TAB J -- Tank Fires

A.  December 5, 1990, Accidental Tank Fire

The first Operation Desert Shield tank fire occurred on December 5, 1990 and involved an M1 tank from A Company 3-69th Armor, a task force of the 2nd Brigade, 24th Infantry Division. The tank (Bumper # A-66) caught fire in an assembly area north of Main Supply Route (MSR) Cadillac and was completely destroyed. The fire, attributed to ongoing transmission problems, started in the engine compartment. Despite the crew's efforts to extinguish the fire, it spread to the ammunition compartment. 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 unexploded ammunition prompted them to move away another 800 meters.[509,510] After the initial fire, personnel were not allowed back into the area around the tank until December 16, 1990, when a radiation control (RADCON) team from the US Army's Armament Munitions and Chemical Command (AMCCOM), in concert with explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians, ensured that it was safe.[511]

AMCCOM sent a three-person team to Saudi Arabia to assist in the survey, radiological decontamination, and preparation of the M1 for shipment back to the US. The team arrived at the site on December 15, 1990. Several high-explosive antitank (HEAT) rounds and belts of small arms ammunition lay 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 investigated and turned the tank over to the AMCCOM team on December 16, 1990. While assisting with the cleanup, the AMCCOM team, headed by the Chief of the Radiological Waste Disposal Division, trained two military health physicists to handle similar problems should they arise.[512]

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. The high explosive propellant in most of the DU rounds had exploded, ejecting complete and fragmented DU penetrators up to 60 feet from the tank. All but 5 of the 37 DU penetrators were recovered in, around, and under the tank.[513] The senior RADCON health physicist expressed surprise by the lack of contamination outside the tank except for the penetrators that had been blown clear of the tank.[514] Several penetrators remaining inside the tank had shrunk considerably and others had 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.[515]

In July 1997, AMCCOM RADCON's senior health physicist said individuals who went back inside the contaminated tank wore protective masks. He further stated, "There was not a significant radiological safety hazard to the crew at any time."[516] He also indicated the team put the recovered DU penetrators and the contaminated sand inside the tank, which was then sealed shut.[517] The team washed down the tank's exterior to remove any contamination before shipment by heavy equipment transporter (HET) to the port at Dhahran. The tank was eventually shipped from Saudi Arabia through the Port of Bayonne, New Jersey, to the Defense Consolidation Facility, in Snelling, South Carolina, arriving on February 15, 1991, for final disposal.[518]

B.  February 26, 1991, Tank Fire Due to Non-DU Munition Impact

On the evening of February 26, 1991, a large shaped-charge weapon hit an Abrams tank (Bumper # B-23) belonging to B Company, 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 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 could not verify that a Hellfire struck B-23. The inside of B-23's turret sustained no ballistic damage. The tank was recovered on or about March 7, 1991.[519]

The AMCCOM Radiation Control Team inspected the tank but did not perform a radiological assessment because the DU penetrators had not been removed when they visited.[520] The tank was shipped to the Defense Consolidation Facility in South Carolina in June 1991 for final disposal.[521]

C.  April 4, 1991, Accidental Tank Fire

On April 4, 1991, a tank (Bumper # D-66) belonging to D Company, 2-34 Armor (a 1st Infantry Division task force) caught fire during a tactical road march. The crew discharged 13 hand-held fire extinguishers, but the fire persisted, forcing the crew to abandon the vehicle. The tank continued to burn for 50 hours before two rounds of main gun ammunition stored in the hull ammunition storage compartment detonated. D-66 burned for another 22 hours before EOD personnel could gain access.[522] The EOD non-commissioned officer (NCO) who responded to the incident said the 34 rounds in storage were not damaged. However, the 6 rounds in the ready rack -- 1 heat round and 5 DU rounds -- were damaged in the fire. The heat round reportedly exploded and the propellant in the DU rounds burned. The NCO could not remember if all the penetrators were recovered or how they were disposed of.[523] A VII Corps Safety representative remembers some of the penetrators being recovered, but not the specific number. However, he did remember the rounds were packaged at the site and ultimately delivered to KKMC. He thought the penetrators went into the system for proper disposal, but since disposal was not under his control, he could not track the penetrators to their ultimate disposal. He did remember the tank being surveyed by the AMCCOM DU team with negative results.[524]

The May 14, 1991, AMCCOM DU Team summary report of various contaminated vehicles said the Team conducted a complete damage and radiological survey. The report indicated the damage consisted of a burned-out engine compartment and destruction of some ammunition in the ready rack. The main ammunition compartment was intact and there was no observed crew compartment or turret damage. No radiological contamination was detected and the tank was released to the unit after the ammunition from the ready rack was downloaded.[525]

D.  April 13, 1991, Accidental Tank Fire

During the withdrawal from Iraq in mid-April 1991, as the 1st Armored Division was returning to Saudi Arabia, a fire erupted in a tank under tow. According to the commander of tank A-32, A Company, 2-81st Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, he had been towing A-31 for approximately two days, covering more than 170 kilometers. Because of heat built up in the towed tank (A-31) from the towing tank's (A-32) exhaust, the crew would drive for approximately an hour and then stop to let A-31 cool off. On April 13, 1991, when the tanks were within a few hundred yards of the Saudi Arabian border, several rounds of A-31's ammunition exposed to the heat of A-32's exhaust suddenly blew up. A-32's crew quickly scrambled to safety, although one crew member sustained minor burns to the back of his neck. No crew members were on board A-31 when the rounds exploded.[526]

Approximately an hour after the initial explosions, A-32's tank commander, loader, and several other soldiers went back to try to keep the fire from spreading to A-32. They succeeded in putting out a fire that had started in a canvas bag containing a high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round stored in A-32's bustle rack. Damage to A-32 was minimal. A-31 was allowed to burn out and recovery operations began the next day.[527,528]

A-31 had 24 DU sabot rounds (20 M829 and 4 M829A1) and 10 HEAT rounds in the main ammo storage racks, 6 HEAT rounds in the hull storage rack, and an extra HEAT round stored in a canvas bag in the top bustle rack. During the initial recovery efforts, the tank commander and EOD team members re-entered the tank and removed three unexploded HEAT rounds, which they subsequently detonated. The propellant charges on all of the sabot rounds had ignited. Recovery efforts were successful in locating all 24 penetrators. The tank commander indicated that while the penetrators showed signs of having been exposed to significant heat from the fire, he did not notice any appreciable reduction in the size of the penetrator.[529] The DU armor package was intact.

On April 14, a three-man AMCCOM RADCON team from King Khalid Military City (KKMC) arrived at the site to assess the damage and provide technical assistance. On arrival, they observed the tank crew removing ammunition from A-31. DU penetrators and high explosive rounds lay on the ground around the tank. Crew members had been working on the tank, in the ammunition compartment, and on the ground around the tank. The RADCON team confirmed alpha contamination on the ground beside the tank, on the tank's front surface, and on the inside and top of the ammunition compartment.[530] One RADCON team member stated people were "hip deep" in DU, including a colonel and 8 to 10 soldiers.[531] The team checked all the crew for radiation and found DU contamination on several crew members' hands and one crew member's coveralls. The team showed all the recovery personnel how to decontaminate their skin and clothing and checked all exposed skin for cuts and lacerations, directing individuals with open wounds to wash thoroughly. The team also cleaned these wounds with Betadine and bandaged them. One crew member had radiological contamination in an open wound. The team thoroughly scrubbed the wound until all traces of contamination were removed. Crew members were issued surgical gloves and masks. The RADCON team radiologically examined all equipment removed from the tank to separate out the contaminated items. The RADCON team explained the procedures for washing DU-contaminated clothes 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.[532]

At the RADCON team's direction, seven soldiers who worked around A-31 provided urine samples for uranium evaluation on April 15, 1991. The samples subsequently were shipped to Germany and on to the Army's Environmental Hygiene Agency (now the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine) for analysis. All the samples were below the method detection levels of 2.0 �g/l, which is below the action level for Class D and W compounds in the Health Physics Society standard, “HPS N13.22-1995, Bioassay Programs for Uranium, An American National Standard."[533,534]

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