Non-working fire hydrants impeded efforts to fight the intense, smoky blaze that broke out at the Sparrows Point steel mill Friday, three sources told The Brew.
“They were filled with air, not water,” one eyewitness said of the hydrants located inside and around the tin mill, where the fire started around 11 a.m.
Eventually, water trucks from the company and a contractor were used to supplement the water carried by each of the responding Baltimore County fire trucks, this source said.
There were no reported injuries, but the fire caused extensive damage to the No. 1 tandem mill, a large piece of equipment that helps process steel into stock for tin cans.
When the fire broke out, attempts by employees to contain the blaze with a fire extinguisher and tap water running from a garden hose failed.
The county fire department responded to a 12:04 p.m. call from the mill and had the fire under control by 1:50 p.m., fire department spokesperson Elise Armacost said Friday.
According to sources, there was considerable confusion when the firefighters arrived because of the absence of working hydrants. “One of the firefighters was being driven around on a golf cart trying to locate a functional hydrant,” a person writing on The Brew’s comments page said Saturday. (See other comments.)
Bette Kovach, spokesperson for RG Steel, who purchased Sparrows Point from Severstal last March, has not yet responded to an e-mail asking about the condition of the hydrants.
Armacost said this morning that she did not know if the hydrants at the tin mill were working and would check with the incident commander. She confirmed that the hydrants are owned and maintained by the steel company.
Sources said the fire started while a burner crew was repairing a “flipper table” near the oiler nozzles of the No. 1 tandem stand. Hot metal, as well as sparks from the acetylene torch, apparently fell into a basement oil pit and ignited. The fire quickly spread from the basement and soon reached the roof.
Some workers expressed anger that fingers are being pointed at the burner crew for causing the fire, when poor housekeeping was the root cause of the blaze.
“The crew doing the burning job had all required authorizations and hot work permits, and had the required number of people on the job site,” said a commenter.
The fire has halted tinplate production at the mill. The company hasn’t said how long it might take to resume operations.
Kovach said Friday that “efforts are being taken to minimize any impact to our customers.”