Today’s massive fire at a grain storage building in Cork Harbour is the third fire at the facility in recent months.
The Irish Examiner has learned that firefighters were called to two smaller fires at the R&H Hall building at the Port of Cork’s deepwater port facilities in Ringaskiddy in the last four months.
It is understood that one of those fires was linked to a mechanical problem with a conveyor belt system inside the building, which caused enough friction to generate enough heat to spark a fire.
Damage during those two fires was minimal but today’s fire was one of the largest in the Ringaskiddy industrial zone, home to several global pharmaceutical plants, since the Hickson pharmaceutical plant explosion and fire in 1993.
Gardaí and the Health and Safety Authority have launched separate investigations into the cause of today’s blaze but initial indications suggest it is not malicious.
The alarm was raised just before 8.45am when locals reported a massive plume of smoke rising from the deepwater port compound. It could be seen from up to 20km away.
Two units of the Cork County Fire Service, one from Carrigaline and one from Crosshaven, were tasked to the scene.
Chris Gledhill, the station office of Carrigaline Fire Station and the on-scene commander, said: “When our pagers went off, and I went outside to make my way to the station, I could see the plume of smoke from my house in Carrigaline and I knew it was going to be a big one.”
The R&H Hall storage complex was well ablaze when the three units arrived at the scene.
The Port of Cork advised people to close windows and doors and remain indoors, and it later suspended all shipping operations in Ringaskiddy as a precaution.
Mr Gledhill said the blaze was so severe, they couldn’t commit firefighters to the building, and instead tackled the fire defensively.
He requested the deployment of an aerial platform from Midleton, to help fight the fire from a height before they managed to bring the blaze under control at around 11am.
However, the fire continued to burn within the grain storage building, and it spread to adjoining animal feed storage areas.
Mr Gledhill called in a unit of the fire service from Cobh, as well as an incident command unit from Bandon.
There were more than 30 firefighters on-site at the height of the fire-fighting operation. Three units from the National Ambulance Service were also on standby at the scene.
HSE officials were also site to monitor potential smoke pollution but wind conditions carried the smoke away from residential areas.
It was 2pm before the main fire fighting operation was over but crews remained on site for several hours to monitor the area.
Residents living nearby have now called for improved emergency communications and planning after the incident.
In a statement issued this evening, R&H Hall said that they have been liaising with emergency services and the Port of Cork in relation to the blaze.
"We would like to thank the emergency services and the Port of Cork team for their quick response and ongoing management of the incident.
"We would also like to apologise to local residents, neighbouring businesses and our customers for any inconvenience caused by the incident."
Braham Brennan, chairman of the Ringaskiddy and District Residents Association, criticised the lack of information from the various authorities at the outset of the incident.
He said locals had to rely on personal contacts, rather than on any formal communication channels or system, to find out what was going on.
And while the Port of Cork posted messages on its social media channels, he said elderly people living in the area don’t use such platforms and were not aware of what was happening.
“We have been looking for a safety plan for the area for years, and we still don’t have it. If the wind had been blowing down the village, we would have been in serious trouble,” he said.
In a statement later, the residents’ association said while people are relieved that no-one was hurt, the community remains concerned about potential toxins in the air, and about communications to the public at the peak of the emergency earlier this morning.
“Lack of communication played a significant role in the early stages of this event, where residents had to make calls to Port of Cork operations with their concerns for their own safety,” it said.
“Ringaskiddy Residents’ Association immediately advised residents to remain indoors and keep doors and windows closed until it was determined what was burning and if it was safe to remain in the area - eventually Port of Cork advised the same.”
The association said it was reported by some media outlets that a major emergency plan had been activated and the area was being evacuated, but this was not communicated to the resident’s association or village residents.
“The association is not in receipt of any emergency plan for the area despite a previous request for one from Cork County Council and having a number of pharmaceutical plants, including SEVESO sites, in the area,” it said.
“The only emergency plan that the residents are aware of is to stay in, close your doors and windows, and hide under your bed.
“The residents of Cork Lower Harbour, including Ringaskiddy, have for many years fought the plans of locating an incinerator in the area, and it is for this very reason that it should not be located here due to the proximity to the village, and the Irish Naval Base, and with such a potential for a similar or worse event to occur.
“It is now time for Cork County Council and all industry stakeholders to produce an emergency plan for the area that is transparent and available to ALL residents in order to be prepared should future accidents/incidents occur.”
The last major fire in the area was in August 1993 when the Hicksons chemical plant was rocked by an explosion which triggered a large fire.
Two staff members suffered minor injuries but there were no serious injuries in the incident, which caused significant damage to the plant, and resulted in its closure for some time.
The company later said that the explosion resulted from a build-up of pressure when the solvent, isopropanol, was left in a process vessel for six days during the plant's annual shutdown.
The firm claimed that it was unaware there was a danger of such an explosion happening and there was no literature in the chemical industry indicating such a risk.
The company said the solvent was normally stored in the vessel in which it is purified for re-use. But the vessel was insulated and the heat created by the residue of other chemicals at the bottom of the container could not escape.
The firm said at the time that the incident led them to believe that it was safe to store under such conditions for just two days.
“It was only after the incident that we discovered the danger. Our procedures were not sophisticated enough to detect this phenomena.'