Fire damages harbor refinery, injures one

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 30, 2002

A FIRE BURNS in a flue-gas stack at Ergon Inc. off Haining Road about 3:15 this morning.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[04/30/02]An oil refinery fire on the Vicksburg Harbor was spectacular, but is believed to have resulted in no lasting damage before being contained early today. One person was injured.

Ergon Inc., workers and Vicksburg Fire Department personnel contained the blaze to the heater where it started, and the flue-gas stack inside which it burned was kept from falling early this morning.

Vicksburg Fire Chief Keith Rogers said the call came at 1 a.m. With about 40 company and about 18 city firefighters on the scene, it was out by about 4 a.m.

One Ergon worker was reported to have been hurt during the firefight, but declined to go to a hospital, a fire department spokesman said.

“We thought the tower was going to fall,” Rogers said. “Places on it were getting hot and, at one point, we had a report that it was moving.”

The metal tower essential to the oil refining process is surrounded by “deluges” or special fixtures that can blanket the maze of pipes in water or foam. Ergon firefighters used company equipment and Vicksburg Fire Department used their most-powerful pumper and another aerial truck to cool and drench the area, Ergon refinery manager Ken Dillard said.

“It took good cooperation to get this thing under control,” Dillard said.

An oil leak in the heater, which runs on natural gas, likely caused the fire, but the cause of the leak was not known, Dillard said.

The heater, about 20 feet in diameter and 55 feet tall, is one of six operating around the clock at the refinery, Dillard said. It normally heats oil in tubes, and it will probably be repaired, he said.

The fire probably caused minimal damage, Dillard said. Flames were visible at the top of the 175-foot-tall stack, which is about 3 feet in diameter and has a carbon steel shell, Dillard said.

He said there was no evidence of an explosion, but “if there was an explosion, it was contained inside the heater.”

“What you saw coming out of the stack was exactly what you would want in a situation like this,” Dillard said.

The fire shut down all production of one kind of oil refined there, napthenic lubricant oil, for at least several days, Dillard said. Whatever further damage it may have caused was still under assessment, he said.

“We will be in this afternoon assessing damage,” Dillard said.

About seven employees were at the refinery, mainly in the control room, when the fire started, Dillard said. The others were called in, following company procedures for which they are trained.

Water sprayed from company and city equipment reached about 80 to 100 feet up the smokestack. The firefighters also sprayed water through inspection doors to the heater, using steam to help control the fire from below, Rogers said.

“It was definitely very dangerous,” Rogers said. “If it had collapsed, we would have had to evacuate up the harbor.” Rogers added that the stack could have hit a nearby holding tank if it had collapsed. All fuel was pumped out of the lines between the tanks, Rogers said.

Only the two buildings nearest the refinery, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building and Vicksmetal Armco Association, were ordered evacuated, Rogers said.

“We didn’t know if we were going to have a collapse or not, but we had to be prepared if we did,” Rogers said.

Dillard said he was pleased with the Vicksburg Fire Department’s response.

“The response could not have been better,” he said.

Ergon’s Vicksburg facility refines specialty oils and asphalt for niche markets worldwide. It uses crude oil from Venezuela and the North Sea. Products manufactured using oils refined at the plant include tires and ink, Dillard said.