Blast Wrecks Oil Plant
NINE lives were lost, twenty-one people were injured, and an area of nearly four city blocks was devastated when the Richfield Oil Company’s absorption plant in Signal Hill, Cal., exploded with a terriffic blast that unroofed dwellings nearly four blocks away, and broke windows as far distant as San Pedro. The blast was felt in Monrovia, a distance of nearly forty miles.
When the smoke cleared away after five solid hours of battle waged by Fire Departments of three cities and three major oil companies, thirteen derricks were found totally destroyed, thirteen were so badly damaged that their crews were unable to resume operations, some twenty oil and gasoline tanks were totally or partially ruined, several dehydrators had blown up, and between eighteen and twenty-five automobiles and trucks were burned up.
The disaster, that rocked a neighborhood already on edge as a result of the recent earthquake, occurred at 1:58 p.m., on June 2.
Five men who constituted the operating crew of the plant were roasted in their tracks. Two other oil workers, employed on a nearby derrick, were warned of danger by a smaller blast that preceded the main explosion by about one minute, and rushed into the plant to assist in shutting off supply and control valves. They were carried out on sheets of corrugated iron about four hours later—two unrecognizable heaps of charred bones and flesh. One of these men had started work that day after three years of unemployment.
A small bungalow less than one block from the plant was blown to bits, its two occupants, the wife and 10-year old daughter of an oil worker injured while at work on a nearby derrick, suffered a similar fate.
The absorption plant, one of many in the oil fields, is an establishment whose function it is to receive wet gas from the oil wells, and separate the gasoline from the dry gas. This gasoline has a very high test and is known to the trade as “casing head” gas. Normally it is run through a stabilizer, which process eliminates much of its explosive propensity.
Investigation by the authorities was said to have developed the fact that for some reason some of the casing head gas had been pumped into one of the plant’s four horizontal gasoline tanks without being stabilized, and that at the moment of the explosion, the unstabilized gasoline was being pumped from the tank into the stabilizer through another line. It was thought that the shipping pump failed to remove the gasoline from the tank as fast as the other pump poured it into the tank, causing an overflow of the casing head gasoline. The tanks are surrounded by reinforced concrete retaining walls. This kept the gasoline in bounds, but at this stage it vaporizes very rapidly. When the potent vapors reached the open flame of the plant’s boilers the first explosion took place. A minute later the full tank let go with a deafening roar.
When the Signal Hill Fire Department’s two pumpers arrived at the scene, the place was a wreck. Before they could get well into action, apparatus began rolling from Long Beach, which city all but surrounds the oil city. Six pumpers, two squad wagons, one hose truck and a foam truck came in from Long Beach and two foam tank trucks were sent in from the Wilmington and San Pedro districts of Los Angeles. The Richfield, Texaco and Shell Oil Companies also sent in their apparatus and many men.
Signal Hill’s Worst Disaster
The disaster was the worst ever experienced in the Signal Hill oil field, where town-lot drilling has produced many bad fires. Fire fighters on the south and west sides of the huge blaze were forced to stand in hot oil from six to ten inches deep much of the time. Every time a tank collapsed from the inside weight of the oil against heat-weakened sides, a menacing surge of the blazing fluid would compel firemen to run for their lives.
Twenty-seventh Street was a flood of oil for two blocks, and Lime Avenue for one block. Eight hundred men working on a new stadium were rushed into the area where they threw up earth barricades four feet high to hold back the escaping crude oil.
—Courtesy, Long Beach Press-Telegram
More than a dozen minor explosions followed the huge blast at intervals for about four hours as tanks and dehydrators exploded, hurling tank roofs, manhole plates, and whole sections of piping into the air to further endanger the lives of the firemen.
In spite of the extremely dangerous conditions, injuries among the fire fighters were mostly confined to scratches, bruises and minor cuts.
At the height of the fire, huge black billows of smoke darkened a large part of the two cities. A brisk wind was blowing from the southwest, and for about two hours, firemen working on the northeast side of the fire were totally obscured by a black pall that reduced visibility to practically zero, as derricks and crown blocks crashed about them.
As in the previous disaster, the U. S. Navy rushed armed sailors into the area to assist in policing and to keep the thousands of curious spectators from hampering the work of the firemen. With the coming of night, two truck loads of powerful sun arcs and two portable generators were brought in from the Otto K. Oleson Company, of Hollywood.
Small Blast Warned People
Many people living or working in the vicinity of the plant owe their lives to the fact that the big blast was preceded by a smaller one, for at the first explosion, every building within a radius of many blocks was evacuated. Just 58 seconds later the main detonation shattered windows and drove fragments of glass into walls and furniture, tore doors from their hinges, caved in walls, and unroofed houses.
Several companies of firemen from both Signal Hill and Long Beach remained on the scene all night cooling off smoldering heaps of debris and searching for additional bodies. Seven were found shortly after the fire was brought under control and two were located the following day.
The two men who directed operations were Chief Adolph Feil, of the Signal Hill department and Assistant Chief George M. Jewell, of Long Beach, a veteran at the game of combating great oil field fires.
The cover illustration, courtesy of Long Beach Press Telegram, shows the absorption plant where the explosion took place. The heat was terriffic. Hose lines had to be dragged over piles of smoking ruins as the fire receded.
As a result of the explosion, there is a move on foot to compel the removal of all absorption plants from the congested areas of the oil fields and the nearby residential districts, to the open spaces outside the city.