On Dec. 9, 1993, at approximately 2:00 a.m., a person — presumably a man — broke the front glass door to the B&G Chemicals & Equipment Co. warehouse in San Antonio, Texas, and, through the steel bars, sprayed propellant for a fire. It was the third fire he had lit that night. Who he was, why he set the fires, why he picked B&G — we will probably never have answers to these questions. But by revisiting the incident 20 years later, we can at least learn a cautionary tale about how a family business can weather the literal firestorm that hit them as a result.
I share our story because I believe enough time has passed that I can tell more of the story. It’s important because anyone storing pesticides, especially in today’s litigious environment, could find themselves in a situation very close to the one I describe. If you feel stretched with your small business now, how will you deal with it when a crisis hits — and takes up almost all of your time for six months straight? Even the best emergency planning can only take you so far in an actual crisis. Despite having a solid plan in place, our situation became a long cascade of challenges that lasted six years.
On Dec. 9, 1993, my family and I were at a hotel nearly 200 miles away in Houston, attending the Texas Pest Control Association meeting there. My regional sales manager called my room around 2:45 a.m. to inform me of the fire. I woke up our general manager, who was at the same meeting. We agreed that he would go to the airport and get to San Antonio as quickly as possible, and that I would start coordinating things from the hotel. I called or left messages for our attorney, insurance agent and various B&G personnel. This would be the beginning of a non-stop, three-week immersion into a situation whose scope would take somewhat of a toll on our company.
The facility was a 6,000-square-foot warehouse and showroom. We had been at the location for 18 years. It had approximately $250,000 worth of inventory. I arrived on the scene around 11:30 a.m.; it was raining and the fire was not out yet. More than 200 emergency response personnel were on the scene. There was a mobile command post established for police and fire personnel.
The fire department had classified the situation as a 5-alarm fire. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission had personnel there. The city of San Antonio had initiated an emergency response. Using the city’s bus system, they started an immediate evacuation: Anyone living or working within a six-square block area of our facility was evacuated for three days. Two miles of Interstate 10 were closed for Friday morning rush hour because it was downwind of our facility. Any school within the evacuation zone or downwind of our facility was closed. Approximately 150 families and an untold number of businesses were affected by the evacuation. B&G’s independent Emergency Response Company had 15 personnel there.
I cannot describe the stress that envelops a team when it is faced with a crisis of this magnitude. But we were blessed to have so many good people, including several industry friends, who came around to support us. We had an emergency response plan in place, and we had been trained in emergency communications. After the initial shock passed, we knew we could start dealing with the problem.
The immediate tasks that presented themselves in those first hours was that the government command team wanted a complete inventory and Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for every product that was present at the time of the fire. They wanted hard copies of all the MSDS that had just burned up in the fire. This was before the Internet, mind you, so we had copies made of all the MSDS at our Dallas office and drove them over to San Antonio. Then we realized we needed more than one copy of each MSDS, because different groups wanted their own copy and we needed to retain a set.
The initial firefighters had tried to extinguish the fire until an arriving environmental coordinator had pulled them away upon seeing the diamond on the outside of the building. This left chemical runoff that reached two blocks away. We had our environmental team construct berms at the site and the furthest point of contamination. They then washed down and vacuumed the streets between the first berm at the site and the runoff points.
The governmental environmental team was concerned about smoke and ash residue on the homes and buildings in the areas exposed to the smoke. What chemicals were present, and what was the best way to manage the evacuation of the affected families and businesses? When should residents be allowed to return? By the end of the first day, the fire had subsided, but was still active. It was not completely extinguished for three days. We had a reputable environmental testing company do widespread air and surface analysis on and near the homes and schools affected. The testing that weekend cost $85,000 (in 1993 dollars), but thankfully it showed little contamination affecting the area.
Aerosol cans and a 55-gallon drum of pyrethrum had created quite a fireworks display, and the fire department was concerned about any continued explosions. The drum exited the roof of the building and flew 150 feet in the air in an arch, coming down and destroying the awning of a neighboring business 200 feet away. All that was in the drum was one-half percent pyrethrum and kerosene.
By the evening of the first day, no one had been in the building, and it was cordoned off for fear that something else might start more fireworks. We convinced them that I could suit up and tell them what was still unburned inside the building. At the time, I was wearing dress shoes, slacks, a buttoned-down shirt and a blue blazer. I put on a cartridge respirator, a nonwoven Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suit over my clothes, and rubber booties over my shoes. I methodically searched the building and determined that all the chemicals had burned in the fire.
Glass and brass handles from B&G sprayers had melted, which meant the fire had reached 1,800°F. The only product that had not burned, in fact, were the water-based mosquito larvicides. This allowed a lot of the fire personnel to stand down and allow our personnel to start working on the fire. Police cordoned the area for three days until we could hire our own 24-hour guards — who worked there for six months.
Early the following week, there was a neighborhood meeting — complete with local news outlets’ TV cameras, several public officials, many concerned businesses and homeowners, and me. I made sure I met and talked to most of the homeowners before the meeting. I had been in a number of their houses, and listened to (and tried to address) their concerns. I had training in public speaking, but I don’t consider myself an eloquent speaker. Still, I told the truth. I showed respect and concern. I told our story, noting that it was an arsonist who had attacked us all. But most importantly, I listened to the people, and I promised that we would not leave until we had fixed the problem that had been created. Our insurance company worked with residents who had lost things because of the fire. The majority of those affected were poor families — and the fact that we had no litigation involving the fire humbles me to this day.
In an emergency, the problems that present themselves are fast-moving. They come all at once, not in a list one at a time. Prioritizing and working on consensus with other stakeholders during and after the emergency is absolutely vital to getting through a crisis as smoothly as possible. I use the term “stakeholders” because it soon became obvious that none of the responding agencies and crews were going to leave until the problem was resolved. I needed them, and they needed me. There were families woken from their sleep in the middle of the night who were stakeholders, too. They needed to know when they could get back to their homes, and to know that what had happened was not going to happen again.
The following six years were filled with paid environmental consultants, city and state regulatory officials, soil clean-up, additional testing, and haggling with the insurance company. It cost a large sum of money that I had no comprehension would be part of the cost. We did not carry Interruption of Business insurance or Environmental Contamination insurance.
Trying to find a new location that the city would approve and we could afford was a year-long ordeal in itself. In the interim, the San Antonio team did deliveries out of the Austin office. The team worked tirelessly. I had no comprehension how many levels a crisis could impact. I was naive about the challenges that we were going to face. If it were not for our team, our understanding customers and our many good friends in the industry, I don’t see how we would have survived. And although I couldn’t possibly have said this 20, or even 10 years ago, I can say it now: Having a long-term perspective on a crisis does help. Remember, it’s not just one day of emergency and then everything goes back to normal. Be honest, be communicative, listen to the stakeholders and do all that you can do, and eventually, this will be in your rear-view mirror.