Tag Archives: oil refinery dangers

“Texas City Disaster”
BP Refinery: March 2005

On March 23rd, 2005 in Texas City, Texas, a horrendous explosion and fire at the British Petroleum (BP) oil refinery killed 15 workers and injured another 180. At the time, it was one of the worst industrial accidents to have occurred in the U.S. since the late 1980s. Pat Nickerson, a veteran of the Texas City BP refinery for 28 years, was on site the day of the explosion driving his truck inside the refinery to an office trailer. “I looked down the road. It looked like fumes, like on a real hot day, you see these heat waves coming up,” he explained, describing the scene during a 60 Minutes TV interview, “and then I saw an ignition and a blast. Then my windshield shattered. The roof of the vehicle I was driving caved in on me.”

Firefighting water canons are trained on the damaged BP oil refinery in Texas City, TX in the aftermath of March 23rd, 2005 explosion & fire. Fifteen workers were killed and another 180 injured in the disaster. Photo, Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle.
Firefighting water canons are trained on the damaged BP oil refinery in Texas City, TX in the aftermath of March 23rd, 2005 explosion & fire. Fifteen workers were killed and another 180 injured in the disaster. Photo, Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle.

After the blast, Nickerson was still alive and he began digging through the wreckage looking for survivors. “Out of the corner of my eye, there was somebody on the ground,” he later recalled in his 60 Minutes interview. “A guy named Ryan Rodriguez, and he was just kind of staring at me. He couldn’t move because his face was so, you know, deformed and everything from the blast. And some, you know, bones and stuff that were… protruding from his chin.” Rodriguez died in the ambulance.

The refinery that day was re-starting a unit that had been down for repairs. It was a tower processing unit being filled with gasoline. Due to malfunctioning equipment and sensors, the tower overflowed with excess gas. The gas then went into a back-up unit, which also overflowed. That caused a geyser of gasoline to shoot into the air. Workers in the refinery reported seeing the cloud of the vaporizing fuel shoot from the tall stack. It then rolled down to ground level, enlarging into a massive vapor cloud as it moved, still being fed by the malfunctioning equipment.

March 23rd, 2005.  BP’s Texas City, TX oil refinery as it burned following the explosion there that killed 15 workers and injured 180 in one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. Photo, Galveston County Daily News, Dwight Andrews.
March 23rd, 2005. BP’s Texas City, TX oil refinery as it burned following the explosion there that killed 15 workers and injured 180 in one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. Photo, Galveston County Daily News, Dwight Andrews.

Some refinery workers that day would later recall hearing frantic voices calling over a hand-held radio: “Stop all hot work! Stop all hot work!” They were trying to prevent the ignition of the escaped and creeping vapor cloud. If it found any open flame – furnace burner, welding work, or even a simple spark – it would explode violently. And in that section of the refinery, there was a lot of equipment running. But the vapor cloud soon found an ignition source – believed to have been a pick-up truck whose owner was trying to move it out of the area. But the flood of hydrocarbons prevented him from starting it. Still, he continued to crank the truck’s engine, not knowing what was happening, as co-workers frantically tried to stop him. But it was too late. A spark from the engine ignited the giant gas cloud that had been forming, touching off the horrific explosions and firestorm that followed.

Map showing location of BP's Texas City, Texas refinery.
Map showing location of BP's Texas City, Texas refinery.
According to the experts, once a cloud of highly flammable material is ignited, two events or two waves of violent action occur; first, an initial flash takes all of the available oxygen out of the air, creating a giant vacuum; then, as the suction brings in fresh oxygen, the combustibles explode. At the BP refinery, a huge fire ball was created that consumed and pulverized the immediate area, setting off a series of five more explosions in the surrounding areas killing nearby workers. As the U.S. Chemical Safety Board would later note in its report:

“…Once ignited, the flame rapidly spread through the flammable vapor cloud, compressing the gas ahead of it to create a blast pressure wave. Furthermore, the flame accelerated each time a combination of congestion/confinement and flammable mix allowed, greatly intensifying the blast pressure in certain areas. These intense pressure regions, or sub explosions, produced heavy structural damage locally and left a pattern of structural deformation away from the blast center in all directions.”

Eva Rowe, 20 years old, was driving to Texas City on the day of the explosion to visit her parents, both of whom worked at the refinery. “I was at a gas station about 45 minutes away,” she would later recall during a 60 Minutes TV interview. “Some man inside said that the BP refinery had exploded. I called my mom. And my mom didn’t answer, and that’s not like my mom. She always answered.” Rowe later learned that both of her parents were among the 15 people killed that day.

March 23, 2005: BP’s Texas City, Texas oil refinery continues to burn in some areas following the explosion there, as water is trained on remaining fires and hot spots.  Note emergency response workers, yellow hats, lower right.
March 23, 2005: BP’s Texas City, Texas oil refinery continues to burn in some areas following the explosion there, as water is trained on remaining fires and hot spots. Note emergency response workers, yellow hats, lower right.

At the scene of the explosion that day, fire trucks, emergency vehicles, helicopters all descended on the site. Amid ongoing fires, blown-apart structures, and twisted steel, the search for the dead and injured at the devastated scene began. As recounted by the Houston Chronicle, David Leining, a BP employee, was inside the temporary double-wide office trailer when he heard a weird banging noise. He went to the door to look outside, and just as he did he was pushed to the ground by the force of the blast. The vapor cloud had seeped beneath the double wide office trailer. After the explosion, Leining was flat on his back beneath a pile of rubble. An unconscious co-worker was also in that same pile above him. Leining recalled that he was able to move his left hand and reach his communicator to send out a distress signal. Another worker, Ralph Dean, thrown off the seat of his forklift by the blast, but still alive, was one of the first workers in the explosion to begin digging out co-workers. He used the fork lift to dig through the rubble at the trailer site to locate Leining, but his feet were pinned by the wreckage. Dean continued using his forklift to pry away wreckage on the pile, and to haul off other dangerous debris, pushing burning vehicles, whose gas tanks were exploding, away from the remains of the trailer area.

Aerial view of blast & fire damage at BP’s Texas City, Texas refinery sometime after the March 2005 explosion and fires, showing severely damaged structure in the upper left and burnt-out hulks of several vehicles at center of photo.
Aerial view of blast & fire damage at BP’s Texas City, Texas refinery sometime after the March 2005 explosion and fires, showing severely damaged structure in the upper left and burnt-out hulks of several vehicles at center of photo.

As he worked clearing debris, Ralph Dean found the body of his father-in-law only a few feet from Leining. Dean later discovered his wife, Alisa, pinned under a metal bookshelf and barely alive. Also killed in the trailer that day were Morris King, who died only a few feet away from where Leining was pinned. Another colleague, Larry Thomas, who had been leaning against the trailer wall, was also killed. Leining ended up with multiple fractures in his ankles, knee problems, and permanent hearing damage. Linda Rowe, who also worked at the refinery, had come to the trailer office that day to deliver a pair of forgotten glasses to her husband, James. Both she and James were killed in the explosion.

Ground-level view of the debris field and twisted and charred piping in the aftermath of the March 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas oil refinery.
Ground-level view of the debris field and twisted and charred piping in the aftermath of the March 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas oil refinery.

BP had become the owner of the Texas City oil refinery, in the late 1990s when it acquired the facility from the Amoco Oil Company. The refinery, located on the outskirts of Galveston, about 35 miles southeast of Houston, extends for nearly two square miles. At the time of the explosion it was the third largest oil refinery in the U.S. When the blast occurred that day, the surrounding community was rocked; 43,000 people were told to “shelter in place,” emergency parlance for “stay in doors and pray that nothing worse happens.” Homes were damaged as far away as three-quarters of a mile from the refinery. Financial losses would later be totaled at more than $1.5 billion.

Prior to BP’s ownership, the refinery had suffered some years of neglect under Amoco. But the situation did not appear to improve much after BP became the owner in the late 1990s. Three months before the explosion, in January 2005, one report on the refinery by consulting firm Telos had examined conditions at the plant and found numerous safety issues, including “broken alarms, thinned pipe, chunks of concrete falling, bolts dropping 60 feet, and staff being overcome with fumes.” The report’s co-author reportedly stated later, “we have never seen a site where the notion ‘I could die today’ was so real.”

TV’s “60 Minutes” did an investigation of the Texas City disaster, aired on October 29th,2006.
TV’s “60 Minutes” did an investigation of the Texas City disaster, aired on October 29th,2006.
Prior to the March 2005 explosion, there had already been a couple of earlier incidents at the Texas City complex that caught the attention of federal regulators. In March 2004 there was a blast and fire at the refinery which forced the evacuation of the plant for several hours, but no one was injured. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the refinery $63,000 for that incident, finding what it called “serious safety violations,” including problems with the emergency shutdown system and employee training. OSHA had also fined BP in September 2003 for previous safety violations after two employees were burned to death by superheated water trying to remove a valve from a high-pressure hot water line. Following the March 2005 explosion, several government and BP investigations of the accident were begun, but they would take months to complete.

Among the federal agencies investigating was the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which sent a team to the site early on. While the CSB’s final investigative report would not come until late 2006, the agency took other actions aimed at BP. On August 17, 2005, the CSB recommended that BP commission an independent panel to investigate the safety culture and management systems throughout its entire BP North America operation. This BP agreed to do, and a panel led by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III was convened, but would not report until January 2007 (this “Baker report” is covered later below).

Meanwhile, the CBS-TV newsmagazine, 60 Minutes, spent three months investigating the explosion at Texas City. On its Sunday night edition of October 29th, 2006, the newsmagazine aired its findings with correspondent Ed Bradley’s interviews of company and government officials, workers and family survivors, including Pat Nickerson and Eva Rowe quoted earlier above. “What we found,” explained CBS of the show in an introductory summary, “was a failure by BP to protect the health and safety of its own workers, even though the company made a profit of $19 billion last year.”

Lesley Stahl introduced the “60 Minutes” Texas City story.
Lesley Stahl introduced the “60 Minutes” Texas City story.
Ed Bradley, CBS correspondent for the Texas City story.
Ed Bradley, CBS correspondent for the Texas City story.
Carolyn Merritt, head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, offered key findings of BP failures at the Texas City refinery during ‘60 Minutes’ broadcast, Oct 29th, 2006.
Carolyn Merritt, head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, offered key findings of BP failures at the Texas City refinery during ‘60 Minutes’ broadcast, Oct 29th, 2006.

As the program aired, Lesley Stahl introduced the segment,but Ed Bradley would be on camera for the interviews he conducted (Bradley, in fact was ill with leukemia at the time but was intent on completing his investigation).”60 Minutes” spent the last three months investigating the explosion at Texas City,” explained Stahl in her introduction. “Ed Bradley found evidence that BP ignored warning after warning that something terrible could happen there.”

During the 60 Minutes piece, Bradley interviewed Carolyn Merritt, the head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, appointed by President George Bush. The 60 Minutes segment ran a few days before the CSB would hold a press conference on what they were finding in their investigation. So when Bradley interviewed Merritt, the CSB was well along in its investigation, and Merritt shared some of what they were finding – which was quite damning of BP. One of the issues was BP budget cuts, and if these had put the Texas City plant and its workers at risk – a question covered in one exchange during the broadcast:

Bradley: …[W]hen BP acquired the Texas City refinery from Amoco eight years ago, the plant already was in a state of disrepair. Instead of spending money to update the plant, BP executives in London told their refinery managers to cut their budgets.

Merritt: Twenty-five percent of their fixed costs were cut. And when you cut that much out of a budget in a facility, you lose people, you lose equipment, you lose maintenance, you lose trainers. Our investigation has shown that this was a drastic mistake.

Bradley: So, as the Texas refinery got older, and needed more maintenance, more attention to safety, BP cut the budget in those areas?

Merritt: Yes.

Bradley: Is there a direct relationship between the budget cut and the disaster at Texas City?

Merritt: We believe there is.

Cover of U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s final report on the BP Texas City, TX refinery explosion, March 2007.
Cover of U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s final report on the BP Texas City, TX refinery explosion, March 2007.
One of the best examples, Merritt explained in follow up, was on the very unit that caused the explosion. In the ten years leading up to the disaster, there had been eight major gasoline vapor releases on that same unit – any one of which could have been catastrophic. “Most refineries install safety devices, called flares, to burn off excess gasoline to avoid disasters,” said Merritt. “BP chose not to.” Nor did BP repair key instrument-reading devices for detecting and warning of safe levels of operation that would have signaled trouble at the plant, as Merritt also revealed.

“There were three pieces of key instrumentation that were actually supposed to be repaired that were not repaired and the management knew this,” Merritt said. But BP management authorized the operation on the very units with the faulty instrumentation, knowing the three pieces of equipment were not working properly.

A few days following the 60 Minutes broadcast, at an October 31st, 2006 press conference on the CSB investigation, Merritt singled out the history of unwise management decisions at the refinery: “Cost-cutting and failure to invest in the 1990s by Amoco and then BP left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to a catastrophe. BP targeted budget cuts of 25 percent in 1999 and another 25 percent in 2005, even though much of the refinery’s infrastructure and process equipment were in disrepair.” Operator training and staffing had also been downsized at the refinery. “What BP experienced,”“Cost-cutting and failure to invest in the 1990s by Amoco and then BP left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to a catastro-phe. . .”
– U.S. Chemical Safety Board
Merritt said, continuing her statement, “was the perfect storm where aging infrastructure, overzealous cost cutting, inadequate design, and risk blindness occurred. The result was the worst workplace catastrophe in more than a decade.” When the final CSB report was issues on March 2007 it also noted:

“The Texas City disaster was caused by organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation. Warning signs of a possible disaster were present for several years, but company officials did not intervene effectively to prevent it. The extent of the serious safety culture deficiencies was further revealed when the refinery experienced two additional serious incidents just a few months after the March 2005 disaster. In one, a pipe failure caused a reported $30 million in damage; the other resulted in a $2 million property loss. In each incident, community shelter-in-place orders were issued.”

James Baker delivering his panel’s findings on BP’s U.S. operations, Houston, Texas, 2007.
James Baker delivering his panel’s findings on BP’s U.S. operations, Houston, Texas, 2007.
Cover of the Baker Report: “The Report of The BP U.S. Refineries  Independent Safety Review Panel,” January 2007.
Cover of the Baker Report: “The Report of The BP U.S. Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel,” January 2007.


The Baker Report

As recommended by the CSB, a special panel was commissioned by BP and headed up by former Secretary of State James Baker to conduct a third-party review of BP corporate practices leading up to the Texas City explosion, including a review the company’s practices at five other U.S. BP refineries. The “Baker Report,” as it was called, released in January 2007, did not find much to commend in BP’s operations. Among other things, Baker’s group found that inspections on volatile process units at BP refineries often were long overdue. In other cases, near catastrophes went uninvestigated, and known equipment problems such as thinning pipes and vessels went unrepaired for up to ten years.

In a follow-up video news conference to the Baker Report with BP’s then CEO, John Browne, the CEO stated: “If I had to say one thing which I hope you will all hear today it is this: BP gets it. And I get it too…,” suggesting that the company would change its ways. But apparently, BP didn’t “get it,” as in the years following the Texas City disaster, the company continued to have spills, leaks and other incidents at its U.S. operations and those abroad, making BP one of the classic corporate recidivists (see sidebar below).

In fact, several years after the 2005 disaster, in September 2009, BP was fined $87.4 million by OSHA for unaddressed worker safety violations at the very same Texas City oil refinery where the explosion had occurred.

The fine was for failing to implement workplace safety improvements under a settlement made with OSHA following the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion. In a six-month investigation, OSHA found 270 uncorrected workplace safety violations and 439 new workplace safety violations at the refinery. OSHA noted that four more workers had died at the Texas City refinery since the 2005 explosion.

Jordan Barab, then acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said the agency had found “some serious systemic safety problems within the corporation” and at the Texas refinery. “The fact that there are so many still outstanding life-threatening problems at this plant,” said Barab, “indicates that they still have a systemic safety problem in this refinery.” And as would be revealed by subsequent events in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP apparently had yet to address its systemic problems found elsewhere in the corporation.


“BP’s Other Messes”
2006-2010

Texas City wasn’t the only place where BP had problems, and in subsequent years other incidents would occur – in pipelines, with other refining operations, controlling emissions, and with offshore operations. Here are a few of those reported in the 2006-2010 period:

Associated Press map shows the general location of a BP oil pipeline that leaked on Alaska’s North Slope in 2006.
Associated Press map shows the general location of a BP oil pipeline that leaked on Alaska’s North Slope in 2006.
March 2006. A corroded pipeline at BP’s Prudhoe Bay operation in Alaska leaked 267,000 gallons of crude oil. Five months after the incident, BP conceded that the leak was part of a widespread corrosion problem in its system that would force it to replace 16 miles of a 22-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay. In 2007, BP pled guilty to the negligent discharge of oil under the federal Clean Water Act and was fined $20 million for the spill and admitted it “failed to take necessary actions to prevent the March 2006 pipeline spill.”

April 2006. BP was fined $2.4 million by OSHA for worker safety violations at the company’s Oregon, Ohio oil refinery – workplace safety violations, in fact, that were similar to those that contributed to the Texas City explosion. “It is extremely disappointing that BP Products failed to learn from the lessons of Texas City to assure their workers’ safety and health,” said Edwin Foulke, Jr., OSHA assistant secretary at the time of the fine, also citing BP as among those companies “who, despite our enforcement and outreach efforts, ignore their obligations under the law and continually place their employees at risk.”

June 2007. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality fined BP $869,150 for leaking underground gasoline storage tanks. The Michigan DEQ reported it was then monitoring over 200 former gasoline stations where BP had reported releases from underground tank systems.

The now-famous photo of BP’s burning Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig  in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and gushed  oil from a sea-bed well for nearly 3 months.
The now-famous photo of BP’s burning Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and gushed oil from a sea-bed well for nearly 3 months.
October 2007. BP paid a $6,350 fine for failing to perform adequate corrosion protection inspections for gasoline storage tanks at former gas station sites in Washington, D.C.

February 2009. BP agreed to pay nearly $180 million in fines to correct eight year-old air pollution violations at its Texas City oil refinery. BP agreed to pay the fine for failing to bring the refinery into compliance with air pollution rules under a 2001 consent decree to correct Clean Air Act violations.

March 2010. OSHA cited the BP-Husky oil refinery near Toledo, Ohio for workplace safety violations and proposed fines of more than $3 million. BP then operated and jointly owned the refinery with Canadian-based Husky Energy.

April 2010. BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded on April 20th after a blowout, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others, as the rig sank two days later. A massive oil spill followed – the largest in U.S. history – threatening the entire Gulf Coast region, its wildlife, marshes and natural resources, and damaging its fishing and tourist-based economies. Millions of people throughout the region were directly and indirectly affected, from lost jobs to shuttered businesses and reduced local revenue. In November 2012, BP and the U.S. Department of Justice settled federal criminal charges with BP pleading guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, two misdemeanors, and a felony count of lying to Congress. As of February 2013, criminal and civil settlements and payments to a trust fund had cost the company $42.2 billion. In September 2014, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that BP was primarily responsible for the oil spill because of its gross negligence and reckless conduct. In July 2015, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in U.S. history.


Eva Rowe on the October 2006 “60 Minutes” broadcast.
Eva Rowe on the October 2006 “60 Minutes” broadcast.

Eva Rowe’s Fight

Eva Rowe, the 20 year-old who lost both her parents in the Texas City explosion, cited at the top of this story, decided to take BP to court rather than accept a company settlement over the death of her parents.

The day of the explosion, Eva had gone through a harrowing experience, traveling that day from Hornbeck, Louisiana to what she thought was going to be a pleasant visit with her parents. But her life would never be the same again. After her frantic efforts trying to locate her parents following the explosion – calling the plant, hospitals, relatives, and visiting a neighboring worker – she was told unofficially at 4 am that her parents were presumed to be among those killed. Early the next day, televised BP information advised those with missing loved ones to go the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center in Texas City. There, next of kin were escorted to the coroner’ s office to view the deceased. But Eva Rowe was too upset to view her parents’ remains and instead began filling out paper work on her parents’ physical descriptions and medical records. By the end of the day, her parents had been identified through dental records and DNA. “That was the end of my life as I knew it,” Rowe would later say, describing her emptiness and hurt on losing her mother and her father.

Eva Rowe, holding a portrait photograph of her parents, James (44) and Linda (43) Rowe, killed in the BP explosion.
Eva Rowe, holding a portrait photograph of her parents, James (44) and Linda (43) Rowe, killed in the BP explosion.
Eva’s parents, James and Linda Rowe, had come to work at the Texas City refinery with BP contractor J.E. Merit Constructors. James was 44, and Linda 43. They had married when they were young and settled near James’s family, in Hornbeck, Louisiana, a tiny town with 500 or so residents not far from the Texas border. They lived in a trailer home on a dirt road on the outskirts of town. They had two children, Jeremy, the eldest, and Eva, the younger second child. Work was hard to find in Hornbeck, so James, and later Linda, came to work at Merit.

Eva too, had once worked briefly for a few months with her dad at another oil refinery in Corpus Christi, where he was a civil superintendent at the plant, overseeing general construction activities. He found Eva a job as a pipe fitter’s helper, but only for a brief time. Still, that experience was enough to have given Eva some idea of what a refinery environment was like. Eva had not had work after high school, and was living with her boyfriend back in Hornbeck. But she was still close to her mother, whom she would call her best friend. It was in October 2004 that Eva’s mother decided to join her husband, then working with Merit at the Texas City BP refinery. Linda soon had a job there working in the toolroom. And it was in the temporary office trailer at the Texas City refinery that was blown apart March 23rd, 2005 where both Linda and James Rowe were killed.

BP’s then CEO, Lord John Browne, visited Texas City the day after the explosion, stating the company would be assisting the injured and those who lost loved ones.
BP’s then CEO, Lord John Browne, visited Texas City the day after the explosion, stating the company would be assisting the injured and those who lost loved ones.
Back in Hornbeck, Eva arranged the double funeral for her parents, and there was also the matter of her parents’ modest estate, over which there came to be some differences and infighting. When Eva tried to become the sole administrator some family and local residents turned against her, telling “wild child” tales about her – as Eva had been no saint during her teen years. Lawyers were besieging her as well, knowing that potentially big settlements from BP were possible for those who lost loved ones. BP by this time had made public statements that it would be making restitution to those families. The head of the company from London, England, Lord John Browne, had come to Texas City the day after the explosion and held a news conference at city hall. “We have a very simple rule at BP that we are responsible for what happens inside the boundaries of our plant.” he said. “This is no exception. We will be doing everything we can to assist the families.” Later, Ross Pillari, president and CEO of BP America, was also reassuring, promising swift financial support and compensation to the families of those who died. “Our goal is to provide fair compensation without the need for lawsuits or lengthy court proceedings,” he said. BP in fact had set aside some $1.6 billion to settle lawsuits with victims and survivors.

Brent Coon, attorney, Beaumont, TX.
Brent Coon, attorney, Beaumont, TX.
Eva Rowe, still in a grieving state, losing weight, and having some sleepless nights, was hearing stories from survivors of the blast about lack of maintenance at the BP plant and malfunctioning alarms. Later, at the suggestion of a union worker, she hired a lawyer named Brent Coon from Beaumont, Texas. Coon also represented the Texas chapter of United Steelworkers of America whose members worked throughout the Texas oil industry. Coon became a personal adviser and helper to Eva. He not only became her lawyer, filing a $1.2 billion lawsuit against BP on her behalf, he would also help stabilize his client in her grief during a very troubling period of her life. He helped guide her through the family estate process back in Louisiana, and advised her to relocate to Beaumont, Texas, where he helped her find a new home, also offering members of his firm to assist her. But for Coon, he believed Eva Rowe was the right person to do battle with BP in court.

As Mimi Swartz, writing in Texas Monthly would observe: “Of all the death cases [in the BP Texas City disaster], Coon felt that Eva’s was the most compelling, because she had ‘driven into the chaos’ and because she had lost both parents. He also felt strongly that winning money would not be enough—for Eva, for him, or for that matter, for the United Steelworkers. … Coon understood the value of a public spectacle. He wanted to make an example of BP, and to do so would require a motivated plaintiff.”

By late June 2005, within a few months of the explosion, a number of families who had lost loved ones in the Texas City explosion settled with BP, some for amounts in the millions. “It’s the right price,” attorney Robert Kwok said at the time, then representing a spouse of one of the workers who had been killed. “They are basically erring on the side of generous,” he said of BP.“…They [BP] are offering money that is very hard for claimants and their lawyers to walk away from.”– Robert Kwok, Attorney “They are offering money that is very hard for claimants and their lawyers to walk away from.” Some of the settlements were reportedly “on the high end of tens of millions of dollars apiece.” Attorney Richard Mithoff, then representing several families of workers killed in the BP explosion said, “I think there is a clear recognition on the part of BP that they would be held accountable in a court of law.” And he also expressed some surprise at how quickly BP had settled the cases. “I’ve been involved in a lot of early negotiations but none have settled this early,” he said. Eva Rowe’s brother, Jeremy, would also settle with BP. But if every plaintiff settled and no court action occurred, many internal BP documents on the refinery’s operation and BP decision making would never see the light of day. Such documents would remain under court seal, as confidentiality of company information is customarily the practice in settlement agreements – a quid pro quo some might say. Eva Rowe would determine that she did not want that to occur in her case.

March 2006: Eva Rowe placing wreath at make-shift memorial outside BP’s Texas City plant on the one year anniversary of explosion that killed her parents. AP photo/ Melissa Phillip.
March 2006: Eva Rowe placing wreath at make-shift memorial outside BP’s Texas City plant on the one year anniversary of explosion that killed her parents. AP photo/ Melissa Phillip.
However, some suggested that her attorney, Brent Coon, was the driving force behind Eva’s stance and had undo influence on her. Still, when it came to exposing BP’s documents and decision making, they both wanted maximum disclosure. Eva appeared to be very much her own person on that count.

“I might be from the woods, but I’m street-smart,” she would later tell the Texas Monthly’s Mimi Swartz. “They tried to treat me like I was stupid. I wanted the public to know. They couldn’t pay me enough to be quiet.”

It took Eva a full year to view the autopsy photos of her parents given to her earlier by the county coroner. She had been unable to look at them before, with Coon’s office holding them for her. But when she finally did view them she saw “the charred remains of her decapitated mother” (struck by a falling object during the explosion and fire), and “what she believed were streams of tears on her father’s blood-stained face,” according to Texas Monthly. The photos motivated her more than ever to stand her ground with BP.

Brent Coon with his client, Eva Rowe, prepping with some model refinery apparatus.
Brent Coon with his client, Eva Rowe, prepping with some model refinery apparatus.
Brent Coon and his associates, meanwhile, were pouring through BP’s performance history. Time and time again, they found that BP had opted for revenue and profit rather than plant fixes and upgrades. In 2002, rising gas prices brought a windfall to BP and other oil companies, but BP plant managers were told to “bank the savings.” Again in 2004, there was a $2 billion profit at BP Texas City, but little investment in safety. In fact, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, from 1995 to 2005, BP led the refinery industry in deaths with 22 fatalities. BP was also the nation’s leader in refinery accidents, with 3,563 mishaps occurring between 1990 and 2003. The more Eva learned about BP’s record, the more determined she became about taking them to trial. A September 2006 court date was set. But it was the waiting, the drawn-out interim battles, and Eva’s personal demons, that would wear on her during the legal process.

BP’s legal team, meanwhile, played hard ball during negotiations and depositions, using tactics aimed at intimidating Rowe and any others who might challenge the company in court. In Rowe’s case, she was assured that even if she won in court, there could be large financial consequences. She was told by BP that she would be responsible for their court costs if the jury award was less than the settlement offer.…Eva would see strangers parked in a car near her home. During the day, she was constantly followed… A bodyguard was hired to be with Eva at all times… During her deposition, BP’s attorneys got personal, asking her about drinking and marijuana and cocaine use and an altercation at a gas station that ended with her being led away in handcuffs by the police. Eva pled youthful indiscretion and teenage experimentation. Still, BP’s attorneys had unnerved her, making her feel like she was the one at fault, not BP. However, BP’s lawyers made it clear that should Eva’s case go to trial, the jury would be “entitled to know who Eva Rowe is.” Beyond the deposition and courtroom tactics, there were other more troubling concerns. According to Coon, Eva would see strangers parked in a car near her home. During the day, she was constantly followed as she tried to live and rebuild her life. At the suggestion of Coon, a bodyguard was hired to be with her at all times. BP’s attorney’s, in one statement to the court, claimed the company “did not have people on surveillance.” Still, Rowe was so afraid for her safety on one occasion she called the police.

Brent Coon & Associates dug deep into the BP record preparing their case.
Brent Coon & Associates dug deep into the BP record preparing their case.
As part of their legal strategy, Brent Coon and associates sought to depose the company’s top man, CEO, Lord John Browne, arguing that he was likely uniquely inovled in BP budgeting and decision making on which plant investments were made or not made. The court initially gave the go ahead for the Browne deposition. BP appealed, and other oil companies, including ExxonMobil, filed an amicus brief in support of their effort, calling the deposition of Browne a form of harassment. But the Texas Court of Appeals ruled against BP and the stage was set for Browne to be deposed. Eva Rowe wanted the coroner’s photographs of her parents’ bodies shown to Browne during the deposition and questioning.

The negotiations and maneuvering over Eva’s case would drag on for months. The September 2006 trial date was also postponed. Eva meanwhile, was still in a state of some personal duress and bereavement, and during this time, roughly between September 2005 and August 2006, she had a string of misadventures and personal problems – troubles with a new boyfriend (“didn’t support my cause”); an auto accident; and some drug incidents (charges later dropped). All of this suggested to Coon, worried about the emotional state of his client, that bringing the case to some final resolution sooner rather than later would be in the best interests of all concerned. Meanwhile, a new trial date had been set for November 2006. Nor had John Browne’s deposition occurred. But by late October, both sides were girding for the jury selection process, as their legal teams had encamped to respective floors of Galveston hotels expecting a long court battle.

Ed Bradley, during the “60 Minutes” Texas City broadcast.
Ed Bradley, during the “60 Minutes” Texas City broadcast.
Eva Rowe during the “60 Minutes” broadcast, Oct 29th, 2006.
Eva Rowe during the “60 Minutes” broadcast, Oct 29th, 2006.

Then on Sunday evening, October 29th, 2006, the 60 Minutes broadcast aired, which had included segments with federal safety officials and others, as discussed earlier above. The broadcast was a searing indictment of BP management’s role in the Texas City disaster. The show had also included on-camera segments with Eva Rowe and Brent Coon. During the end of that broadcast, Ed Bradley had questioned Eva specifically about the BP settlement process:

Bradley: A lot of people who suffered terrible losses that day have already settled with B.P. Has B.P. offered to settle with you?

Rowe: Yes.

Bradley: And they’ve offered you, I assume, a substantial amount of money?

Rowe: I want everyone to know what they did, you know. If we settle and all, everything we know has to remain confidential. I don’t want that to happen.

Bradley: So you’re willing to go to trial?

Rowe: I’m ready. I’m ready to go to trial.

That TV broadcast, beyond being a searing indictment of BP’s management failures at the Texas City refinery, was also a nightmare for the BP legal team trying to prevent Eva Rowe from going to trial. For now, with Eva on camera making her case plain to millions of viewers all across the country, BP’s course of action was made all the more difficult. But following the broadcast, BP sent out thousands of “dear neighbor” letters throughout Texas City claiming it had made substantial safety improvements at the plant, and promising to spend $1 billion more on improvements in the next five years. Coon charged that BP was trying to influence the jury pool in advance of their November trial. Still, Coon kept talking with his BP counterpart, William Noble, the company’s chief litigator on the case. About two weeks before jurors were to be selected, the two sides appeared to be making some progress in their talks. Coon kept pushing for agreement on the public release of documents. Then on the morning of November 9th, 2006, when jury selection was about to begin, BP decided to settle and meet Eva Rowe’s terms.

Headlines of BP’s legal settlement with Eva Rowe in the final lawsuit in the Texas City, TX refinery explosion. Associated Press story appearing in various newspapers, here in ‘The Lakeland Ledger,’ Lakeland, FL, November 10th, 2006.
Headlines of BP’s legal settlement with Eva Rowe in the final lawsuit in the Texas City, TX refinery explosion. Associated Press story appearing in various newspapers, here in ‘The Lakeland Ledger,’ Lakeland, FL, November 10th, 2006.

BP agreed to release the documents Rowe and Coon wanted to be made public. In the end, nearly seven million pages of internal BP documents would be published, much of which is available through a public website. And in addition to a payment to Eva, BP also paid out millions to a group of schools and universities, hospitals and charities nominated by Rowe, including: $12.5 million to the Blocker Burn Unit at Galveston’s University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB); $12.5 million for the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M; $5 million to the College of the Mainland, in Texas City, for a safety program; $1 million to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital (James and Linda Rowe’s favorite charity); and $1 million to Hornbeck High, where Eva’s mom had been a teacher’s aide. BP also created a fund for victims of the explosion and pledged to match donations up to $6 million. In the end the total BP payout in the Rowe settlement – not counting Eva’s share – would come to $44 million.

March 2007: Eva Rowe, with portrait of her deceased parents, offering testimony at Congressional hearing on the BP Texas City disaster. Brent Coon is seated behind her at right.
March 2007: Eva Rowe, with portrait of her deceased parents, offering testimony at Congressional hearing on the BP Texas City disaster. Brent Coon is seated behind her at right.
March 2007: Eva Rowe, at the same Congressional hearing noted above, turning emotional listening to testimony.
March 2007: Eva Rowe, at the same Congressional hearing noted above, turning emotional listening to testimony.

When reporters asked Rowe in a news conference if she could ever forgive BP for what happened to her parents, she replied: “I’ll probably never say BP is a good company. They killed my parents to save money.”

Eva Rowe thereafter became an advocate for worker safety issues, having designated a portion of the settlement money to oil refinery workplace safety research and education.

She was also called to offer testimony in Washington, D.C. in March 2007 for a Congressional hearing on the Texas City explosion. She testified at that hearing – before the House Education and Labor Committee, and was also at the witness table for questions during that hearing along with Frank Bowman, a member of the Baker Report panel; Carolyn Merritt of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board; and Red Cavaney of the American Petroleum Institute – all of whom gave testimony that day as well.

Brent Coon’s law practice – thriving in 2007 when he had some 150 lawsuits pending against BP in the Texas City litigation – went on to even greater heights as he became noted for his role in the Eva Rowe case and others. By mid-2010, following BP’s Gulf of Mexico offshore blow-out, Brent Coon & Associates picked up additional business working with those suffering losses in that disaster. His firm now has some 20 offices around the country with 60 litigators representing clients on worker safety, environmental, public health, and personal injury cases.

As for BP Texas City, the company began the process of selling that refinery in 2011, as it needed capital to cover the costs and liabilities of its Deepwater Horizon disaster mentioned in the “other messes” sidebar above. In early 2013, BP completed the sale of the refinery to Marathon Petroleum Corporation for $2.5 billion.

“The Daily Damage”
An Occasional Series

This story is one of an occasional series at this website that will feature the ongoing environmental and societal impacts of industrial spills, fires and explosions; toxic chemical releases and waste issues; air and water pollution; and other “daily damage”.

These stories will cover both recent incidents and those from history that have left a mark either nationally or locally; have generated controversy in some way; have brought about governmental inquiries or political activity; and generally have taken a toll on the environment, workers, and/or public health and safety.

My purpose for including such stories at this website 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 business practice will be made, yielding industries that are safe and clean.
– Jack Doyle

In terms of industry-wide safety, however, the record in the industry is still pretty atrocious – this according to an excellent bit of reporting by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Tribune which looked at the industry’s record roughly between March 2005 and March 2015. Among their findings: at least 58 workers died at U.S. refineries in the 2005-2015 period (nearly the same number as the decade before); federal officials recorded nearly 350 fires at U.S. refineries in an eight-year span – about one every week; and that federal regulators lacked hard data to accurately track deaths and monitor safety trends within the industry (see the link above in this paragraph for more detail on their reporting).

At the 10th anniversary of the BP Texas City explosion, in March 2015, Eva Rowe was still troubled. “I thought if I helped people I would get better. I haven’t gotten better,” she told the Galveston County Daily Times. Now in her early 30s, she told the Times she didn’t care about the multi-millions she had received in her settlement. “I would rather live on welfare in a trailer in the woods in Louisiana with my parents than live in a mansion,” she said.

See also at this website, for example: “Burning Philadelphia,” a story about the 1975 Gulf Oil Co. refinery fire in that city; “Burn On, Big River,” about the historic pollution of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio; and, “Santa Barbara Oil Spill” about the 1969 Union Oil offshore oil well blow-out and pollution of California’s coastline. Additional environmental stories can be found at the “Environmental History” page. 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

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____________________________________

Date Posted: 28 April 2016
Last Update: 12 November 2017
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Texas City Disaster: BP Refinery, March 2005,”
PopHistoryDig.com, April 28, 2016.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

Nov 9th, 2006: Eva Rowe and attorney Brent Coon talking with reporters after BP Texas City settlement.
Nov 9th, 2006: Eva Rowe and attorney Brent Coon talking with reporters after BP Texas City settlement.
Dec 2006: Eva Row and Brent Coon at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, TX, where the Truman G. Blocker Adult Burn Unit was one of the charities designated by Rowe in the BP settlement.
Dec 2006: Eva Row and Brent Coon at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, TX, where the Truman G. Blocker Adult Burn Unit was one of the charities designated by Rowe in the BP settlement.
March  2007: Eva Rowe in Washington, D.C., meeting U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman, House Education & Labor Committee, where Eva delivered testimony.
March 2007: Eva Rowe in Washington, D.C., meeting U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman, House Education & Labor Committee, where Eva delivered testimony.
April 2016: Full-page BP ad, Washington Post, “Safety Doesn’t Come in a Box,” touting BP’s commitment to safety.
April 2016: Full-page BP ad, Washington Post, “Safety Doesn’t Come in a Box,” touting BP’s commitment to safety.

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Daniel Schorn, CBS News “The Explosion At Texas City: 2005 Refinery Explosion In Texas Killed 15, Injured 170,” 60 Minutes, October 29, 2006.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board, “BP America Refinery Explosion,” Main Page.

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Steven Mufson, “Cost-Cutting Led to Blast At BP Plant, Probe Finds,” Washington Post, October 31, 2006.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board, BP Investigation, Animation Video, November 2005, YouTube.com, Uploaded on January 11, 2008. (Run time, 6:14).

U.S. Chemical Safety Board, “Investigation Report: Refinery Explosion and Fire (15 Killed, 180 Injured), BP Texas City, TX, March 23, 2005,” Final Report, March 2007 (PDF file), 341pp.

“Daughter of BP Disaster Victims Settles; Eva Rowe to Get Undisclosed Sum from Oil Giant after Her Parents Died in Texas Oil Plant Fire in March 2005,” CNN.com, November 9, 2006.

Juan Lozano, AP, “BP Settles Last Explosion Suit,” Lakeland Ledger (Lakeland, FL), November 10, 2006, p. E-1.

Anastasia Ustinova, “BP Settlement to Help Future Burn Victims; UtMB Will Use its $12.5 Million Share to Improve Treatment, Study Effects on Tissue,” Houston Chronicle, December 15, 2006.

The BP US Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel [i.e., James Baker Panel ], The Report of the BP US Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel, January 2007.

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Steven Mufson, “BP Failed on Safety, Report Says; Baker Panel Finds That Oil Company Skimped on Spending,” Washington Post, Wednesday, January 17, 2007.

Juan A. Lozano, Associated Press, “BP Report Skewers 5 for Texas Blast; the Findings, Released by Court Order, Said Four Officials Failed to Do Their Jobs and Should Be Fired,” Denver Post, May 4, 2007.

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Brent Coon & Associates, Beaumont, Texas.

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John Wiley & Sons, December 2010, 256 pp.

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T.J. Aulds, “Eva Rowe: ‘I Thought If I Helped People I Would Get Better. I Haven’t Gotten Better’.” The Daily News (Galveston County, TX), March 22, 2015.

______________________________








“Burning Philadelphia”
Refinery Inferno: 1975

August 17th, 1975: Gulf Oil refinery fire scene near landmark stack, Philadelphia, PA.
August 17th, 1975: Gulf Oil refinery fire scene near landmark stack, Philadelphia, PA.
In 1975 it was one of the biggest oil refineries in the country – the Gulf Oil Co. refinery and tank farm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Originally built in 1904 and located near the juncture of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, the Philadelphia refinery soon sprawled over more than 700 acres on the outskirts of the city. By the 1950s, commuters on their way into and out of the city viewed it daily as they crossed the high-rising Penrose Avenue Bridge that arched over the refinery grounds.

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.

Gulf Oil Company logo.
Gulf Oil Company logo.
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.

Aug 1975: Aerial view of Gulf Oil refinery fire in Phila. PA, looking down on the Penrose Ave. Bridge that crossed the refinery grounds.
Aug 1975: Aerial view of Gulf Oil refinery fire in Phila. PA, looking down on the Penrose Ave. Bridge that crossed the refinery grounds.
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.

August 17, 1975: Firemen and equipment beneath Penrose Bridge as they move in to fight the Gulf Oil refinery blaze in Philadelphia, PA, with a Gulf Oil office building in the fire’s path.
August 17, 1975: Firemen and equipment beneath Penrose Bridge as they move in to fight the Gulf Oil refinery blaze in Philadelphia, PA, with a Gulf Oil office building in the fire’s path.

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.

August 1975: Firemen pulling hose through the Gulf Oil Refinery in Philadelphia, PA, on their way to do battle with the fierce blaze.  Note accumulating water at their feet.  Dominic Ligato, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photo /Temple Univ.
August 1975: Firemen pulling hose through the Gulf Oil Refinery in Philadelphia, PA, on their way to do battle with the fierce blaze. Note accumulating water at their feet. Dominic Ligato, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photo /Temple Univ.

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.

August 1975: View of the Gulf refinery fire from Penrose Bridge, looking west. Photo, Temple University
August 1975: View of the Gulf refinery fire from Penrose Bridge, looking west. Photo, Temple University
August 1975: Another view of the Gulf refinery fire from further up on the Penrose Bridge. Photo, Temple University
August 1975: Another view of the Gulf refinery fire from further up on the Penrose Bridge. Photo, Temple University

In 2015, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Aubrey Whelan noted that another firefighter at the scene, rookie Ray Rajchel, had been separated from his company, Engine 20, after he tripped and fell into the oil/water mixture. His supervisor, Lt. James Pouliot, told him to walk back to his fire truck and get hosed down before rejoining the group. Rajchel was on his way back to the previous fire location when a secondary flash explosion occurred. He watched in horror as the flames and smoke spread through the refinery and down the wide avenues between the giant oil tanks. He never again saw his supervisor, Lt. James Pouliot.

Back at the refinery in August 1975, 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 6:00 p.m., 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.

Additional view of the August 1975 Gulf Oil refinery fire, likely from the Penrose Bridge, showing the intensity of the blaze as it approached the administration building, subsequently burnt to the ground. Photo, Philadelphia Inquirer.
Additional view of the August 1975 Gulf Oil refinery fire, likely from the Penrose Bridge, showing the intensity of the blaze as it approached the administration building, subsequently burnt to the ground. Photo, Philadelphia Inquirer.

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.

Associated Press wire photo used by The Baltimore Sun showing firemen still battling one of the tank fires at the Gulf Oil refinery in Philadelphia, PA on Monday, August 18, 1975, a day after the fire had started.  “Flare ups” at the site would continue for another week following the original inferno.
Associated Press wire photo used by The Baltimore Sun showing firemen still battling one of the tank fires at the Gulf Oil refinery in Philadelphia, PA on Monday, August 18, 1975, a day after the fire had started. “Flare ups” at the site would continue for another week following the original inferno.

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.

Ed Marks, among those who fought the 1975 Gulf refinery fire, recalled in a 2015 Philadelphia Inquirer interview, how subdued his firehouse was after the blaze and how it felt to visit the refinery scene two days later: “When we pulled in, it was the most eerie sense that came over you, knowing the devastation and the loss of life that had just occurred. It was complete and total devastation. The refinery administration building burnt to the ground, the twisted steel, every vehicle burnt down to the skeletons.”

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photo of burnt out and twisted remains of Gulf Oil refinery apparatus near storage tank earthen dike with fire truck and pumper skeletons in foreground, August 1975, Philadelphia, PA.
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photo of burnt out and twisted remains of Gulf Oil refinery apparatus near storage tank earthen dike with fire truck and pumper skeletons in foreground, August 1975, Philadelphia, PA.

“The Daily Damage”
An Occasional Series

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 initial 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. But beyond the first cause, there were other contributing circumstances — and some might say outright negligence — that made the fire a much bigger catastrophe than it should have been.


Remaining Issues

Less than two months after the Gulf Oil fire in Philadelphia, on October 12, 1975, another oil refinery fire occurred in the city – this one at the Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) refinery not far from the Gulf refinery. The ARCO fire went to nine alarms with more than 200 firefighters involved, but had no loss of life.

Still, this fire, coupled with the Gulf blaze and other incidents in the 1970s, prompted then Pennsylvania attorney general, Robert Kane, to form a special governors task force to begin an investigation into Philadelphia-area oil refinery fires and explosions. “We are going beyond that (the Gulf fire) to deal with all the refinery fires in Pennsylvania during the past 10 years to determine whether there is a risk and what can be done to correct it,” Kane told the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 13th, 1975. The group had already held its first session in early October. The special task force proposed to look into a series of oil-related incidents in the Philadelphia area that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. There had been more than 50 people killed in those incidents.

In addition to the Gulf refinery fire, which killed eight firemen and caused an estimated $10 million in property damage, the task force was expected to investigate several other refinery- and oil-related incidents in the area. Included among these was the January 31, 1975 explosion of the Greek oil tanker Corinthos and the death of 25 crewmen at British Petroleum’s dock in Marcus Hook after it was struck by the S. S. Edgar M. Queeny; the April 9, 1974 explosion of the Greek tanker Elias at the ARCO dock on the Delaware River, killing 12; and the May 11, 1970 explosion of a 13-story catalytic processing unit at the ARCO refinery, killing seven workers. There had also been numerous smaller incidents at area refineries in the 1960s, most of which were non-fatal fires – and eight of which occurred at the Gulf refinery between 1966 and the 1975 blaze. One of the worst of these occurred on September 9, 1960, when lightning touched off an eight-alarm, $l-million blaze that destroyed 20 large storage tanks.

UPI wire story, New York Times, July 7, 1977, p. 27.
UPI wire story, New York Times, July 7, 1977, p. 27.
Regrettably, research at this website to date has not been able to determine what happened with Attorney General Kane’s state-level investigation, whether a report was in fact prepared and issued, or what findings and/or recommendations might have been made. In July 1977, there were some news reports indicating that Gulf Oil – in connection with the 1975 refinery fire – was cited with 172 violations of the city fire code and fined for a portion of those, some of which may have been subsequently waived. And while there may also have been state actions taken and/or private lawsuits brought against Gulf Oil for its liabilities in the 1975 refinery fire – possibly with out-of-court settlements – this website has not yet found any record of those (Note: for readers who may know of such records, or details of the state’s oil industry investigation, please forward any links or related materials, or contact Jack Doyle at the email address below).


Firemen Honored

Six firefighters lost their lives at the scene during the August 1975 Gulf refinery fire; 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. Again, in August 2015, marking the 40th year of the fire, city and fire department officials, survivors, and family members gathered in remembrance of the tragedy with a ceremony at the Fireman’s Hall Museum.

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, including 60 Minutes TV coverage and details on related 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 stories of possible interest at this website include: “Burn On, Big River,” about oil-pollution fed 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 “Plastic Infernos,” a brief history of toxic dangers found in high-rise and other fires with high plastics content. 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

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Date Posted: 15 February 2015
Last Update: 20 August 2017
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Burning Philadelphia: Refinery Inferno, 1975,”
PopHistoryDig.com, February 15, 2015.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Another view of the August 1975 Gulf Oil refinery fire in Philadelphia, PA with the former landmark brick boiler stack, ruined in the blaze.
Another view of the August 1975 Gulf Oil refinery fire in Philadelphia, PA with the former landmark brick boiler stack, ruined in the blaze.
Fireman on firetruck No. 133 and other men fighting blaze at Gulf Oil refinery, photographed not long before this area went up in flames, destroying the firetruck and killing some of the firefighters.
Fireman on firetruck No. 133 and other men fighting blaze at Gulf Oil refinery, photographed not long before this area went up in flames, destroying the firetruck and killing some of the firefighters.

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.

Aubrey Whelan, “Ceremony Marks 1975 Gulf Oil Refinery Blaze That Killed Eight Firefighters,” Philly.com, August 17, 2015.

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