Thursday, October 11, 2007

Whitley Fuel Depot Fire Arrest

Back in late July I wrote about a fire at the Whitley Fuel Depot in Spokane, WA. Early on the local authorities claimed that the fire was “suspicious” and called in the ATF to help them catch the “arsonist”. Yesterday, local news reports indicated that an arrest had been made. The local 19 year-old male is accused of starting the fire by firing bottle rockets into the fuel depot. Needless to say, he claims to be innocent and was somewhere else when the fire started.


Obviously, there is not enough information provided in news reports to make a decision about gilt or innocence. The authorities do not tell the newspapers all that they know, or more importantly, all that they do not know; neither do defense attorneys. Having said that, it does not look like a not so juvenile delinquent with bottle rockets is the whole story, if news stories are any indication. In a subsequent blog I wrote:


An earlier newspaper article claimed that there were holes in two of the tanks on site and that investigators appeared to have found a tool on site that could have made those holes.


Holes punched in storage tanks would seem to imply a premeditated attempt at arson. If that is the case, and I do not know how accurate those news reports were, the use of bottle rockets to ignite the blaze is incredibly stupid. While they could work, if they detonated at a place with the proper concentrations of fuel and air, it would be difficult to get them to hit and detonate in the proper place; variations in packing the propellant and internal fuse length are huge. Additionally, they have a distinctive smoke trail that points right back at the person launching them. There are a number of other ways that such a fire could have been ignited that would have been much more effective.


There is, of course, nothing that requires criminals to be smart. A nineteen year old pyromaniac, if that is what he is, may not have the experience or knowledge to realize how stupid this ignition device was. Then again, how would he have known enough to punch holes in the storage tanks? All in all it does not seem that the news reports have the whole story, but I guess that that is to be expected.


The one thing that this incident does show is how important it is to have at least some minimum level of security procedures in place when one has hazardous chemicals like gasoline on site. If the holes had not been punched in the tanks, it is very probable that bottle rockets could not have started this blaze. Just a little bit more security would have prevented this accused 19-year old from entering the facility and punching holes in the tanks. Security managers at other chemical facilities need to keep this type attack inmind when they go through their SVA and design their SSP; just remember that bottle rockets should not be the expected source of detonation.


Now if the police in Houston could just find that chlorine cylinder…..

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