Major fire after multiple explosions at Pinetown chemical plant in Durban injures 13
eThekwini Fire and Rescue Service crews responded to a major fire at a chemical factory, Zeta Laboratories in Pinetown, Durban, on Tuesday, 8 December 2020. Divisional Commander for Pinetown Fire Station, Dennis Govender, said they spent hours battling the blaze. According to DC Govender, the first team to arrive at the scene tried to extinguish the fire but the absence of hydrants around the area made things extremely difficult. He said after the arrival of a number of their trucks, the situation improved and they used foam and water. “We believed and we were also informed that the fire started in the processing area and spread quickly through propane gasses 9kg cylinders. There were 20 of those and they all exploded after they caught fire,” he said. There were 10 tons of sanitisers that contained 70 percent alcohol on the premises. Govender said other chemicals that were on site include acetone, hydrogen peroxide, caustic soda and petroleum jelly tanks. “These are all flammable liquid substances that made it difficult for us to extinguish the fire. What also contributed to the fire spreading rapidly was that the wind was strong. Not having water around made it difficult as we had to do a foam line using water,” explained Govender. They were able to evacuate everyone to safety and managed to account for every single person who was in the building. “We also faced an obstacle as there was a 20-ton petroleum jelly tanker, which we battled for hours to extinguish,” he said.
Pinetown Fire Station commander, Shane Heppell, reported that there were 13 confirmed injuries: seven suffered various burns of which two were Code Red and still in critical care and six suffered smoke inhalation while a fire fighter sprained his ankle during the fire fighting operations. He said that the response included five rescue pumpers, three water carriers, a foam tender, a chemical unit and a command vehicle from Pinetown, Westville, Gillits, Cato Ridge, Central, Chatsworth and Jacobs fire stations. Manpower included a division commander, five station commanders and 23 fire fighters. We received the call at 11h30 in the morning of an explosion at Otto Volek Road, in Pinetown. The fire involved a silo containing 20 tons of petroleum jelly, +/- 50x 200L steel drums of petroleum jelly, +/- 50x 10 00L flow bins containing various amounts of 70 percent alcohol (sanitiser) and 18x 9kg LPG cylinders. “It is suspected that a shipment of MEK (Acetone) was delivered in the morning and whilst offloading, someone noticed that one of the 1 000L flow bins was leaking. A forklift truck was used to move the damaged flow bin to another location where it could be decanted into an empty flow bin. Whilst approaching the empty flow bin a spark, presumably from the forklift fork striking the flow bin cage, ignited the spilled product. We are still awaiting video footage to confirm our suspected cause”, said SC Heppell.
He added that several challenges were faced including water supply as all the hydrants in Otto Volek Road were dry due to maintenance taking place during the morning of the fire. This caused the sprinkler system to initially activate then stop once the water in the system ran out. “A strong wind fanned the fire towards the LPG containers and the petroleum jelly silo”, added Heppell.
“All fire operations were directed via the FCP, Incident commander DC Dennis Govender. Fire Sector 1 conducted external fire operations, initially only fire protection then extinguishment. Fire Sector 2 conducted an internal attack, extinguishment of internal fire on ground floor of factory and Fire Sector 3 conducted internal attack, extinguishment of internal fire on first floor in the offices. The Water Sector managed the water supply through private water tanks at Lovemore Brothers and hydrants once up and running. Foam Sector 1 reported that the initial foam attack was ineffective and moved to the water monitor to cool the silo while Foam Sector 2 crew was redirected to set up a second water monitor as their foam tender was on standby but not used.”, said Heppell.
The operational timeline:
11h30 Time of call
11h38 Arrival of first appliance
12h34 Next arriving water carrier
12h37 Foam tender arrival
14h30 External fire under control - extinguished
15h00 Internal fire under control - extinguished
16h00 Petroleum jelly fire extinguished – damped down
17h00 All gear made up
17h15 Stop given
Heppell added, “Equipment included 15x 64mm hoses, 10x 38mm hoses, 3x branches, 2x dividing breeches, 1x 225 foam branch, 1x 225 inline inductor and 2x monitors. Around 80 000 litres of water and around 200 litres of foam concentrate was used.”
Paramedics responded to the fire at 11h00am after receiving reports about several explosions. Paramedic Gareth Jamieson said that on arrival, they found the factory, Zeta Laboratory, well alight. “Thirteen people were injured and were taken to hospitals for further care. Six of those were treated with moderate injuries while two were treated with life-threatening injuries before being taken to hospital,” he said. Jamieson added the other five people suffered from smoke inhalation.
Four vehicles that were parked next to the premises, an Audi A1, a bakkie, forklift and a truck-tractor and trailer, also caught fire and burnt to the ground. A truck and a forklift were both packed inside the factory’s premises, while the other two were packed in front of the building.
An eyewitness, who was at the service station opposite the factory, said they heard big explosions and when they looked outside, everyone was running away. He said people were screaming and vehicles driving away at high speed from the area as flames and metal objects were flying out of the factory. “Some metal objects coming from the factory landed on the roof of the garage. We were so shocked and the explosions went on for several minutes. Every time there was an explosion, more flames would come out,” said the witness.
Factory manager Nikesh Singh said the injured workers were stable in hospital after experiencing third-degree burns. He said they were yet to investigate the cause of the fire and evaluate the total costs lost. “There was a big loss in our raw material which all got burnt, resulting in huge loses to the company. My vehicle also got burnt, which was an Audi A1. The damage is too much but we will evaluate everything during the week,” said Singh. He added that after having a meeting with the workers, they were all shocked and worried about their jobs. “I have assured them that everyone’s job is guaranteed and they will be taken care of.”
eThekwini municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said the cause of the fire was still unknown, adding that the Fire Safety division was closely monitoring all other similar factories.
The incident is the second fire at a Durban factory in less than a week after a similar explosion at Engen Oil Refinery on the Bluff at the weekend.
Sources: Divisional commander Dennis Govender and Station commander Shane A Heppell of Pinetown Fire Station, eThekwini Fire and Emergency Services; Robert McKenzie, spokesperson for KZN Emergency Medical Rescue Services; IOL; Anthony Kirkwood, video of ‘Unsung Heroes’