Tanker explosion reveals dangerous deficiency in Detroit Fire Department

Tanker fire on I-75 near downtown Detroit. Image via MDOT.
Tanker fire on I-75 near downtown Detroit. Image via MDOT.

When Detroit firefighters arrived to a massive fire from a tanker explosion near downtown on I-75 this weekend, there was little they could do but wait. And wait. And wait.

As the fire rigs lined up, firefighters were missing a critical ingredient to extinguish a gas fire – usable foam. Although a vast majority of fire departments nationwide – even small ones – have foam in the event of a chemical spill or a plane, train or tanker crash, Detroit does not.

Firefighters had a few gallons of raw foam and added it to a 500-galloon tank, but the effort proved to be futile.

Although Detroit has an airport, frequent train traffic, a ballooning downtown, a plethora of factories with chemicals and a bustling network of freeways, the city hasn’t had foam in years and is at the mercy of Marathon Oil, where its refinery in southwest Detroit keeps foam.

“The City has had an unwritten verbal agreement with Marathon for a number of years,” Commissioner Edsel Jenkins said in a written statement in response to our questions. “The current Fire Chief of Marathon has expressed his desire to continue to assist the DFD in any way they can. The DFD and Marathon often performs joint training exercises for preparedness.”

On Sunday morning, as 9,000 gallons of gas erupted or meandered down the freeway and into sewer drains, firefighters waited 51 minutes for Marathon to arrive with a tank of foam towed by a pickup truck.

A thin, flaming river of gas and water leaked into the sewer grates and traveled down the ramp, and there was nothing firefighters and the HAZMAT team could do.

“We’re going to need a foam truck to stop it,” a HAZMAT firefighter told the dispatch center.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department told the Free Press there was “absolutely no contamination” of the water supply.

Within minutes of Marathon arriving, the massive plume of black smoke that hung over Detroit began to dissipate.

The fire burned for so long that MDOT officials are worried about structural damage along the busy stretch of freeway, which will be closed for at least a few days as crews examine the road.

More than 20 miles from Marathon is the Coleman A. Young International Airport, which hasn’t had a fire rig or foam for a decade.

What’s frustrating to firefighters is that the city has spent up to $20,000 to equip each of its Pierce fire engines with foam systems. But as past mayors continued to slash the Fire Department’s budget, the foam systems went into disrepair, and the city stopped buying foam.

But the times are changing, Commissioner Jenkins said. The airport rig is undergoing repairs and should be back in several months. And the city may soon have another foam pumper.

“Recognizing the importance of having a high capacity foam pumper, the city has been in discussions with a local company that plans to donate a high volume, high power foam pumper to the fire department sometime later this year,” Commissioner Jenkins said. “It will be a used piece of equipment, but in excellent working condition.”

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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