TODAY

TODAY   |  April 18, 2013

Fertilizer plant fire will be ‘very difficult to fight’

NBC’s Tom Costello talks about the challenges of containing a chemical fire like the one that is still burning at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> nbc's tom costello in washington this morning. taking a look at the dangers that these kind of fertilizer plants may pose. tom, good morning to you.

>> matt, good morning. some of the witnesses have said that it sounded like and felt like a bomb went off in oklahoma city back in 1995 , and remember, that was, of course, a fertilizer based bomb. not saying this was a bomb, but this was a fertilizer plant. these are very difficult fires to fight. i've talked to veteran fire commanders this morning saying fires involving ammonium nitrate are volatile and unpredictable. this explosion that occurred was said to rain embers and shrapnel and debris down on to them. the firefighters' bible to responding to a chemical fire of any sort is the emergency responders guide. and it says if the ammonium nitrate fire is in a tanker, a radius of 1/2 mile should be evacuated and firefighters should flood it with water from a distance and hose positions should be unmanned. what we don't know this morning is what other chemicals might have been involved once that fire seemed to spread from one building to another and how those buildings would -- and how those chemicals would react to the water. foam is generally used in petroleum type firefighters. the goal was to put a layer of foam on top of that and then prevent the vapors from igniting. that's not what happened here. we don't believe. by the way, the ocean guide for dealing with ammonium fires warrants that containers of ammonia could explode and the heat and fire and firefighters should cool the containers from the sides with water. a lot of talk about whether firefighters did the right thing. we simply don't know.

>> let me interrupt for a second. i'm looking at a report from the "dallas morning news" and talks about the fact there were 54,000 pounds of anhydrous and ammonia on site. that's according to a filing with the company. and it says emergency responders should not mix water used for fire fighting directly as this will result in warming the product causing the liquid to turn into a vapor cloud. should they use water or not use water?

>> and i will tell you that the veteran fire commanders i've talked to this morning can only speak about ammonium nitrate as it relates to anhydrous ammonia , that's not particularly clear this morning. we are told this is a volunteer fire department that responded to this call. they in many cases can be just as well trained as paid teams and paid firefighters. but we don't know specifically what their training was and instructions were for dealing with this kind of fire.

>> and i'm sure we're going to be hearing more from that fire department throughout the day. tom, thank you very much.