Remembering the Gulf Oil Refinery Fire

Early in the morning of Sunday, Aug. 17, 1975, a seagoing tanker was off-loading crude oil at the Gulf Oil Refinery in Philadelphia, PA, when accumulated hydrocarbon vapors ignited suddenly, starting a fire that threatened 600 storage tanks at the refinery's tank farm. Eight firefighters died in the fire or as a result of injuries sustained during the incident.

The incident started when hydrocarbon vapors ignited, causing explosions and a fire at 5:57 A.M. The original fire was caused by overfilling of a storage tank. No crude oil escaped from the tank, but hydrocarbon vapors were trapped above the surface of the oil in the tank. As the quantity of oil increased, the vapors were forced out of the tank's vents and into the area of a boiler house, where the initial flash occurred. A second fire and subsequent explosions occurred when the hot muffler of a foam engine came in contact with the hydrocarbon vapors. By evening, the fire had reached 11 alarms. The fire was placed under control at 5:38 A.M. on Monday, Aug. 18.

Six Philadelphia firefighters were killed at the fire and nine others were injured, along with four Gulf firefighters. Two of the injured Philadelphia firefighters died of their injuries several days later.

Prior to Aug. 17, 1975, the refinery had been the scene of 10 extra-alarm fires since 1960, eight of them since 1966. On Sept. 9, 1960, several storage tanks were struck by lightning, resulting in an eight-alarm fire, and on May 16, 1975, a six-alarm fire struck the refinery. Following the disastrous fire of Aug. 17, another six-alarm fire occurred there just five months later, on Oct. 20, 1975.

Plaques honoring the firefighters who died as a result of the refinery fire were unveiled at the Fireman's Hall Museum in Philadelphia in August 2007. Paying tribute to the fallen members were General President Harold Schaitberger of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), Philadelphia Local 22 President Brian McBride, Local 22 executive board officers and many Local 22 firefighters.

"Since the refinery was all but destroyed in the fire," McBride said, "we felt it fitting to place the plaques outside the museum where many passersby can see them and remember what happened."

Schaitberger said, "We will never forget the sacrifice our brother firefighters made that day. These eight plaques will serve as a permanent reminder of their dedication to the fire service and to the citizens of the great city of Philadelphia." The plaques were sponsored by broadcaster, publisher and philanthropist Kal Rudman, who also awarded scholarships for the children of the eight fallen firefighters.

The plaques, placed in front of the Firemen's Hall, were the 19th through 28th in an ongoing series of memorials to be placed honoring the 285 members of the Philadelphia Fire Department who have died in the line of duty since 1871. The plaques are placed on the sidewalks in the city or as near as possible to the locations where the firefighters died.

Thanks to Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, Battalion Chief Michael F. Roeshman, Hazardous Materials Administrative Unit, and Harry Magee, curator of Philadelphia Firemen's Hall, for their assistance in the gathering of information and photos for this column.

ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at robert.burke@att.net.

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