Americans, Iraqis defeat blaze

6 Aug 2003 | Army Spc. Benjamin R. Kibbey

As impenetrable black smoke and scorching flames towered over the barren desert outside the city, local firemen, Marines and sailors prevented a potential environmental catastrophe after a calculated attack set a fuel pipeline on fire.

According to witnesses, a group of men pulled up in a vehicle Aug. 1 and fired two rocket-propelled grenades at an exposed valve in the crude oil pipeline that runs west of Karbala, Iraq.

The saboteurs accomplished at least part of their goal when the valve, which had been leaking for several days, exploded into flames, spewing unrefined oil onto the ground and creating a giant fire.

The first to arrive on the scene were Karbala firefighters, who were later assisted by firefighters from the nearby cities of Al Hilla and An Najaf.  They began to make progress with a foam and water mixture, but oil continued to spread out onto the ground behind the firefighters

Hoses had to be redirected from time to time to put out fires that sprung from the bubbling river of oil.

By the time coalition forces arrived - by following the black pall of smoke pouring from the western edge of the city -- the Iraqi firemen were low on water, fuel and flame retardant.

Army Sgt. Eric Urian, from Smyrna, Del., a member of the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade of Philadelphia, Pa. and the governate support team liaison to the fire department for 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, took charge of the situation. Urian called up military and civilian resources from around the city assist against the resilient force of the blaze.

Water trucks from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 and the city were soon refilling the fire engines as radio messages went out looking for any available pieces of earthmoving equipment.

As quickly as the Seabees could load up and truck out to the fire, they answered the call with a bulldozer driven by Lance Cpl. Joshua Andrew Hanson, from Duluth, Minn., a heavy equipment operator with the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, First Marine Division, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Hanson dove into the flames and smoke, pushing sand and earth into the heart of the blaze in an attempt to smother and control it.

He pushed on against the flames, backing out to be sprayed down by hoses to cool the bulldozer and extinguish the oil that began to cling to the front and sides of the bulldozer and catch fire.

Time after time he went in, observers growing concerned as he disappeared inside the flames and smoke, and time after time he came out again, only to return into the fiery blackness, driving sand and flames before him.

For five hours the battle raged as firefighters and Marine fought to reach the valve that lie at the heart of the fire and stop the flow of oil that fed it.

"I've never put out a fire with a bulldozer before," said Hanson.  "A lot of people ask me if it was scary, but I love doing my job.  The fire was hot, but that wasn't what worried me the most.

"There was so much smoke, and there was oil up on the windshield.  There was oil on the dozer, so there would be flames up the side of the dozer, and they'd spray me off.  By the time we got there, the fire was spreading out, so I just got in there and cut the fire off, and pushed it in and contained it."

Finally, after five hours working around and within the inferno, and with the fire mostly contained and everything he could do with his bulldozer done, Hanson and the Marines and sailors he works with packed up.

"(The fire) was smaller, and it was contained," he said.  "When we were leaving, they were getting more foam to spray on the fire.  The oil wasn't just on the ground, it was on the valve and pipeline, so they had to either let it burn out, or spray it down with foam."

More foam had been brought from other towns, including some from Baghdad, according to Urian.

"I think they did an excellent job," Urian said.  "When we arrived, there were already four trucks there.  Overall, it was a lot better performance than expected.  They don't have any communications, and yet they coordinated everything between Hilla and Najaf, had the oil department out there, and just the professionalism they showed out there."

Most who witnessed the work were impressed.

"It was a remarkable job, and the crews there were very courageous to do this job," said Capt. Mahdy Zaky Mahdy, the chief of one of the local fire stations who was at the fire.  "It was very remarkable work in everything, in doing their job, in time, in spite of the capability they've got."

"I am very proud, and I feel in this situation, as a force, I feel like I am 20 years old, and the work accomplished, I cannot put any amount of money in replace of it," he added.

The firefighters have fought oil fires before - even though they were left ill equipped to properly handle the task by the previous regime - and they take their job with a sense of pride and honor that comes out in their actions and words.

"Previously, I regarded them as unknown soldiers, because those men were the men who made the most sacrifices," said Lt. Col. Abdul Al-Kareem-Mohsan Zaier, the fire chief of Karbala, referring to the local firefighters. "In the past, they were willing to give their lives, and the salaries were paid to other people who did not deserve it, but it made no difference because we are all human beings."

Under the past regime, the firemen were paid very little, but that never affected their jobs, said Abdul.  They are not firemen for the money.

"It is our job to serve everybody here, and get nothing in return," said the twenty-year firefighting veteran.  "We are willing to sacrifice our lives to save the people, and we will stay as firemen, even if a better paying job is offered.  We will stay firemen until we retire or die in the line of duty."

Even during the war, when there was no government to pay them or sustain order, the firefighters worked as they always had, and, said Abdul, as they always will.

The heroes of that night were honored Aug. 6, at the city's main police station.

Hanson was presented with a necklace by Gen. Abbas Fabhil, chief of police, on behalf of the city of Karbala to show their gratitude for his heroism.

"This is a necklace with the name of God," said Abbas.  "I am going to give this to you as a sign that God was helping you there. I hope that you will keep this and take care of it and be proud of it in front of your family."

In addition, Hanson received a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal at the same ceremony from Lt. Col. Matthew A. Lopez, the military governor of Karbala province and 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines commanding officer, to which Hanson's unit is assigned.

"It's all a little much, I really believe," said Hanson of the awards.  "I didn't realize how big of a thing I was doing for them.  It was just a big oil fire, and I was doing what I could do."