Last weekend, on June 5, Simona de Silvestro crashed her IndyCar into the wall during the race at Texas Motor Speedway. The car caught on fire, fueled by five gallons of leaking oil. I watched on live television, and after the car came to a stop, she remained in the car as intense flames enveloped the right side of the car. The safety team got there very quickly, but the four-person crew was not able to get any water on the fire for what seemed like a very long time. They pulled a hose right away, but then the nozzleman stood there for far too long with a limp hose. They never got any water out of that hose until after de Silvestro had been extricated.
A report by officials of the Izod IndyCar Series concluded that the safety crew first on scene did not follow established standard operating procedures (SOP) for extinguishing the fire and protecting the driver. De Silvestro sat in the burning car for about 32 seconds after the crew arrived before they were able to extract her from the still burning car. Thanks to her fire-resistant gear, she only suffered minor burns to a finger and is racing again this weekend at Iowa Speedway. Two of the rescuers were burned on their faces while pulling her out of the car, including Mike Yates, IndyCar’s safety manger. Yes, IndyCar’s SAFETY MANAGER was part of this fiasco.
Every firefighter has experienced kinked hoses and probably once or twice has not followed SOPs when working a fire. But thankfully those mistakes are usually not visible to millions on live television.
A kinked hose was part of the problem in this case. The safety crews’ trucks have a front-mounted water discharge that points to the side of the vehicle, so that when the hose was extended straight forward towards the burning car the hose bent 90-degrees at the discharge and kinked, resulting in no water at the nozzle. And the crew was not able to figure this out and un-kink the hose.
The second problem was that the number one crewperson was supposed to knock down the fire with a pressurized water (PW) fire extinguisher in order to protect the driver as much as possible until another crewperson could pull the quick lay from the front of the truck. But instead, he pulled the hose and got it kinked.
The third issue was that the person that finally grabbed a PW, struggled with it as if he had never used one, resulting in still further delays in getting water on the fire.
Here is the time-line, in seconds, taken from the video (UPDATE: the original video was removed from YouTube. We replaced it with another one below, so the exact time line no longer applies, however the relative times are still valid):
- 8–fire first seen on De Silvestro’s car in the video
- 29–the car slides to a stop
- 35–the first safety team truck arrives on scene
- 48–the hose is fully extended, a crewperson is holding the nozzle
- 61–the first water is applied, from a PW
- 67–De Silvestro is extracted from the still burning car
- 70–water is first applied from a hose, from the second-arriving truck
The video is below.
In the IndyCar series, fires that last more than a few seconds are rare, thanks to fuel cell technology. But in de Silvestro’s crash, the oil cooler on the right side of the car was compromised, spilling the 5 gallons of oil into the sidepod rather than onto the track, fueling the fire. The last time a fire hose was used on a crash was when Ryan Briscoe crashed in 2005 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joilet, Ill.
Some writers who cover IndyCar have used the term “Keystone Cops” when referring to the actions of the safety crew. If my engine crew had made mistakes like this on a vehicle fire, I would have had them drilling all day, every day until they could do it blindfolded. A person has to wonder how often the IndyCar safety crew drilled on using their equipment to extinguish an intense fire. From appearances, little to none. IndyCar drivers–you thought they had your back. You were wrong.
Thankfully all the injuries this time were relatively minor, but it could have been a lot worse. A LOT worse.
Supposedly the hose on the truck had been tested earlier in the weekend, so all of the problems appear to be human error.
Before today’s race in Iowa, a modification was made to the trucks so that the front discharge now points toward the front, rather than to the side. This should reduce the chance of a kink at the discharge… unless the fire is to the side of the truck. (You can’t completely idiot-proof fire apparatus.) In addition, the SOP for dealing with a fire has been redistributed to all safety crew members.
Brian Barnhart, the president of IndyCar’s competition division, said no disciplinary action will be taken. About the crew, he said: “They are beating themselves up pretty bad. (But) clearly we stumbled on this one.”
My friend Howard Rayon who passed away last October, used to work on the safety crews for the CART (aka CHAMP) racing series, which merged with the IndyCar series in 2008. Howard raced Formula Fords as a young man, and was a firefighter all his life, retiring as a Deputy Chief with the Santee Fire Department in southern California. I am sure that if the safety crew had been upholding the high, professional standards set by Howard, Ms. de Silvestro’s incident would have had a better outcome.