But on August 17th, 1975 near dawn, a fire started in the refinery when a 75,000-barrel oil storage tank ignited after being filled from a docked oil tanker on the Schuylkill River. However, this fire, thought to be under control a few hours after it began, roared back to life a second time, taking the lives of several firemen already on the scene, and causing a fire-storm inferno at the Gulf complex that almost took down the entire refinery, and more.
On that Sunday morning, just after midnight, at around 12:45 a.m., the oil tanker Afran Neptune, berthed at a Gulf refinery dock, had begun off-loading its cargo of crude oil to the refinery. It was pumping reconstituted Venezuelan crude oil (containing an additional five percent naphtha) into storage tank No. 231.
This particular tank had been built in 1929 and it was located in the refinery not far from Boiler House No.4, which also had a tall brick chimney that rose high above the refinery grounds. Both were near the Penrose Avenue Bridge.
The tall stack, in particular, was a familiar landmark to Philadelphia motorists using the bridge, as it bore the giant word “GULF” in large, white letters, announcing the refinery’s owner.The Gulf Oil Company was then one of the largest corporations in the world, among the top ten on the Forbes 500 list. Gulf, in fact, was one of the original “Seven Sisters,” the famous group of international oil companies that sat atop the global economy.
By 1975, Gulf was among the top U.S. producers of crude oil, natural gas, and coal. Their 17,000 gas stations were found in 29 states. Gulf Oil mined uranium and also produced chemicals and plastics. Overseas, Gulf oil production came from countries such as Kuwait, Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and Zaire. On the world’s oceans, a fleet of 17 large Gulf oil tankers moved petroleum in international trade. And at least 14 Gulf-owned oil refineries in North America, like the one in Philadelphia, turned crude oil into various petroleum products.But on the Sunday morning of August 17th, 1975, hydrocarbon vapors, coming from tank No. 231 at the refinery as it was being filled from the berthed tanker, had wafted into the air outside of the tank and accumulated near the boiler house. There the vapors ignited causing a fiery explosion.
The flames then followed the vapor trail back to tank No. 231 causing another huge explosion. It was about 6:00 a.m. that Sunday morning, just about sunrise.
Then a second explosion occurred at tank No. 231, as burning petroleum spilled into a diked area surrounding the tank. Another tank in that area also went up. The first explosion had damaged a nearby pipe manifold, and leaking petroleum was spewing out on the ground, which also ignited.
The first alarm for the Philadelphia Fire Department went out shortly after the initial tank explosions, followed quickly by a second alarm. Arriving firemen found large clouds of heavy black smoke coming from the two burning tanks. The 150-foot brick tower stack at the Boiler House was also showing fire with a prominent vertical crack radiating from its base.
The battalion fire chief on the scene quickly ordered a third and fourth alarm, followed by a fifth from another fire chief and then a sixth alarm from Fire Commissioner Joseph Rizzo at around 7:00 a.m.
Over the next few hours, firefighters fought the blaze with water and foam, and by 9:00 a.m. or so they thought they had the fire contained and stabilized, though it was still burning. However, there were other problems on the scene that would soon make the situation near-catastrophic.
It soon became apparent that the refinery’s sewerage system was not adequately draining the water and petroleum-naphtha mixture that was accumulating on the ground at the scene. In addition, the power to some of the refinery’s drainage pumps was shut off over concern for overhead power lines in the area. The liquid mixture continued to accumulate, as is seen in the photo below.
Three firemen at one point were wading in the watery mixture in an area of the refinery where they were attending to their equipment and one of the firetrucks. Suddenly there was a flash and the water was ablaze. Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Joseph Rizzo and Gulf refinery manager Jack Burk were then on an overhead catwalk nearby observing the firefighting operations when they witnessed the unfolding horror, as their men became trapped in the fiery water. “The flames just engulfed them,” said Commissioner Rizzo of his men, also describing how he escaped the first of dozens of explosions.“The flames just engulfed them…They were human torches.”
– Fire Commissioner J. Rizzo As he looked back, he saw his three men sealed in flames. “They were trying to get under the foam, but to no avail,” he said. “They were human torches.”
One firefighter that day, David Schoolfield, who was in the middle of that same tragedy and nearly lost his life, recalled the scene some years later: “The ground was full of hose lines coming from all directions. We were walking in warm oil that came up maybe 24 inches on our boots. …But they said we were controlling the fire. I believed it. Then about 3:30 that afternoon, I was on break at a Red Cross truck and I heard them call ‘firemen on fire.’ I ran in that direction. I saw three firemen in flames. They were like human torches running around in circles. They fell into the oil to try to douse themselves. They may have drowned. There was nothing I could do. Then I heard people behind me screaming for me to get out. But when I turned to run, I broke through the foam, flames shot up and I went up like a torch. …A guy named Reginald Simmons grabbed me and we got out…I remember they had to keep putting me out because my skin kept reigniting…”
David Schoolfield spent the next two months in hospital burn centers for treatment of burns that covered 26 percent of his body.
Back at the refinery, meanwhile, a fire storm was now developing. Commissioner Rizzo ordered two more alarms, five additional rescue squads, and recalled all fire companies that had previously been released that day. It was nearly 5:00 pm, and Rizzo soon had ordered a ninth alarm. A major disaster was now unfolding at the Gulf Refinery.
The fire had already expanded eastward in the refinery, taking with it two fire department engines – No. 160 and No.133 – and also a refinery foam pumper. Two other Philadelphia fire trucks had already been destroyed in the flash explosion. Electric power and phone service also went out in the area around the refinery. The fire, meanwhile, kept spreading and was threatening four additional storage tanks, and was headed for the 125-foot Penrose Avenue Bridge. By 5:30 p.m. Rizzo ordered the tenth alarm. The fire had now engulfed the refinery’s administration building. Another fire that day in Philadelphia at a paper plant had fully taxed the Fire Department’s capabilities. By 6:00pm, Rizzo ordered an 11th alarm for the refinery fire and also ordered day-shift personnel held over. Explosions during the fire had put a large crack in the boiler house smokestack next to the bridge. Officials then closed the bridge for several hours, fearing that the big Gulf Oil stack might collapse on the bridge or that the encroaching fire would damage or weaken it.
By 7:00 p.m. Sunday evening, the burning tanks and pipelines at the refinery were still gushing flames and a number of roadways in the complex were also burning streams of oil and other petroleum products. For a time, it appeared the fire would not be stopped. This was not the first time the Gulf Oil refinery had burned. In fact, there were 10 fires there between 1960 and 1975. Contingency plans, in fact, had been made for a street-by-street, tank-by-tank retreat through the refinery. In the end, the Philadelphia Fire Department prevailed in the main battle, and by 5:38 a.m. Monday morning, August 18, 1975, the fire was reported as under control. That evening on ABC-TV, the Philadelphia fire made the ABC Evening News national news broadcast with Howard K. Smith reporting. Clips from the fire were shown as Smith explained the fire was still being battled and that six men were than lost, 4 dead and 2 missing. Back in Philadelphia, meanwhile, the fire in the original tank no. 231, was permitted to burn itself out. “Flare-ups” at the site continued for another week or so, with at least four calls to the Fire Department to assist refinery firefighters still dealing with the fire’s aftermath.
Finally, on Tuesday, August 26, 1975, the fire was declared officially extinguished. However, this had not been the first time the Philadelphia Gulf Oil Co. refinery had burned. In fact, the refinery had been the scene of ten fires since 1960. On May 16, 1975, a six-alarm fire struck the Gulf Refinery. And following the big blaze of August 1975, a second six-alarm fire occurred at the Gulf refinery on October 20, 1975.
“The Daily Damage”
This article is one in an occasional series of stories at this website that feature the ongoing environmental and societal impacts of industrial spills, toxic releases, fires, air & water pollution incidents and other such occurrences. These stories will cover both recent incidents and those from history that have left a mark either nationally or locally; incidents that have generated controversy in some way, brought about governmental inquiries or political activity, and generally have taken a toll on the environment, worker health and safety, and/or local communities.
My purpose for including such stories here is simply to drive home the continuing and chronic nature of these occurrences through history, and hopefully contribute to public education about them so that improvements in law, regulation, and industry practice will be made, and that safer alternatives will replace them in the future. — Jack Doyle
The cause of the August 1975 inferno at the refinery was the overfilling of tank no. 231. Large quantities of hydrocarbon vapors had been trapped at the top of the big storage tank above the crude oil. As the quantity of crude oil in the tank increased, these hydrocarbon vapors were forced out of the tank’s vents and into the area of the boiler house where the initial ignition occurred. The overfilling of the tank had resulted from a failure of the tanker’s personnel to properly monitor the quantity of crude oil being pumped into the tank. After the first explosion and initial fire, the supplying tanker terminated its pumping, left its Schuylkill River berth, and relocated to the piers at Hog Island.
Six firefighters lost their lives on the scene that day; two others died later of burns and at least 14 others were treated for burns and injuries. The Gulf Oil refinery fire of 1975 is still remembered in Philadelphia, especially among friends and family of those lost in the blaze and by the Philadelphia fire-fighting community. In August 2007, about 200 people gathered at the Fireman’s Hall Museum in Philadelphia as plaques were unveiled to honor the firefighters who lost their lives in the Gulf Oil refinery disaster.
Two additional stories at this website on the history of oil refinery fires and explosions include: “Texas City Disaster: BP Refinery, March 2005” (about BP’s negligence in the 2005 Texas City, TX oil refinery explosion & fire that killed 15 workers and injured another 180. Also includes 60 Minutes TV coverage and resulting reports and litigation); and, “Inferno at Whiting: Standard Oil, 1955” (story about the eight-day catastrophic oil refinery fire near Chicago in 1955, and later leaks, spills, and waste issues at the refinery under Amoco and BP management).
Other environmental stories at this website include, for example: “Burn On, Big River,” a story about pollution-caused Cuyahoga River fires near Cleveland, Ohio; “Offshore Oil Blaze,” an account of a major offshore well blowout and fire at a Shell Oil Co. rig in the Gulf of Mexico; and “Power in the Pen,” a profile of the impact of Rachel Carson’s historic book on chemical pesticides, Silent Spring. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 15 February 2015
Last Update: 6 December 2016
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “Burning Philadelphia: Refinery Inferno, 1975,”
PopHistoryDig.com, February 15, 2015.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Associated Press, “Philadelphia Blaze At Gulf Fuel Plant Kills 3 Firefighters,” New York Times, August 18, 1975.
“3 Firemen Die Fighting Philadelphia Oil Blaze,” Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1975, p. 3.
“Refinery Fire, Philadelphia,” ABC Evening News, Howard K. Smith, Monday, August 18, 1975.
“2 Brave Hot Oil to Close Valve at Refinery Fire,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1975, p. 4.
“Philadelphia Firemen Keep Watch at Site of Oil Blaze,” New York Times, Wednesday, August 20, 1975, p. 12.
“Fear of New Blast at Refinery Forces Shutdown of Bridge,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1975, p, B-14.
United Press International, “7th Philadelphia Fire Victim,” New York Times, August 26, 1975
“Philadelphia Fire Burns Out,” New York Times, Wednesday, August 27, 1975, p. 12.
Elmer Smith, “30 Yrs. Later, Memories of a Refinery Inferno; Gulf Oil Refinery- Philadelphia, Pa. 30 Years Ago; Tragic Fire Revisited,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 17, 2005.
Vernon Clark, “City Honors 8 Firefighters Lost in 1975,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 16, 2007, p. B-1.
Mike Pence & Bob Burns, View From The Bridge, “The 1975 Philadelphia Gulf Oil Refinery Fire,” Fire World, Volume 22, No. 6, November 2007.
Robert Burke, “Remembering the Gulf Oil Refinery Fire,” Firehouse.com, December 3, 2010.
Christopher R. Dougherty, “A Petaled Rose Of Hell: Refineries, Fire Risk, And The New Geography Of Oil In Philadelphia’s Tide- water,” HiddenCityPhila.org, December 10, 2013.
“Gulf Oil Refinery Fire, August 1975,” George D. McDowell / Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs, Digital Library, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA
“Key Dates in Fire History,” National Fire Protection Association, 2014.
Kristen A. Graham, “George Schrufer, 72, Firefighter Who Survived 1975 Gulf Refinery Blaze,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 21, 2014.