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Guest Column

Quick action on tanker fire lauded

Published April 11, 2007


On Wednesday evening, March 28, a commercial fuel tanker overturned and ignited on I-375. This tragic event resulted in the loss of life of the driver, Mr. Ronald Kennedy. The city extends its thoughts and prayers to Mr. Kennedy's family.

As we have seen so many times before, the city's front line responded quickly and effectively to the situation. Police Chief Chuck Harmon, Fire Chief Jim Large and Internal Services administrator Mike Connors joined me at the scene in support of the many employees from fire, police, stormwater, water resources and other departments.

When we arrived, much of I-375 was on fire several stories above us and a portion of the city equipment yard in front of us was ablaze. Burning diesel fuel had drained directly into the stormwater system, creating a running fire below us that resulted in underground explosions every few seconds.

Our city crews performed alongside other agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Department of Transportation, the county hazardous materials team (consisting of representatives from Palm Harbor, Seminole, Largo and Pinellas Park), the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Highway Patrol.

Two separate fire commands were quickly established, one up on the interstate and one on the ground below to address the surface and below-surface fires.

It was a statement of courage and professionalism as the multi-jurisdictional hazardous materials team worked with our fire department, one of America's highest rated, to simultaneously put out three separate fires.

After studying the stormwater system maps, crews were dispatched to upstream drainage lines to lift manhole covers, visually determine fire spread, and decide where best to apply foam. Downstream, flotation booms were set in place across Booker Creek, the receiving waters of the upstream drainage system, to prevent spread of the fuel to police headquarters, Tropicana Field and Tampa Bay.

Our city Police Department mobilized dozens of officers to temporarily shut down I-275 and I-375 and divert traffic through local roads in order to protect both the motorists and the emergency workers. One officer suffered a concussion resulting from a nearby explosion.

While the fire was still raging, city staff was sampling and testing water and air in our stormwater system in an effort to limit any adverse environmental impact and evaluate the risk of the fire spreading and explosions. Where flammable fumes were detected, the appropriate equipment was deployed to ventilate the system and mitigate further risk.

The Florida Department of Transportation is now reconstructing the damaged span of I-375, and anticipates reopening it by the end of this month. Assessments show that 24 pieces of maintenance equipment were lost in the maintenance yard, a loss estimated at $700,000.

The city is still compiling figures for damage to the stormwater system and materials stored in the equipment yard.

Sometimes we forget the critical role played by the public servants who protect the lives, safety and welfare of our citizens and visitors. In a matter of hours, the city's workforce responded effectively to the tanker tragedy, and then welcomed the world for another successful Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg - and did both admirably. I thank all city employees for once again serving our city so well. They make me feel secure in our ability to respond to crisis and honored to be St. Petersburg's mayor.

Rick Baker is the mayor of St. Petersburg.

[Last modified April 10, 2007, 20:23:32]

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