TAB J - Accidental Tank Fires

December 1990 Accidental Tank Fire

The first Operation Desert Shield tank fire occurred on December 5, 1990 and involved an M1 tank from A Co. 3-69th Armor, a task force of the 2nd Brigade, 24th Infantry Division. The tank (bumper number A-66) caught fire in an assembly area north of Main Supply Route (MSR) Cadillac and was completely destroyed.[277] The fire, attributed to ongoing transmission problems, started in the engine compartment. Despite the efforts of the crew to extinguish it, fire spread to the ammunition compartment and the ammunition burned and exploded for 12-14 hours. The crew initially moved 1,500 meters away from the tank, but the possible hazard from the DU rounds prompted them to move away another 800 meters.[278] The radiation containment (RAD CON) experts from the US Army’s Armament Munitions and Chemical Command (AMCCOM) wrote a report saying there was no significant radiological safety hazard to the crew at any time.[279]

AMCCOM sent a three-person team to Saudi Arabia to assist in the survey, the radiological decontamination, and the preparation of the M1 for shipment back to the US. The tank could not be approached until this AMCCOM team, in concert with EOD, ensured that it was safe.[280] While assisting with the clean up the AMCCOM team, headed by the Chief of the Radiological Waste Disposal Division, trained two military health physicists (a captain and a lieutenant). The team arrived at the site of the tank fire on December 15, 1990. Several high-explosive antitank (HEAT) rounds and belts of small arms ammunition were near the tank. After removing several DU penetrators and getting EOD advice, the team exploded the HEAT and small arms ammunition in place. The 24th Infantry Division safety officer completed a safety investigation and turned the tank over to the AMCCOM team on December 16, 1990.

The initial radiological survey showed no radiological contamination on the ground around the tank and only a small amount on the tank, near the ammunition compartment. Most of the DU rounds had burned and penetrators and pieces of penetrators were thrown up to 60 feet from the tank. All but five of the 37 DU penetrators were recovered in, around, and under the tank. Several of these recovered penetrators were significantly reduced in size and others were fused to the inside of the hull. The recovery team concluded that the fire consumed the unrecovered penetrators, contributing to the contamination found beneath the tank.[281] AMCCOM shipped this contamination and a small amount of sand in a 55-gallon barrel, along with the contaminated tank, to Barnwell, SC. for burial.[282]

In a July 2, 1997 phone conversation, the head of the AMCCOM RADCON team stated that individuals inside the contaminated tank wore protective masks (High Efficiency Particulate Aerosol [HEPA] respirators). He also indicated that the team placed the recovered DU penetrators inside the tank, which was then sealed shut. Finally, the team washed down the tank exterior to remove any contamination prior to shipment (by Heavy Equipment Transporter [HET]) to the port at Dhahran.[283]

February 1991 Tank Fire Due to Large Shaped Charge Penetration

On the evening of February 26, 1991, a large shaped-charge weapon hit an Abrams tank (bumper number B-23) belonging to B Co., 1-37 Armor, penetrating the rear grill doors. The loader was injured when a second round (probably an antitank weapon) struck the tank while the crew was attempting to evacuate. The D Company Executive Officer’s tank picked up the crew. The fire from the penetration caused a catastrophic fire in the hull, destroying all stowed DU ammunition. The recovery team found pieces of a Hellfire missile at the site, but investigators never determined whether a Hellfire actually struck B-23. The inside of B-23’s turret had no ballistic damage. The tank was recovered on or about March 7, 1991.[284]

April 4, 1991 Accidental Tank Fire

On April 4, 1991 a tank (bumper number D-66) belonging to D Company, 2-34 Armor (a 1st Infantry Division task force) caught fire during a tactical road march. The crew frantically discharged 13 hand-held fire extinguishers, but the fire persisted, forcing the crew to move away from the vehicle. The tank continued to burn for 50 hours before two rounds of main gun ammunition (stored in the hull ammunition storage compartment) cooked off. D-66 burned for another 22 hours before EOD personnel could gain access. These EOD personnel and other individuals who may have entered the burned tank could have been exposed to DU. No further information is available regarding the final disposition of the tank.[285]

April 13, 1991 Accidental Tank Fire

On April 13, 1991, a tank (bumper number A-31) from the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division was being towed by another tank (bumper number A-32) when the tank rounds aboard A-31 suddenly blew up. High temperatures combined with the tank exhaust from A-32 (the towing tank) probably caused the service rounds to ignite. No crew was on board A-31 at the time of the explosion. The crew of A-32 quickly scrambled to safety, sustaining minor injuries in their haste to distance themselves from the burning tank.[286]

A three-man AMCCOM radiation containment (RAD CON) team flew by helicopter from King Khalid Military City (KKMC), where they were working with DU-contaminated systems, to the site of the tank fire to assess the damage and provide technical assistance. Upon arrival, they observed the tank crew removing all ammunition from the burned A-31. DU and high explosive (HE) rounds were lying on the ground around the tank. Crewmembers were working on the tank, in the ammunition compartment, and on the ground surrounding the tank. Initial readings indicated possible contamination of the tank and surrounding area. More extensive readings confirmed DU contamination on the ground beside the tank, on the front surface of the tank, on the top of the ammunition compartment, and in the ammunition compartment. The RADCON team asked all crewmembers to vacate the tank so they could be radiologically examined. The hands of several crewmembers were contaminated, and one crewmember’s coveralls were also contaminated. All individuals were shown how to decontaminate their skin and clothing. All exposed skin was checked for cuts and lacerations. Individuals with open wounds were directed to wash thoroughly. These wounds were also cleaned with Betadine and bandaged. One individual had radiological contamination in an open wound. The wound was thoroughly scrubbed until all traces of contamination were removed.

All crewmembers were issued surgical gloves and masks. The crewmembers and the RAD CON team radiologically examined all equipment removed from the tank in order to separate out the contaminated items. The RAD CON team explained the procedure for washing clothes contaminated by DU and advised the battalion commander to have all exposed personnel shower and wash their clothing as soon as possible. The tank was then transported to the contaminated equipment yard at KKMC.[287]

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