Drone Takes Center Stage At Stony Creek Quarry Fire

Peter Sachs Drone PhotoA dense, intense fire at the J& J Blasting Company, which leases property in the historic Stony Creek Quarry, led the fire department to use a drone for the first time in its history yesterday and to call for the mandatory evacuation of 862 people who lived within a mile of the fire.

Doug Anderson, president of the Stony Creek Quarry Corp., told the Eagle that the fire was not on the property he leases from the town. His site is the home of the world-famous pink granite-quarrying operations. Anderson said his workers were evacuated as a precaution, but they reported back to him that the fire was on adjacent property in the quarry that the town leases to J&J Blasting Corp. The company did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

“It looks like some blasting mats caught fire,” Anderson told the Eagle. It was initially feared the fire was near explosives that might ignite, but a drone was flown over the site to take photos and fire officials later determined the location of the fire was about 30 feet from the explosives.  At that point a fire truck was sent to the site to put the fire out.

Human Error Caused Fire

Mary Johnson PhotoFire Chief Jack Ahern confirmed for the Eagle last night that the fire at the J&J Blasting Corp. was the result of human error, an accident caused by an employee who inadvertently burned boxes that once contained explosives. The burning took place near rubber mats (made of tires) that are used in explosive activity.  There was snow nearby, it was difficult to see and the embers thought to be out were not. The mats then ignited, causing huge columns of dense black smoke to rise from the quarry yesterday afternoon. The fire could be seen from miles around. 

Fire Marshall Shaun Heffernan was at the scene from the start. He determined by early evening that the fire was an accident. Chief Ahern explained that “there is a requirement that the boxes containing explosives be burned. This was human error. They were burned too closely to the mat, which caught on fire.”

When firefighters arrived on Quarry Road, which leads into the world-famous quarry, they saw the sizable column of deep black smoke against the cold blue sky. They also saw a number of workers leaving the Quarry area. It was about 3 p.m.

“It was an intense, moderate size fire,” the chief said, “about 100 feet long by sixty feet wide. There was a truck nearby that was damaged, the metal on the truck just melted.”

But no life was in danger and no buildings were destroyed. 

Former First Selectman Unk DaRos, who oversaw the leasing contracts put into place for J&J Blasting and New England Fireworks in 2011, said the businesses are the only two not directly affiliated with the actual Stony Creek Quarry operation. The two companies are overseen by federal, state and local governments and are investigated regularly, he said in an interview.  The town owns the quarry.

Marcia Chambers PhotoBoth DaRos and Ahern said the quarry area was a far better location for these businesses than if they were located in heavily populated neighborhoods. “At least they are in a safe area in the event of malfunction. That is why I wanted them up there,” DaRos said.  Ahern said J&J Blasting “stores explosives there for their neighborhood blasting jobs.”  Here is how the fire looked from a street in Stony Creek.

Chief Ahern said that but for the use of the drone, “we would have been there for a long time to wait for the fire to burn out. One of our plans was to let the fire burn out.” He noted that the quarry is surrounded by stone.

Peter Sachs, who is a volunteer with the fire department, drove to the Quarry and flew the drone up over the fire. Heffernan stood next to him watching the video feed as it came in. Sachs, who is a private investigator, uses the drone for recreational purposes.

Letting the fire burn out on its own would have meant that the 862 people evacuated from their homes would have spent many more hours than they did away from their homes. The evacuation ended at 5:30 p.m. It lasted only two and half hours. Initially the entire Stony Creek population was notified via police phone message that they may have to evacuate.

Drone Takes On Heavy Duty Work 

Briefing the press while the drone was in the air, the chief said: “We couldn’t see exactly what was going on, and I did not want to put any firefighters in danger, so we didn’t put anybody near the fire until I got a drone up there to look at it. When it was relatively safe, the firefighters were able to go in.”

Drone. Peter Sachs PhotoThe drone (pictured) was able to photograph the relationship of the fire to explosives kept on the J&J property. When the photos emerged showing the explosives were not a threat, the firefighters moved into to put out the fire, the chief said. That part did not take long.

But the prospect of explosives without knowledge of their relationship to the fire required the police department to issue a mandatory evacuation order for those living within a mile of the Quarry. Many police officers went door-to-door informing residents they must leave their homes. Many people took their pets with them. Horses were left behind. 

“The unfortunate part of the entire day is that we had to do mandatory evacuations,” the fire chief said later at a press conference.

First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove was with the chief at a press conference outside the Stony Creek firehouse. He explained it was necessary to have a one-mile evacuation radius. He also asked for less traffic. “We have asked everyone to respect that factor and to try not to travel down into this area. It is difficult for emergency personnel to navigate through here.” He also said the town had opened two shelters, the Community House on Church Street and the Mary T. Murphy Elementary School, where pets were welcomed.

The chief said he now wants the department to own its own drones. Indeed, Sachs gave a lesson to the department a few weeks back on how the drone works.

The chief said he discussed the idea of getting two drones with First Selectman Cosgrove; that’s how important he viewed this new piece of equipment.

Indeed, said the chief, the cost to the town of keeping two shelters open, possibly overnight, for those families who needed them would be more expensive than the cost of two drones the department wants to purchase—about $3,000 for both. Each drone would have a different type of camera and one would be used when searches of the sea were required. 

The chief said he was extremely thankful for the help from the North Branford, Guilford and East Haven Fire departments, along with the Branford police department. North Branford and Guilford actually provided the water tankers used to put out the fire. 

“There is no water up there,” the chief said. 

Besides the fire companies, the fire drew various agencies, including the federal government’s Homeland Security operation and the state’s bomb squad.

Tisko Kids Stayed At School

As it turned out, the fire was underway as elementary schools were letting out. Mary R. Tisko Elementary was the school most affected because a number of its students live in the evacuated area.

“We had students in mandatory evacuation areas,” schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said in an interview. About 40 students lived in the one mile radius area and all those were kept at Tisko after the fire began, he said.  Their very grateful parents were notified and they picked them up. 

“We had a mandatory evacuation and a fire at the quarry site. This was significantly different than what we have dealt with in the past. I am very pleased about the coordination with the fire, police and first selectman’s office. We worked very well together,” he said.

Quarry Leases

Anderson said that in previous years there was only one lease that covered all the businesses that rent quarry property from the town. He said J&J Blasting Corp. has had a separate lease with the town since the new contracts were drawn up in 2011.

J&J Blasting Corp., which has business offices at 141 Duck Hole Rd. in Madison, uses the quarry property to store explosives for a variety of blasting projects.

The J&J Blasting Corp. property was in the news in March 2012 when officials had to destroy about 700 sticks of dynamite. Fire department officials at that time said the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency) had conducted a routine inspection of the property and reportedly found dynamite that was nearing its expiration date and was becoming unstable.

Quarrying has been ongoing in Stony Creek since the 1850s and by the turn of the century some 1,800 immigrants were employed there. The quarries that span the Branford/Guilford border changed ownership over the years, and there were times when operations ceased. Click here to read a story about DaRos’s history with the quarry.

The Town of Branford holds the trademark for Stony Creek Pink Granite. In 1978, the town, aided by state and federal funding, purchased about 400 acres of quarry land, which now serves as an open space preserve.

A separate 50-acre site is owned by the town for the specific purpose of leasing.

The quarry’s pink granite has been used in countless projects, including the base of the Statue of Liberty, New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Boston’s South Station, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; and Chifley Towers in Sydney, Australia. Closer to home, the Willoughby Wallace Library in Stony Creek is constructed from pink granite, as is the 70-ton pedestal for the Torosaurus statue outside the Yale Peabody Museum.

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posted by: jim1 on January 31, 2014  8:47am

So now New Haven has a drone.  Is it armed? Needs to be over the bar section of town.

posted by: Peter Sachs on January 31, 2014  10:12am

Jim1: This took place in Branford, not New Haven. And of course it’s not armed. It’s a simple remote-controlled model aircraft with a camera onboard. Apparently you misread the article. :)

posted by: Capt. Frisbie on January 31, 2014  1:23pm

Am I the only one who’s a little unnerved—and frankly surprised—by the fact that there’s an apparently vulnerable cache of explosives so close to a population center? And that this company has a questionable record in safe handling of dynamite? I hope the Branford Eagle—and Branford town officials—will follow up on this.