By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
On a late spring morning in 1949, a tractor-trailer entered the Holland Tunnel on the New Jersey side at 8:45 a.m. in heavy traffic, carrying 80 drums of hazardous chemicals. One of the drums fell off the truck, sparking a fire that generated toxic fumes, intensely high heat and caused more than $1 million in total damage.
The fire destroyed and damaged trucks, incinerated the ceiling slabs and roadway of the Holland and demolished 600 feet of the tunnel’s white- tiled interior. Remarkably, the final tally in the aftermath of the devastation was 66 injuries, but no fatalities.
“One of the main challenges in fighting the 1949 fire likely was the sheer number of vehicles moving through the tunnel during the morning rush,” said Dan Portuese, who recently was promoted to General Manager of Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals Operations Services.
According to traffic statistics from 1949, the annual number of trucks on the nation’s roads in 1935 was about 732,000 before climbing to more than 6.5 million by 1948.
On the morning of the fire, the truck, with its highly flammable load, was in violation of Port Authority regulations. It had been traveling without the customary “Dangerous” placard as required by the Interstate Commerce Commission.
The fire was very difficult to extinguish due to thick smoke, heavy fumes and close quarters, requiring the assistance of both the New York and Jersey City fire departments. Firemen entered the eastbound tube from the New Jersey entrance and worked their way through two lanes of parked vehicles formed by more than 100 automobiles, buses and trucks.
Progress was slow due to very low visibility. The cleanup took hours as the crews had to remove the fused remains of the trucks. Hundreds of tons of rubble and debris were taken from the tube before it could be reopened to traffic, almost three days later.
“Today things are even more complicated,” said Portuese. “We’re dealing not only with a greater number and wider variety of vehicles, but also vehicles traveling at faster speeds burning gasoline, diesel and potentially alternative fuels.”
Although the Holland Tunnel fire was expensive and an inconvenient occurrence, it provided a useful but grave warning to the Port Authority about the dangers of flagrant violations in the shipment of hazardous chemicals and the lack of suitable provisions for the enforcement of regulations. The fire might easily have been a major disaster with the loss of many lives. Instead, the incident helped to shape future safety provisions in tunnel operations.
“Fire events are bound to occur at all our facilities, including the Holland and Lincoln tunnels,” said Portuese, “but our skilled facility staff is prepared to deal with these events when they arise. We have traffic rules and regulations that establish the requirements for any vehicle traveling through our tunnels or over our bridges. We have sophisticated training methods, effective detection systems, advanced technologies and simulated emergency drills that allow us to keep our customers, employees and the public as a whole safe in their travels.”