APS explosion a powerful, painful lesson
The near deaths of four Peoria firefighters may lead to dramatic changes in the way fires involving solar power systems are handled.
Three days after APS released a technical report on the probable cause of a lithium-ion battery storage explosion that seriously injured four Peoria firefighters, the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI) released a report detailing the firefighters’ response.
In chilling detail, it describes the moments before and after the explosion—which “ballistically propelled” one firefighter 70 feet into a chain-link fence and hurled another firefighter 30 feet.
“It’s a miracle all of them are alive,” said Bryan Jeffries, president of the 7,000-member Professional Firefighters of Arizona and a captain with the Mesa Fire Department.
On April 19, 2019, four members of the Peoria Fire-Medical Hazardous Materials Response (“hazmat”) team were called to the McMicken Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) in Surprise.
They saw smoke and smelled acrid fumes coming from the shipping container-sized lithium-ion battery cell facility, where batteries were being charged with solar power. The APS report released July 28 said a “cascading thermal runaway” started a battery chain reaction that filled the facility with flammable gas.
The firefighters who responded to the BESS facility were not prepared for what faced them, according to both reports.
After analyzing the situation as best they could for nearly two hours, the Peoria team decided to enter the facility.
At 8:02 p.m., the Peoria firefighters opened a door and began diagnosing the interior.
Two minutes later, an explosion injured Capt. Hunter Clare, Engineer Justin Lopez and firefighters Matt Cottini and Jake Ciulla. All four were hospitalized.
According to the FSRI report, Lopez “suffered a traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a broken leg, a separated shoulder, laceration of the liver, thermal and chemical burns, a missing tooth and facial lacerations.”
Clare also suffered a traumatic brain injury, according to the report, as well as an eye injury, spine damage, broken ribs, a broken scapula, thermal and chemical burns, internal bleeding, two broken ankles and a broken foot.
Cottini’s injuries included a fractured patella, broken leg, spine damage, thermal burns and facial lacerations. The least injured was Ciulla, who had minor burns and lacerations.
“I was there in the hospital with them right after it happened,” Jeffries said. In addition to the physical injuries, “the psychological trauma is pretty significant,” Jeffries said.
“What they experienced in nanoseconds before the explosion, they will never forget. One of the guys told me it was like the loudest freight train you can ever imagine driving right over you.”
The union president acknowledged the response from the firefighters’ employers.
“Fire Chief Bobby Ruiz and the city of Peoria have been intensely helpful and supportive … and are working together to take care of these firefighters and their families. This is a life-changing event,” Jeffries said.