Coal fire linked to torch
Friday, January 11, 2002, By Jeff Kart, Times Writer
An explosion inside a Consumers Energy Co. building filled with coal and coal dust in Hampton Township ignited fires that took six hours to extinguish Thursday, firefighters said. The blaze started at about 4 p.m. after a worker used a cutting torch on railroad tracks inside the dumping building, which is used to dump coal from rail cars into a hopper and onto conveyor belts, firefighters said. There was 1 to 6 inches of coal dust and 100 tons of coal inside the building, part of the Karn-Weadock complex, 2555 Weadock Road, firefighters said. The dumping building is five stories tall; four of those stories are underground. Eight fire departments and a total of 40 firefighters used foam and water to put out the fires, said Hampton Township Fire Chief Wayne Schaefer. "It was a very, very volatile situation," Schaefer said. "The problem is that it's such a fine dust that if you were to hit it directly with water, it would be like spraying gunpowder into an open flame." Schaefer said the fire started after a contractor had used a cutting torch to repair a railroad track inside the building. Hot metal from the repairs fell into a pile of coal dust in a hopper below the tracks, igniting the pile and causing it to smolder, he said. No one noticed the smoldering pile until a rail car was dumped inside the building, riling up the coal dust and causing an explosion, Schaefer said. One worker was inside the building at the time, but he was in a control room and not injured, the fire chief said. There was no structural damage to the building, he said. But Karn-Weadock General Manager John Dobbs said Schaefer's explanation is only one possibility. Dobbs said Consumers will investigate the incident to determine exactly how it happened and how to keep it from happening in the future. "We need to get to the root cause and correct it," which should take about a week, he said. Dobbs said contractors follow a safety procedure when welding in the building. He said coal may have been smoldering in a rail car that was dumped in the building, or a spark from dumping equipment may have caused the fires. The Hampton Township Fire Department responded along with departments from Essexville, Portsmouth and Frankenlust, using foam from Kawkawlin, Pinconning, Bangor and Monitor fire departments, Schaefer said. "To put it in simple terms, what we wanted to do was make it rain inside that building with foam and water," he said. The building, constructed of steel, is about 40 feet wide and 250 feet long, he said. "Half of that building had spot fires in it," the chief said. "(The explosion) set off fires in at least a dozen and a half places." Dobbs said the coal from the building can still be used. - Jeff Kart covers Bay County government for The Times. He can be reached at 894-9639.
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