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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Apparent Fatalities in Staten Island Blast

Aired February 21, 2003 - 11:03   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: You and I have had a lot of questions about how do you attack a fire like this. And we have someone on the phone with us right now who's going to be answer a lot of those questions. Ronnie Rolls (ph) is president of Kugwell (ph) Controls. Their job, to put out fires, just like the one we're watching now.
Ronnie, good morning, thanks for joining us.

RONNIE ROLLS (ph): Good morning.

KAGAN: I don't know if you've been able to watch what's taking place, but how do you control something like this.

ROLLS (ph): I haven't seen anything that's going on. I'm not privy to a TV at the moment.

KAGAN: Let's bring you up to date. What we know so far, we believe this was a propane barge that was being refueled at this Staten Island facility run by Exxon Mobil. Some type of explosion took place almost about an hour ago. We've seen huge plumes of smoke and large flames, mainly sitting on the water off of Staten Island.

How do you attack something like that?

ROLLS (ph): Well, it's, again, without seeing everything, it would be pretty difficult for me to say that. The thing that you just can't do, you just can't walk in to where there's a lot of fire, and try and go on fighting the thing.

I'm not for sure what's blown up there. You said probably a ship or something like that?

KAGAN: A propane barge.

In fact, just in the half hour or so that we've been watching, it seems like the flames have died down somewhat. It appears this is the type of thing they're letting burn itself out.

ROLLS (ph): Yes, and that's what I was going to say. It may be, if it is a ship or something like that, you're not going to be able to board it. The only thing that you could do would be to try to cool it as much as you could, cool things around it, and then if there's any fuel, anything like that on the water, the best thing to do is let it burn itself out, because trying to put some of those things out like that is very difficult.

KAGAN: What about the environmental concerns, both from the fuel in the water and the smoke we're seeing spread all across New York City today?

ROLLS (ph): Well, the smoke is definitely something that, you know, peoples going to be breathing, that sort of thing. The fuel on the water, if it can let it burn itself up, then it's not going to cause any problems. If there was any oil or anything like that, that's going to wash ashore, from my understanding, what I'm saying, you believing it's propane or something like that, I just don't believe that's going to be a problem, because the propane itself is going to vaporize, and if it's liquid that's on the water right now, it will vaporize, and it won't be a problem.

KAGAN: All right, Ronnie Rolls, president of Cudwell (ph) Controls, thank you very much -- Leon.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we're going to move on.

We have joining us now on the telephone, Commander Jim McPherson of the coast card.

Commander McPherson, can you tell us what's going on right now? Commander McPherson, are you there? Well, we do not have Commander McPherson from the Coast Guard with us yet. We'll try to get him on the phone.

As you can see now, it looks as though this fire has burned itself well under control from what we saw just 10 minutes ago. This was fully engaged. We weren't even able to see any of this structure whatsoever.

But now we're able to see the structure and what looks like perhaps gas escaping from some source there that is now burning, and it looks like the fire, for the large part, most part, is either not burned itself out or close to being under control.

Now we're joined on the telephone by commander Jim McPherson with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Commander McPherson, what can you tell us about what happened here, do you know?

JIM MCPHERSON, COAST GUARD SPOKESMAN: Well, we had an explosion that occurred at the port mobile facility, the Arthur Kill in Staten Island. The Coast Guard is the federal on-scene coordinator. We have two rescue boats on scene right now, and we have three other larger Coast Guard cutters, Coast Guard cutter Juniper, Coast Guard cutter Houser, and Coast Guard cutter Hammerhead are en route.

The captain of the port has closed the waterway at this time, and our major priority is to make sure that the port remains safe.

HARRIS: You say you've got rescue operations under way. How many people do you think you're going to have to rescue? And where are they right now?

MCPHERSON: We're always prepared to rescue anyone who needs it. We're not sure. We wanted to get assets over there as quickly as possible.

As you can tell by the size of the fire and smoke, it's very difficult to tell what's going on right now. Our main concern is search and rescue and also protection of the port.

HARRIS: Do you have any idea how many people may have been in the vicinity or actually working there when this broke out?

MCPHERSON: No, we really don't have that information. The Coast Guard is in a response mode right now. We just want to get assets over there as quickly as possible. We got a call immediately after the explosion, and we have a Coast Guard helicopter on scene right now, giving us aerial views of what we need to do and what we need to get over there.

HARRIS: We saw the helicopter a few moments ago when it first arrived on the scene, at least first to our eyes. What does the Coast Guard do in a situation like this when you do arrive on the scene, when you're cutters do get there? You're cutters don't fight the fire, do they?

MCPHERSON: Well, we have some limited firefighting capability. But obviously, with a fire this big, what we want to do is see if there's anyone we can save immediately, and also be prepared to any other kind of contingency operations, if we need to move equipment away, or move a barge away. But right now, we're standing by, we're closing the area to make sure no other large vessels pass in the area.

HARRIS: We heard there's been a half mile evacuation area declared, so anyone who lives within a half mile of this vicinity is going to have to be evacuated. Do you know of any people on the water you are going to have to evacuate?

MCPHERSON: We're still in the response mode. We're ready there. We have some boats in there, if anyone needs it. Right now, the Coast Guard is just in charge as the federal on-scene coordinator and the captain will be making decisions as to what else needs to be done.

HARRIS: What do the people on the boats or the people in the helicopter told you about the way this looks environmentally. Has there been an oil spill or anything to be concerned about here?

MCPHERSON: Well, certainly, there's oil on the water, and our special hazardous pollution teams in North Carolina have already been notified and are heading out to that area at this time.

HARRIS: Can you tell us how wide an area we're looking at here with this spill?

MCPHERSON: It's difficult to tell right now. That has to be evaluated. It's breaking too quickly.

HARRIS: At this particular point, are you concerned about the smoke causing any problems, or any other particulates that may come out of the fire? Is there anything you have to do about that? MCPHERSON: Well, we're going to stand by. There's not much we can do on that right now. We'll be getting information. We're coordinating closely with the other state and local agencies about what the best plan of action is to fight the fire.

HARRIS: What time did you get the call on this, because we've been watching this, and we didn't see very much -- we didn't see any boat traffic at all by the time we got on this story, and we got on it after 10 minutes or 15 minutes after the explosion was reported.

MCPHERSON: We had several smaller boats under way at the time, and they were able to get on scene very quickly.

HARRIS: And they were able to shut down all traffic?

MCPHERSON: That's correct.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let me just jump in here while you're talking to the commander, Leon. We're getting word at CNN that this was a refueling accident. That's what the commander was telling us. It also appears there were fatalities is what wire CNN has been able to learn.

I guess you would imagine there were people on this ship or on the barge while it was being refueled, and there's just no way you could survive a huge explosion and a fire like this.

MCPHERSON: Right now, we're searching off the waters to see if anyone's in the water that needs assistance, and our Coast Guard helicopter is doing a safety patrol, along with the other vessels that are right off shore.

HARRIS: How much experience does the Coast Guard have with this sort of activity, this sort of emergency? Have you had to deal with something like this in this area before?

MCPHERSON: Oh, certainly in this area is something you're always concerned about, but there's 361 major ports in the United States, and the Coast Guard or captains of the port have all special training in these type of areas, particularly refinery and refueling areas. So it's something we are familiar with, we do have contingency plans.

HARRIS: All right, well, Commander Jim McPherson, thank you for taking time to talk to us. We'll let you go get back to work. We don't want to occupy all of your time. And good luck to you and your colleagues who are out there working on this situation, the situation which seems to be close to getting under control.

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