood. Then, with that having been done, I self-evacuated, not wanting to wait for someone else to tell me what I already knew. Besides I had some photos to download.
Thankfully, No One Got Killed: I have no idea how. I don't know how the Tropigas employees got out of there - the truck had them pinned into the back area of that building and I bet the hopped the fence to escape to the empty lot next door. I'm going to put this up right now and then add the photos as I can get them uploaded...
Fire pouring out of second floor window of building.
Delivery switch in run mode.
Ice has formed on this tube which is located right below the reel used to roll up the delivery hose. The hose is completely on the reel and had not been deployed when the explosion occurred. When I took this photo I could see where ice had formed, indicating a current (progressing) leak. And, the area smelled of gas. At that point I decided it was time to bail...
There was more ice forming on this coupling located at the back of the truck and at the bottom of the tank. Again, the formation of ice like this on a tank under pressure means the gas is actively leaking out of the tank, right now. C'ya - time to go...
Notice how all of the hoods of these vehicles are blown "up" from below. This is what happened. Somehow there was a massive failure of some part on the tanker truck. Hundreds of gallons of liquefied petroleum gas escaped from the truck and went running down the street, like water. On one of the security surveillance cameras that was running in the area you can see what the news broadcasters are describing as "smoke" before the first explosion. In fact, that's vapor coming off of the LPG that spilling from the truck. That liquid ran down the street like water until it found a source of ignition, which caused the first explosion. The concussion from that first explosion hit these vehicles from below, thanks to the LPG that was running down the street right underneath them, with enough force in some cases to actually break the metal latch that holds the hoods closed.
Here's an annotated Google Earth overhead shot which shows the exact location where the Tropigas LPG tanker was parked.
Several firemen were treated on the scene for smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion.
Here's another vehicle that was parked down the street. It wasn't burned all that much, but you can see the damage caused by the exploding gas which blew the car apart, from below. That must have been one hell of an explosion. It's a miracle that no one died in this incident.
As time went on the fire department got more organized and eventually got enough water on the fire to bring it under control.
The Mayor of Panama City, Bosco Vallarino and the Director of the National Civil Protection System, Arturo Alvarado, talking at the fire scene. In reality there were discussing the times and schedules for Carnival in Panama City. They were agreeing that the show shuts down at 12:00 pm midnight, and by 2:00 am the streets should be cleared. It's up to the Mayor of Panama City to issue to proclamation to establish the schedule. And, it's common for government officials to take advantage of chance meetings like this to get other things done.
Pouring it on from the outside. The firemen in Panama are really not very good at attacking a fire internally. They tend to pour water on from the outside until it goes out. The guys who did try to attack this fire from the inside of the building basically ran out of air, and many of them were treated for smoke inhalation. I also don't think I ever saw a ladder truck show up which would have given them much better access to the higher levels of the structure (where the fire was) from the outside. As it was, they were scaling the building using aluminum ladders.
Copyright 2009 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.