Crews work overnight to douse East Alton fires
By Jill Moon and John Badman Telegraph Staff Writers
EAST ALTON — Office of Illinois State Fire Marshal’s officials will begin Monday investigating a fire at Olin Corp.’s ammunition plant property that destroyed a carpenters shop Sunday morning, East Alton Fire Chief Randy Nelson said.
Nine fire departments responded to the scene, including Olin Brass’ own emergency response unit. More than 25 firefighters also went to the scene at Olin Brass, at 600 Powder Mill Road in East Alton, from Wood River, Rosewood Heights, Alton, Roxana, South Roxana, Hartford, Bethalto and Godfrey. The fire call came around 3:15 a.m. Sunday morning for a blaze at Olin’s Winchester ammunition division. East Alton responders immediately called for a first, then second box alarm, through the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System now being used locally. No injuries were reported.
“Last time we had that kind of response was probably the Illinois Power fire in about 1996, and then a couple others at Olin,” Nelson recalled. “Our primary concern was getting it under control, and protecting exposure of other buildings. There were several other structures adjacent, a cafeteria, a couple others, but nothing that affected the operation.”
The Godfrey Fire Protection District provided additional breathing air with a special trailer designed to refill air bottles on the scene.
Chief of plant protection for Olin Brass Tim Bunt, who also is the Rosewood Heights Fire Department chief, confirmed Nelson’s recollection Sunday speaking to The Telegraph from his home after operations were complete.
Fighting fires at the Olin complex require intensive manpower, especially to establish water supply. The carpenters shop also was surrounded and adjacent to other exterior structures in need of protection, Nelson said. The fire’s cause is undetermined at this time.
“We had almost 2,000 feet of five-inch hose as part of our water supply efforts; at one point we were working on establishing water supply from three different hydrants,” he said.
Bunt speculated about the contents of the destroyed shop saying the wooden structure could have housed lumber, plastic, propane or accelerates stored in tanks. The shop stood among other similarly purposed buildings.
“They have more than one carpenters shop; it’s not like it hurt any production,” said Bunt, who has been Olin’s plant protection chief since 2006, the same year he became Rosewood Height’s fire chief.
First responders saved two of the shop’s neighboring buildings, which sustained some exterior damage but both remain usable until repaired.Within 30 minutes of the initial call the carpenters shop had collapsed, consumed by the fire. The buildings are located at Olin Gate 4A and many people might remember the area as near the “burning grounds,” where scrap materials from the ammunition manufacturer were once offered for sale.
Bunt responds to all emergency situations at the Olin Corp. complex whether in the copper fabricating or ammunition divisions.
“We got lucky and had no injuries; usually when we have a large fire, any industrial fire, we have a second alarm. We don’t use (all responding departments) all the time, but we like to have them,” said Bunt, who turns them around if they are not needed. “This wasn’t one of the worst I’ve seen there.”
East Alton and Alton each provided an aerial ladder pouring thousands of gallons of water on the fire, which at times sent flames 75-feet into the air, to keep adjacent buildings cool and the fire from spreading. Several high pressure steam lines burst during the course of the fire creating a deafening hiss for those up close to the fire. Many 55-gallon drums of flammable liquid were nearby the buildings and firefighters directed efforts at protecting those from the intense heat of the fire.
East Alton police officers closed Powder Mill Road because of fire equipment and supply lines crossing the roadway.
East Alton paid on-call and off duty firefighters responded to the Olin fire just after restoring equipment and manpower to service after a house fire at 153 N. Shamrock in East Alton. Wood River, Rosewood Heights, Alton and Roxana fire departments also responded to the fire.
The owners of the vacant house had been there earlier working until about 5:30 p.m. Saturday. The fire call came in a few hours later at approximately 8:30 p.m., Nelson said.
“We spoke to the owners; it appears as accidental. We’ll probably not be able to safely get back into the structure,” Nelson said. “The cause is undetermined and it’s still under investigation. It’s a total loss.”
Roxana Fire Department manned the East Alton station while its firefighters worked the house fire.
“It took quite a while because we were chasing fire through wooden spaces; we had to evacuate the structure because the fire burned a hole through the floor and it was no longer safe to continue to operate inside,” Nelson said.
Firefighters had to switch from offensive to defensive operations. Nelson described a significant hole in the dining room floor, the ceiling coming down and significant roof damage.
Normally, if inside, firefighters would open the walls and make sure interior hot spots were fully extinguished.
“Every time we thought we had it, it would flair back up again; we left an engine and crew at the scene to continue hitting those hot spots when we left,” Nelson said.
After the last East Alton engine left and went back in service, while loading the last section of fire hose back onto a truck, the department got the Olin Brass fire call. Nelson responded from home to the fully involved Olin structure.
“Fortunately those types of nights are few and far between; a significant structure fire, and another back to back is definitely out of the ordinary,” Nelson said to The Telegraph. “Our paid on calls made a good response, and several off-duty paid men were able to respond. They were at the station when we got the Olin call.”
East Alton responders left the contained Olin scene around 6 a.m. Sunday with everything back in service at 7 a.m.
Jill Moon can be reached at 618-463-2552 or on Twitter @jill_moon; John Badman can be reached at 463-2572 or on Twitter @JohnBadmanNews.
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