Firefighters battled for eight hours on Sunday and Monday to put out a fire inside a diesel tank at the Cayman Islands fuel depot at Jackson Point on South Church Street.
The fire was detected by an on-site technician at 4:44 p.m.
Chief Fire Officer David Hails said it was a potentially “catastrophic” incident and hailed the “outstanding commitment and bravery” of his officers who stood on top of the tank to fight the fire, knowing the flames could spread at any moment, potentially igniting the whole tank.
He said firefighters had used hi-tech thermal imaging cameras to locate the source of the fire inside the tank, which they could not see, and doused it with foam and cooling jets of water from above.
Fire chiefs, Hazard Management staff, police and staff from Sol Petroleum established a command center at Sunset House, which closed for the night, and police asked people to evacuate homes in the surrounding area and maintained roadblocks around the perimeter.
No one was injured in the fire. The evacuation zone, which at one point covered a mile radius around the terminal, was not fully lifted until nearly 3 a.m. The cordon also included a 1,000 foot area for vessels at sea.
The fire sparked concerns among residents about the safety of the fuel terminal in the midst of a residential area.
Mr. Hails said the fire was situated at a lip near the top of the tank, at one of the ridges that are in place to strengthen the tank.
According to emergency personnel at the scene, the fuel tank was about one-third full, containing approximately 15,000 barrels of diesel – about 525,000 imperial gallons.
Mr. Hails said his men had battled difficult conditions to keep the public safe. The fire service gave the “all clear” notice just before 3 a.m.
“We should all be proud of the response from our firefighters and other first responders,” said Mr. Hails. “They did a great job and all worked together under challenging circumstances.”
He added, “This was a potentially dangerous fire involving a large quantity of fuel, and our first responders did what needed to be done to keep the public safe.”
He said firefighters could not get eyes on the fire because of its location inside the tank and thermal imaging cameras used by the fire crews and the RCIPS helicopter crew were “critical” tools in determining if the temperature inside the tank was cooling down properly.
“Without these devices, we would not have known there was a fire inside the tank or where it was located,” Mr. Hails said Monday at a press briefing. “They were essential in our overall response because if the fire had spread deeper inside the tank, we would probably have experienced a catastrophic incident.”
He added, “The aggressive fire-fighting tactics involved firefighters standing on top of the tank, knowing it was on fire and that it could spread at any moment. The outstanding commitment and bravery they displayed should not go unnoticed.”
Mr. Hails said there was a real danger that the flames or a spark from the fire could have dropped down into the diesel fuel below.
He said an investigation was under way into the cause of the fire and Sol Petroleum had been asked to provide information on the work that was taking place immediately before the blaze.
He declined to comment on whether it was safe for a fuel depot to be in such a heavily populated area but indicated there was a buffer zone within the terminal designed to contain any fuel leak within the perimeter.
Alan Neesome, general manager at Sol Petroleum Limited, said in a statement Monday, “Fire service thermal imaging equipment indicated an upper internal support ring on a diesel tank appeared to be on fire, but it had no direct contact with the product in the tank, which was at a much lower level. The incident was fully contained and resolved by the Fire Service, and the ‘all clear’ was issued by Emergency Services at 2:45 a.m.
Mr. Neesome said there was no damage to the terminal and surrounding area as the incident was isolated to the single tank, adding that emergency procedures were effectively executed and the terminal was back in operation Monday.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Mr. Neesome said, though it is understood some work was going on at the terminal when the fire erupted.
Stephen Duval, manager of the Cayman Islands Emergency Medical Services, said two people within the evacuation zone had been transported to the Cayman Islands Hospital because they were housebound and unable to evacuate the area by themselves.
Premier Alden McLaughlin released a statement Monday, thanking the emergency services for their work. “Our officers fought the fire for more than eight hours in hot, humid conditions wearing their heavy fire-retardant suits,” he said.
He added, “The men and women of the Cayman Islands Fire Service, Police Service and other first responders did a wonderful job of keeping under control and stopping a fire that could have been fatal to themselves and residents in the surrounding area, as the fire involved a large quantity of fuel. They displayed professionalism and bravery.
“I also thank the residents who live near the terminal for their understanding in the need to evacuate the area.”