One of the worst fires in Clark County’s history started with static electricity and a tanker truck of racing fuel and was so massive it led to changes in how local first responders communicate in a crisis.
Five years ago today, Bob Holder watched the family-owned business he started in 1986 disappear in a 200-foot cloud of smoke and flames that could be seen from as far as Butler County and on weather radar. The fire at R.D. Holder Oil Co. left a pile of mangled metal and concrete where its corporate offices stood at 2219 Folk Ream Road.
No one was killed but one firefighter suffered a minor injury. More than 50 agencies — including the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and every fire department in Clark County — played a role in fighting the fire and preventing an environmental disaster.
Despite nearly losing everything, the business has more than bounced back. R.D. Holder has since built a new corporate headquarters in New Carlisle, added an office in Heath, Ohio, and expanded its services and employees. In the days after the fire, the company’s competitors offered to provide support to ensure the firm didn’t miss a delivery.
Holder began as a one-man operation in 1986 delivering about 500,000 gallons of fuel a year to residential and business customers in western Clark County. Both Holder and his wife’s family had a long history in the business, and his sons Zach and Travis help run the operation today.
The company steadily grew over the past 30 years. It now delivers more than 26 million gallons of fuel annually along with 700,000 gallons of synthetic lubricant and 500,000 gallons of diesel exhaust fuel.
All of it nearly disappeared in a single day five years ago when a long-time employee rushed into Holder’s office around 10 a.m. to tell him a fire had started in a tanker outside. The employee was loading racing fuel onto a truck when a charge of static electricity ignited the fuel.
“The boy heard a couple of clicks and that’s when it ignited,” Holder said.
In slow motion
Both Bob Holder and his son Zach Holder remember rushing outside on what they described as a perfect April day. Flames crept only about a foot high from a compartment in the truck initially. But every minute, the flames seemed to grow an inch or two taller.
When the flames grew tall enough, a breeze pushed the fire to the west door of the company’s building 15 feet away. The company had preventative measures in place, but none of it seemed to make a difference.
“For me, it was honestly a slow-motion deal,” Bob Holder said. “We had fire doors and fire walls and you think the worst that can happen is you lose this section. As you’re out there watching, the next thing you know, you see smoke coming out from underneath the eaves of the next section. And then the next section. And you think, you can’t stop this.”
Once everyone was accounted for, RD Holder’s employees took actions that likely kept the company alive. Matthew Gilfellen, the controller, rushed to salvage the computer servers, which held all of its customer, transaction and delivery data. Without it, the company might not have been able to rebuild, Bob Holder said.
“We thought hopefully they’re going to put it out, but when it got onto the building and got worse we thought, ‘What’s our next option?’” Gilfellen said.
Firefighters arrived minutes later, and employees watched from a field across the road as the office burned. Close to 30 tanks of bulk oil were stored in the building when the fire started.
“It just burnt bigger and bigger,” Bob Holder said.
Volunteer firefighters from Pike Twp. were the first to arrive, but it was clear almost immediately the fire was more than they were used to, Bethel Twp. and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Fire Chief Jacob King said.
“It was very large, you have tanks blowing up and things getting loud,” King said. “It was a very challenging operation. The smoke was impeding our ability to see from one side of the building to another.”
As the fire grew, departments from across the region poured onto the scene. While commanders tried to organize the massive firefighting effort, they also had to contend with potential environmental hazards. Officials from the Ohio EPA estimated a couple thousands of gallons of oil had spilled into a tributary of Donnels Creek, which feeds into Mad River.
Close to 5,700 fish and amphibians were killed. The company was assessed a fine from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as a result. Holder’s insurance company was also billed for the Haz-Mat and fire response.
Both public and private hazardous waste teams contained the contaminants a short distance downstream. The initial cleanup was completed in about a week, according to the EPA. Company officials worked closely with the EPA, but it was three or four months before water from a drain tile at the site no longer contained oil, said Dina Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA.
It took firefighters more than six hours to get the blaze under control.
“There’s an old saying, all fires go out eventually, whether you do it or it does it on its own,” King said. “We had a lot of effort put in to try to get that fire under control.”
That night, it wasn’t clear whether the business would survive, Bob Holder said.
“Lots of individuals had different goals they had to worry about,” Gilfellen said. “Mine was we need to have an office and we needed to be able to take orders.”
Some competitors in Dayton and Cincinnati offered whatever support was needed to keep R.D. Holder afloat in the first days after the tragedy.
One of the biggest challenges in the hours after the fire was the company no longer had a loading dock. Bob Holder said he doesn’t even remember talking to him, but a friend from Minneapolis delivered a portable truck ramp to help the company continue loading its vehicles.
“Our employees, I’m sure they were wondering if they had a job tomorrow … Everyone was on board and did what they had to do,” Bob Holder said.
With the salvaged servers, R.D. Holder’s employees resumed work the same night from a satellite office in Bellefontaine. But it was weeks before the family was confident the business would continue.
“There were tons of employees who worked seven days a week for at least a month straight, where they were working during the week and cleaning up on the weekend,” Zach Holder said.
By 2013, the company was ready to rebuild its corporate headquarters, but was being courted by communities outside Clark County, said John Detrick, former Clark County commissioner. Local officials in Clark County and New Carlisle fought to retain the company and approved a 10-year, 60-percent tax abatement for R.D. Holder to build a new $1.8 million headquarters on Dayton-Lakeview Road in New Carlisle.
Since then the company has grown from 36 employees at the time of the fire to about 45 workers now. It also began selling propane to agriculture, business and residential customers earlier this month, with deliveries expected to start this summer.
“He committed to Clark County and Clark County committed to him,” Detrick said.
The scale of the fire and the massive response led to changes in how local firefighters and other agencies respond to incidents, King said.
One of the immediate challenges as agencies flooded onto the scene was coordinating duties for dozens of entities, each with their own set of capabilities and duties.
“We had people from multiple counties and multiple fire departments,” King said. “We put them together on the scene and tried to operate. Everybody had different radio systems and everyone had different styles of trucks with different capabilities that it was just too difficult for everyone to know what they had.”
The agencies were able to cooperate and work together as a single entity despite those problems, King said.
“We established a county-wide committee to bring all our radio frequencies together into a radio programming template,” King said. “After that event, everyone in the county had everyone’s radio frequency, all our talk groups and all the statewide mutual aid channels. We made a really nice template that allowed everyone to have enhanced communication across the county.”
It also provided a rare opportunity for local agencies to evaluate their response to an incident on that scale.
“Every time we turned, there was something else that needed attention,” King said. “If you look at all our abilities and you look at all-hazards response, that’s a great scenario of what occurred at this incident that you can look back on and say, ‘OK this was really the closest we had to an all-hazard event where we have fire, haz-mat, evacuations, control areas to trying to evacuate a school that’s downwind as we see the plume coming.’”
Bob Holder said his company never would have survived without the combined efforts of hundreds of people.
“We’ve got really good people that didn’t abandon us, and that’s from employees to customers,” Bob Holder said.