Puerto Rico Refinery Fire Extinguished; Burned for two Days

October 26, 2009

Firefighters in Puerto Rico extinguished a huge fire Saturday that had raged for more than two days at an oil storage depot outside San Juan and forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 local residents.
Federal agents prepared to make a detailed inspection of the site at the Caribbean Petroleum Corporation’s Bayamon facility to try to determine what caused the powerful explosion early Friday that triggered the blaze.

The fire, one of the largest ever seen in the U.S. Caribbean island territory, sent a towering column of black toxic smoke spewing into the air outside the capital, raising fears of a public health risk and pollution damage.

No deaths were reported but at least two people were hurt.

“The fire has been completely put out. The imminent danger in the area has passed,” Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno told a news conference. “Now life returns to normal, and we will enter a phase of assistance and reconstruction.”

President Barack Obama declared an emergency in Puerto Rico, mobilizing federal disaster relief resources for the area affected by the fire.

Firefighters were working to damp down the facility after the last blazing storage tank had been extinguished. They were checking to ensure the site was completely safe, said Fire Department spokeswoman Brenda Rodriguez.

The blaze destroyed nearly half of the storage facility’s 40 tanks, containing a variety of oil products from gasoline to jet fuel.

As the site was made secure, investigators from the FBI, Puerto Rico Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board prepared to inspect the scene and collect evidence.

Environmental safety officials said that air quality had improved in the San Juan area as the huge black plume of smoke from the blaze began to dissipate.

The governor said air quality monitoring would continue, and the surrounding area would be inspected for other possible damage, such as pollution of waterways.

Expressways and roads into San Juan which had been partially blocked by the smoke were reopened Sunday and the U.S. Coast Guard lifted the safety zone it had established in the part of San Juan bay adjacent to the fire scene.
an Juan schools, which were closed Friday as a precautionary measure, were due to reopen Monday.

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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