History As A Teacher: How A Refinery Blaze Killed 8 Firefighters

The philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The fire service through the years has had many deadly fires. Many times, mistakes or oversights that have been tragically learned in one fire...


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The philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The fire service through the years has had many deadly fires. Many times, mistakes or oversights that have been tragically learned in one fire department are repeated in other departments.

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Photo by Joe Hoffman
A 1975 refinery fire that seemed similar to many others fought at the site had a tragic outcome a flare-up killed two Philadelphia firefighters and injured 33 others. This is how the fire appeared prior to its flare-up.

As professional firefighters we must be students of history and learn from previous fires. When we hear of a firefighter death, we must find out as much about it as possible. If confronted with a similar situation, we must ensure a better outcome. Let us go back in time and take a glimpse at a deadly fire.

The Scenario

On Aug. 17, 1975, the Philadelphia Fire Department responded to a refinery fire. The fire seemed routine and similar to many of the fires fought within that refinery. The outcome, however, would be like no other refinery fire in the history of Philadelphia. When finally extinguished, eight Philadelphia firefighters lay dead. Thirty-three firefighters were injured; two of them were burned critically and would never return to firefighting.

How did a routine fire turn so deadly? Could it happen again?

The scenario started on a Sunday at 12:45 A.M. at the then Gulf Oil Refinery. Twelve thousand barrels per hour of crude oil with an additional blending of 5% naphtha were being pumped through refinery piping into storage tank 231. It was constructed with a cone roof and had an internal floating roof. The source of the supply was the ship the M/T Afran Neptune, which was docked at a pier on the Schuylkill River.

The liquid levels in the tank 231 were to be monitored by Gulf employees. They were not monitored. The tank was filled above its maximum safe fill height. Due to a combination of factors, vapors accumulated above the internal floating roof and under the cone roof. They were then forced out of the vents at the top of the tank and found an ignition source in a nearby boiler house. It violently ignited and flashed back to the tank. The ignition created enough force that the 200-foot-tall brick chimney above the boiler house sustained a crack up to 12 inches wide.

As the fire flashed back to the tank, a fireball was visible at the vents. This occurred at 5:57 A.M. After a period of continued pumping, the ship's pumps were shut down at 6:02.

An explosion then occurred in tank 231, forcing the floating roof downward. This action displaced additional fuel, causing an overflow of the product into the diked area surrounding the tank. The explosion also damaged the tank's fill lines within the dike and at the manifold outside the dike area, causing them to leak. This leaking product was ignited by flaming oil from the tank's vents, spreading the fire outside the dike area into the street. This fire increased in intensity as fuel flowing from the damaged piping increased due to thermal expansion of the cracked metal.

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Photo by Joe Hoffman
Fires involving hydrocarbons may appear to be totally controlled one minute and totally out of control a brief time later.

When the internal roof was forced down, crude oil came up around the seals onto the floating roof and fed the internal fire. Heat conducted through the pan, and water droplets in the crude, started to vaporize and caused a frothing of the liquid. As the frothing continued, the product began to overflow the vents.

Leaking flanges and the sustained fire around the valving removed all possibilities of shutting down the reverse flow from the tank. It now contained 73,000 barrels of crude oil at a height of 38 feet. (A barrel of crude oil is equal to 42 gallons; the tank contained in excess of 3 million gallons.)

The burning product in the dike area caused failure of other pipelines within the dike. These lines contained benzene, aviation gas, and jet fuel. Along with tank 1114, they became involved in fire.

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