Joseph S. Pete
The Times, Munster, Ind.
Aug. 30—The 1955 explosion that blackened the daytime sky, ultimately wiped out the entire Stiglitz Park neighborhood, could be felt as far away as Michigan and “seemed liked the end of the world” is doubtless the best known in the 132-year history of BP Whiting Refinery.
But it wasn’t the refinery’s deadliest blast.
A 1921 blast at the then-Standard Oil Refinery along the Lake Michigan lakefront killed eight workers and injured another 44. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the deadliest industrial accident in the history of a refinery that was founded in the 19th century by John D. Rockefeller to make kerosene and has persevered to the 21st century, where it’s now the largest inland refinery in the United States with a capacity of more than 430,000 barrels per day.
The blast rocked Whiting just as it was about to celebrate the Fourth of July with various festivities, including a fireworks show at the lakefront park on Lake Michigan.
“It was going to be a day of nothing but fun. But about 45 minutes before the parade was to begin, a flash of light lit up the city, followed quickly by a thunderous boom that jolted awake anyone still in bed, and then by a cloud of smoke that rose from the Standard Oil Refinery. In an instant, the day of fun became the most deadly and gruesome day in the refinery’s history,” wrote John Hmurovic, an author and historian with the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society. “There have been other explosions that killed workers at the refinery, others that have been more destructive to property, and others that burned more spectacularly and posed a greater danger to the city. But there has never been, before or since, one as deadly as the explosion on July 4, 1921.”
‘Not just brewing tea’
Other refinery explosions have been deadlier, including the Union Oil Refinery explosion that killed 19 people in Romeoville, Illinois, in 1984 and the 2005 Texas City Refinery explosion that killed 15 and injured more than 100 in 2005. But after more than a century of heavy industry operating in the Calumet Region, the 1921 Standard Oil explosion remains one of the worst industrial accidents in Northwest Indiana history.
It was the subject of the novel “Danger! Keep Out” by former refinery worker Edward J. Nichols, who wrote, “You got to keep in mind that there’s a couple hundred barrels of oil shut up inside those stills, and that oil’s bound to raise a lot of hell when you’re smacking it underneath with seven hundred good old Fahrenheits, or even better. That’s not just brewing tea.”
Oil refineries have gotten considerably safer for workers over the past century. The Whiting refinery, for instance, now uses robots to clear gaseous sulfur tanks and drones to inspect flares so workers don’t have to face the risk of climbing up temporary scaffolding. But the work still has many inherent hazards that can only be mitigated to a degree, such as being surrounded by highly flammable materials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the fatality rate for oil and gas workers is more than seven times higher than in other lines of work.
‘Horrors too vivid to print’
The 1921 Standard Oil explosion ripped across the lakefront refinery just as the overnight shift had ended and the day shift reported for duty, sometime after 8:15 a.m. that fateful day. A still in the eighth battery overheated and then exploded, sending the cylinder on top flying 100 feet in the air before it crashed into another still.
Dozens of workers who were congregated nearby were sprayed with a deluge of shrapnel, hot oil and flames that quickly ignited the gas on the ground, creating a field of fire that engulfed them. Four more stills in different batteries were set ablaze.
Smaller blasts erupted throughout the morning as more oil and gas caught aflame across the 1,400-acre refinery that sprawls into Hammond and East Chicago. Beleaguered firefighters could not get the fire at the lakefront refinery under control until about noon.
Hmurovic, a local historian who wrote the “One Minute After Sunrise” book and produced an accompanying documentary about the 1955 blast in Whiting, said most of the deaths and injuries were caused by burns.
“The full tale of horrors that followed the great blast is too vivid to print,” the Whiting Call newspaper reported.
Ambulances rushed to haul workers off to the hospitals and morgues. A crowd gathered outside the fenced-off refinery, with many families waiting to find out if their loved ones were safe.
“It was a sad scene,” Hmurovic said. “The refinery didn’t allow people inside. There was no social media, no telephones, no way of communication. Bodies were being carried off and no one knew who it was or what was going on. Women were begging workers to tell them if they saw their husbands because they didn’t know if he was still alive.”
Those killed were hard to identify, as bodies were burned beyond recognition.
“They could only identify the dead from watches, jewelry or clothing,” he said. “The bodies were unrecognizable.”
‘Trying to make a better life for themselves’
The dead included immigrants from Slovakia, England, Germany and Sweden. One of the victims had previously told his family “if he was ever killed on the job, it would be difficult to identify his body because the explosion would be so violent,” Hmurovic said.
“He told them if he were killed he would be blown to pieces,” he said. “Workers used that type of gallows humor to cope at the time.”
Another, World War I veteran Joseph Paylo, rushed to the scene and helped fight the fire and get survivors to safety. But in his selfless attempts to help others, he suffered severe burns and inhaled so much super-heated air that it burned his lungs.
Paylo died that night in Passavant Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
“He was a firefighter at the refinery just trying to help others,” Hmurovic said. “But he sucked in enough of the hot fumes it fried part of his lungs. The victims were mostly foreigners trying to make a new life for themselves or people from farm country in south Lake County trying to get a better life than they could in rural Indiana.”
‘Act of God’
It was later determined a leak likely caused the fire that made the pressure still explode, though inspectors ultimately concluded it was “an act of God” in a ruling that minimized Standard Oil’s legal liability. It cost $2 million to repair the refinery, which would have been around $30 million when adjusted for inflation today.
More people remember the 1955 blast, which ignited a fire that burned for several days. Whiting residents feared gas was leaking into the sewer system and the strike of a match would set the whole city on fire.
“The 1955 explosion was a lot more destructive and a lot more spectacular,” Hmurovic said. “But the 1921 explosion was the worst in terms of loss of life. Part of it was just a matter of bad luck. A lot of people were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 1955 explosion went for blocks but no one was in the immediate area.”
The refinery has improved safety a lot since then, due in large part to new technology, and such explosions are far rarer than they were in oil refining’s early days.
“They did make adjustments,” Hmurovic said. “There have been relatively few explosions since the 1950s. Industry has learned from its mistakes. The safety record has been pretty good since the 1940s and 1950s. The refinery dates back to 1889 and there have been few major accidents relatively speaking, though one is enough to show how dangerous it can be. It’s always dangerous when you’re working with gases and oil and volatile elements. It’s an extremely dangerous industry but they’ve done a fairly good job in Whiting.”
Despite the devastation and heavy loss of life during the blast a century ago, Whiting still went ahead with its Fourth of July parade that day.
“Not enough information got out of the refinery about what happened,” Hmurovic said. “So they still had the parade a few hours later and had the fireworks celebration that night. We also have a different mindset in the 21st century. Back then people experienced hardship in a different way. People were used to having to deal with hard conditions and just rolled with the punches. Fortunately, things evolved and companies became more conscious of the need to protect the people who work for them. Back then it was declared an act of God and people moved on.”
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