How BWI's `Big Papa' took down the inferno

January 15, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt and Julie Bykowicz | Laura Barnhardt and Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Five firefighters from Baltimore-Washington International Airport hopped onto a ladder truck and headed to what they thought was a routine house fire in Anne Arundel County. Then the dispatchers revised the call: motor vehicle accident with fire.

BWI firefighters turned to "Big Papa," an imposing red truck filled with 420 gallons of foam and 3,000 gallons of water. On stand-by for the plane crash that firefighters hope they never encounter, it rarely sees action.

But it played a key role Tuesday afternoon in extinguishing the tanker truck explosion and five-vehicle pileup that killed four on Interstate 95.

"When we pulled up, it looked like what I would imagine a plane crash looks like," said John Hurley, who worked a pair of joysticks to coat the wreckage in foam. "But I knew the capability of the truck, and I knew I could put it out."

Despite some chaotic moments, in the end the foam truck and its crew, joined by nearly 100 firefighters and dozens of pieces of equipment from the Baltimore region, swiftly contained the fiery accident scene. But if the tragedy provided emergency workers with real-life training for large disasters, it showed, some firefighters said yesterday, that there is room for improvement.

Authorities yesterday noted problems with radio and cell phone communication and questions about chain of command as evidence that more than two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks first responders can better coordinate their efforts.

"There was a quick recognition of what resources we needed," said Howard County Deputy Chief David H. Balthis, who was among the first on the scene. "Unfortunately, quick coordination did not accompany that."

The response to the crash began after dispatch centers in both Howard and Baltimore counties received calls. Within two minutes of receiving its first call at 2:47 p.m., Baltimore County dispatched five engines, one medic unit, a fire truck and a hazardous materials unit to the scene.

As an engine from the county's Halethorpe station headed south on I-95, the crew could see northbound Howard County fire engines heading toward the smoke and flames.

"We just starting pulling the hose line and going for the flames in front of us," Baltimore County Fire Lt. Kevin J. Stielper recalled yesterday. "We couldn't tell going in what was burning, but when we got there we could see the burnt outlines of the trucks. ... Any rescue was ruled out at that point, just from the enormity of it."

The Baltimore County firefighters couldn't see the Howard County colleagues across the highway because of the black smoke, but they could see the flashing lights.

Initially, a Baltimore County commander essentially took control of the northern half of the wreckage, while a counterpart from Howard County took control of the southern half, firefighters said yesterday. Eventually, Howard County Battalion Chief Charles Sharpe assumed control of the entire incident.

Off-duty Howard County firefighter David Knight had just finished washing the dishes at his Elkridge home when his girlfriend called about a column of smoke rising in the distance. Knight, a 19-year veteran firefighter assigned to the Elkridge station, jumped into his Ford Thunderbird and headed for the smoke.

"I knew it was something big, and they'd need all the help they could get," he recalled.

Knight quickly went to work helping police move four lanes of stopped traffic so that fire engines could get through.

Baltimore County firefighters realized the spilled fuel could get into a nearby creek and asked that state environmental officials be notified. State Highway Administration officials had activated message signs along the 95 corridor and begun detouring traffic.

When Knight saw what is also known as Rescue 35, the BWI foam truck, coming down the road, he said, "Here comes Big Papa."

Hurley, the foam truck operator, and his lieutenant, Brian Bashista, pulled up unsure of what they were facing. The radio systems for BWI's and Baltimore City's fire departments don't pick up channels from other nearby fire departments - a problem fire officials say they want to rectify as soon as they have enough money, said Balthis, the Howard County deputy chief.

Balthis sprinted to the foam truck when it arrived at the accident and tossed his radio to Hurley, saying, "You need this more than I do."

Hurley flipped on two spigots which together can spew 1,300 gallons of bubbly Aqueous Film Forming Foam - firefighters know it as "A, triple F" - a minute.

Hurley showered the burning metal, snuffing the fire in less than four minutes. For the next hour, Hurley said he coated and recoated the wreckage to prevent gasoline vapors from re-igniting.

The truck churned out 560 gallons of foam and nearly 12,000 gallons of water. Anne Arundel County firefighters siphoned much of that water from the Patapsco River, and Howard and Baltimore county firefighters shuttled it to the foam truck.

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