MIAMI (CBS4) – Just weeks ago, a massive fire at Miami International Airport left a fuel farm in ruins and severely hampered air travel through the airport.
But, the CBS4 I-Team uncovered new evidence that showed the story that initially went public wasn’t completely accurate, and the entire incident came close to being a catastrophe.
“Right here is north pump pad,” said Miami International Airport Fire Rescue Chief Pedro Bas as he outlined exactly what happened during the fire on a map.
Chief Pedro Bas and his team now know with relative certainty where and how that massive jet fuel fire began.
“We did determine the cause and the origin of the fire,” Chief Bas told the CBS4 I-Team.
They also know what has, until now, not become public.
“We had a lot of fire on this tank which carries 700 thousand gallons of fuel,” said Chief Bas. “Our guys first of all maintained an extremely aggressive attack. They were within feet of the pumps and also there was the main concern that we had was one of the tanks was impinged by fire, one of the fuel tanks.”
That means that the massive conflagration came within minutes, even seconds, of becoming catastrophic.
“So our biggest concern was that that tank would breach. If that tank would have breached the potential of losing firefighters was great,” Chief Bas told the I-Team.
Now, using a source in a position to know, as well as information pieced together from the official fire investigation, the CBS4 I-Team has, for the first time, constructed in detail what apparently went wrong.
“It was a mechanical failure within one of the fuel pumps,” said Chief Bas. Mechanical, not electrical, as first reported publicly.
Apparently one of the large main jet fuel pumps in front of tank number 17 somehow breached. The manifold separated enough to spray jet fuel under extremely high pressure out into the air. That, officials believe, set off the chain of events which led to massive explosions.
“There was a failure within the system that we believe possibly caused a seal to fail and probably some pressure issues within the pump that created the problem,” said Bas.
That set off an explosion in the jet fuel. It was an explosion that rocked the entire system.
“There was also a large manifold, a main manifold that delivers the fuel to the airfield and there was a failure within that manifold as well. That manifold was also pressurized and that created almost like a blowtorch effect,” said Bas. “And that’s the kind of fire that our guys were facing that day.”
This was no mere gasoline fire as it takes a lot more to set off jet fuel than regular gasoline. You would need heat of around 160 degrees Fahrenheit to ignite jet fuel, versus only minus 45 degrees to set gas on fire.
“We’ve isolated it to a small area we’ve isolated it to a filter to a particular pump,” said Bas.
I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked, “A fuel filter?”
“Yes. It was associated the filter is associated to the pump,” said Bas.
Asked Stock, “It wasn’t electrical?” “Yes,” replied Bas. “It was mechanical?” asked Stock. “Yes,” replied Chief Bas.
Stock further questioned whether it was human error, but Chief Bas again said no. The chief pegged the fire as nothing more than an accident.
A source in a position to know also told the CBS4 I-Team that the explosions and pressures blew off the heavy lid to filter number two. It is a heavy filter lid which is bolted down by a half-dozen, half-inch thick bolts.
The force to blow off such a lid is an event the source said happens in only rare occasions when gases accumulate inside the large filters that are larger than a human.
These events can happen, according to several studies, when the jet fuel is re-introduced into the filters too quickly after maintenance has been conducted on them.
The source told the I-Team that filter number two had apparently been cleared of jet fuel in order to conduct yearly maintenance on it the day before the explosion.
An official with the company that contracts with Miami-Dade to run the fuel farm and oversee maintenance did not return phone calls to the I-Team seeking an explanation or comment.
Chief Bas said he did not know one way or the other if maintenance had been done at the farm prior to the explosions.
“Every single one of the pumps, at some point in time, was engulfed in fire. Therefore, there were failures with all the pumps different in nature,” said Bas.
“This was the tank that was impinged by heavy fire,” said Bas as he showed the I-Team the map again.
Bas said that had the fire completely breached the 70,000 gallon fuel tank; it could have dumped thousands of gallons of jet fuel everywhere.
That could have overwhelmed the earth containment dikes, putting the lives of dozens of firefighters at risk; and possibly sending the jet fuel, water, and foam into a canal that drains into the Miami River down into Biscayne Bay.
“There was a point in time at the command post we considered pulling back because we were having a hard time controlling the fire,” said Bas. “We made the decision at that time to continue to attacking the fire and luckily for everyone’s sake it was the right decision.”
This is all part of fire officials’ preliminary assessment of the fire. What fire officials are still trying to determine is why this all happened.
That’s why the airport authority is looking to hire a specialized engineering firm to give a formal report on the exact sequence of events that lead to this near-disaster.
The report is expected to be completed in two to three months.
One thing that is known for certain, firefighters fought this blaze heroically and if it hadn’t been for the risks they took, this could have been much, much worse.