Explosion, Fire Rip Oil Refinery

Being in the heart of western Pennsylvania's oil country, Venango County firefighters are no strangers to refinery fires. An October 1995 incident in Rouseville, however, was big even by their standards, requiring the efforts of more than 150 career and volunteer firefighters from about 30 departments.

On Oct. 16, at approximately 10:15 A.M., an explosion and fire ripped through the Pennzoil refinery in Rouseville. Five workers died and two others injured, one critically. Three were killed in the initial explosion, two others have died from their injuries.

Photo by Loni Burchfield
Career and volunteer firefighters teamed up to battle the refinery blaze just one day after area departments conducted their annual fire drill at the site.

Responding on the first alarm along with the Pennzoil Refinery Fire Brigade, under the command of Safety Supervisor Joe McFadden, were the Rouseville and Cornplanter volunteer fire departments and the City of Oil City's career fire department. Pennzoil responded with a 1,000-gpm foam pumper carrying 1,000 gallons of foam and 250 gallons of water and another truck equipped with eductors carrying 600 gallons of foam.

Rouseville responded with Engine 6, a 1,500-gpm pumper, a 1,000-gpm pumper and a heavy rescue unit under the command of Chief DeWayne Kaness. Cornplanter responded with Engine 95, a 1,500-gpm pumper, Engine 11, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and Rescue 91 under the command of Chief Bob Graff. Oil City responded with a 1,000-gpm pumper and an 85-foot aerial with 10 firefighters and Chief John Huey.

Second and third alarms were immediately sounded to bring in all fire departments in Venango County, western Forest County and northern Clarion County. Responding on the second alarm were the City of Titusville's combination career-volunteer department as well as volunteer departments from Cherrytree, Pleasantville, Reno, Rocky Grove, Seneca and Washington-Farmington Township. Third-alarm departments included the City of Franklin combination career-volunteer department and the Champmanville, Clintonville, Cochranton, Cooperstown, Emlenton, Kennerdell, Knox, Pinegrove, Polk, President, Rockland, Sandycreek, Tionesta, Utica and West Hickory volunteer fire departments. Additional fire departments in Butler, Mercer, Crawford and Clarion Counties were either on standby or provided fill-in coverage for departments at the scene. A special call was also made to the Venango County Airport and the Petrowax Refinery in Emlenton for additional foam supplies.

Rouseville Engine 6 laid a four-inch supply line from a plant hydrant and placed into service a portable monitor supplied with a four-inch line, a 200-foot 2 1/2-inch line that was wyed to two 100-foot 1 1/2-inch lines and a 250-foot 2 1/2-inch line that was wyed to two 200-foot 1 1/2-inch lines. All the lines were used to cool storage tanks that were exposure threats.

Cornplanter Engine 95 laid a four-inch supply line from a plant hydrant and was positioned on the north side of the fire. Two 2 1/2-inch attack lines were placed into service for cooling the tanks. A portable monitor was also put into service being supplied by 2 1/2-inch lines. Cornplanter Engine 11 was placed in the staging area and later assigned to provide landing zone support for medical helicopters and a state police helicopter, which was used to give firefighters an aerial view of the fire scene. Cornplanter Rescue 91 was assigned to the medical staging area at the Rouseville fire station.

Pennzoil implemented the incident command system at its Emergency Operations Center, with police and fire department representatives and Venango County Emergency Management Agency Director Richard Graff at the command post. At the time of the explosion approximately 125 Pennzoil employees were working in the refinery, along with more than 50 outside contractors working on an expansion project. Immediately officials started to account for all workers in the refinery and to remove the injured to the Northwest Medical Center in Oil City. Three workers were later airlifted to burn hospitals in the Pittsburgh area.

Photo by Loni Burchfield
Oil City Firefighters Chris Smith and Steve Jones operate from a bucket.

Initial firefighting operations were to cool surrounding tanks from the fire that were being fed by naptha, fuel oil and solvents from damaged storage tanks. Crews used fixed and portable monitors, Oil City's aerial platform master stream and numerous handlines to keep nearby tanks cooled with water. Access to the fire was available only from three sides because a creek flowed along the fourth side. This cooling operation was successful in containing the fire, but foam was needed to extinguish the fire.

A three-sided attack was planned to apply the foam. Once crews were in place foam was applied from fixed monitors and handlines to extinguish the majority of the fire. By 1:30 P.M. the fire was extinguished, but mop up and cooling operations continued for several more hours.

"I can't say enough about the crews that responded," said McFadden, the Pennzoil safety supervisor. "The mutual aid plan proved itself."

The bodies of the three workers were recovered from the area several hours later. The bodies, burned beyond recognition, were transported to Erie for identification by a forensic pathologist.

Forty members of the Pennzoil Emergency Response Team, along with 117 career and volunteer firefighters, used approximately 1,500 gallons of AFFF or XL-3 protein foam to extinguish the fire. No injuries were reported by any of the emergency personnel. Damage to fire department equipment is estimated at over $100,000. This includes bunker gear, hose, nozzles and hand tools. Area departments used 60 five-gallon buckets of foam and numerous other supplies, such as breathing air. Pennzoil replaced all damaged or destroyed fire department equipment. Pennzoil lost 22 sets of bunker gear and several hundred feet of hose, all the hose the company had at the refinery.

Seventeen storage tanks, including four new ones not yet in service, were severely damaged or destroyed. The main refinery piping and electrical systems were also heavily damaged. Damage was estimated at over $20 million. An investigation is continuing into the cause of the explosion. The refinery was scheduled to resume operations in late December.

Ironically, the day before, area fire departments had participated in the refinery's annual fire drill, which included an LPG gas fire simulation.

Firefighter Among 5 People Killed In 1970 Refinery Fire

On June 19, 1970, a series of explosions rocked the Amalie refinery owned by Witco Chemical Corp. located outside of Franklin, PA, in Vanango County. The resulting fire raged out of control for 30 hours, killing five people, including a volunteer firefighter, and injuring 15 before being extinguished.

Firefighters regroup after tanks collapse.

The first explosion occurred at 11:35 A.M. as workers were welding in a condenser box measuring 10 feet wide and eight feet deep. This box was crossed at three levels with bundles of 88 tubes each running to a batch still. Four men working inside were using an acetylene torch to cut the tubes free from the condenser box. The workers noticed fumes coming into the box but it was too late.

The first explosion was followed by several smaller blasts as the fire rapidly spread in the center of the refinery. Four gasoline storage tanks adjacent to the still were immediately engulfed. Employees working more than 100 feet from the explosion were injured.

The City of Franklin's career fire department and the Rocky Grove Volunteer Fire Department were the first to respond. As Franklin Fire Chief A. W. "Bill" Hanna headed toward the refinery, just outside the city limits, he could see how big the fire was and immediately requested mutual aid. Approaching the refinery from opposite sides, Hanna and Rocky Grove Fire Chief Fred Hutchinson both stated all they could see was fire. Together, the two chiefs had pre-planned for a fire at the refinery only six months earlier.

Hutchinson recalled, "The first things to go were their fire pumps. We had hydrants, but no water." Supply lines were laid from hydrants far from the refinery on both sides and several pumpers drafted out of French Creek. The main objective at this point was to keep the surrounding storage tanks cool with water. Using miles of hose and countless gallons of water, firefighters from Cochranton, Cooperstown, Cornplanter, Corry, Oakland, Oil City, Polk, Randolph, Reno, Sandy Creek, Seneca, Titusville and Utica assisted the Franklin and Rocky Grove departments. At this time the fire was on the creek side of Route 322 in the gasoline storage tank area. Firefighters hoped to contain the fire in this area, and keep it from spreading across the road to the crude oil storage tanks. At 1:30 P.M., firefighters thought they could contain, if not control the fire in this area.

At 2:30 P.M., a large crude oil tank exploded. Another large explosion and several smaller ones immediately followed. Franklin Assistant Chief Robert Brundage, who was injured in the latest big explosion, said, "It knocked me clear across the road." Polk and Titusville firefighters, along with three pumpers that were drafting out of French Creek, were stranded by the burning fuel oil as it flowed toward the creek. The pumpers were driven through the flames with one of the Polk pumpers becoming fully engulfed. Franklin firefighters extinguished the burning pumper but it was a total loss.

Firefighters unload additional supplies of foam as the refinery fire rages behind them.

Five firefighters from the Cornplanter Volunteer Fire Department were operating in the area of the distillery unit when the explosions occurred. Lieutenant David Depew, 27, was killed in this explosion. His body was not recovered until Saturday. Ironically, Depew was not originally selected to go to the fire, but asked to take the place of a less-experienced firefighter. He had been a member of the Cornplanter department for several years and also served with a U.S. Air Force fire brigade.

The fire burned uncontrolled for several hours while firefighters regrouped. Seven storage tanks were burning along with ground fires being fueled by crude oil from ruptured oil storage tanks. The fire was now burning on both sides of the road. As the fire continued to rage out of control officials realized that water alone would not be enough to extinguish the fire, but hoped to keep other storage tanks cool and let the fire burn itself out.

By 2:30 A.M. on Saturday, firefighters feared they could not contain the blaze. Williams and Co., a Pittsburgh distributor of firefighting foam, was contacted and made arrangements for a foam pumper with 1,000 gallons of foam from Sinclair-Koppers Co. in Monaca, more than 60 miles away to respond. Additional supplies from National Foam Co. in Philadelphia were also arranged. Three hundred five-gallon buckets were loaded onto a jetliner and flown to Pittsburgh International Airport. There, the foam was unloaded onto waiting trucks for the trip to Franklin. Freight trucks also hauled an additional 2,000 gallons of foam to the refinery from West Chester.

On Friday night, cracks developed in another large crude oil storage tank. By morning the fire was worsening and at 9:30 A.M. Saturday the tank exploded. Firefighters made another hasty retreat.

Robert Barraclough, a consultant from National Foam, arrived at noon on Saturday and developed a plan for foaming operations with Witco officials, local fire officials and the Sinclair-Koppers fire chief.

Seven tanks were burning along with scattered ground fires at this time. The first foam attack was made on a burning tank on the hillside across from the main refinery, 80 feet above the road. Hoseline pressure was not strong enough to apply into the tank from ground level, so Barraclough and two firefighters climbed the tank and inched along the catwalk applying the foam.

The heat was intense and there was the danger of other nearby tanks exploding. The fire in this tank was extinguished after the crew applied about five feet of foam into the tank. A large ground fire was burning on the other side of the road in the area of the still. This was extinguished in about 20 minutes with foam.

Firefighters were now using three foam lines and needed more pressure on the lines. It was decided to relay foam from the Sinclair-Koppers pumper through another pumper to get adequate nozzle pressure. Crews next worked on several tanks on the Franklin side of the still to extinguish them one by one. One large gasoline tank was burning on the other side of the still. Because of the intense heat, the tank was leaning and leaking gasoline from its seams. This made it difficult for firefighters to get foam into the tank. Crews nearly had this tank extinguished when they ran out of foam. The additional foam supplies arrived at 4:30 P.M. and the fire was out by 6 o'clock.

Small explosions continued late Saturday and into Sunday with fire crews remaining on the scene until Tuesday afternoon. Over one million gallons of petroleum products were lost in the refinery. Fifty of the 150 storage tanks and numerous buildings were destroyed.

Firefighting equipment destroyed in the fire included a pumper from Polk, 13,250 feet of hose, a deluge gun, numerous nozzles, hand tools and protective gear. A total of 204 firefighters from at least 15 departments spent a total of 5,663 man-hours at the scene. Several months later, company officials decided not to rebuild and closed the refinery.

Jay K. Bradish

Wartime Explosion & Fire Claimed 9 Lives

A major refinery built to help America's World War II effort was the scene of a deadly explosion and fire nearly 52 years ago.

After two years of construction the refinery was in operation only two months at the time of the fire. The plant was designed to supply 100-octane aviation fuel to the Allied forces.

On July 6, 1944, at 12:45 P.M., an explosion occurred while repairs were being made to a valve in the refinery's gas concentration unit. The fire quickly jumped a highway and gutted a two-story office building and a storage warehouse. Eight employees died from injuries suffered in the fire and one spectator died of a heart attack.

Firefighters from Franklin, Oil City, Reno, Rocky Grove, Rouseville and Titusville used water to cool nearby storage tanks, buildings and equipment to prevent the fire from spreading. The fire was extinguished by 7 o'clock but firefighters had to remain on the scene for two days.

Jay K. Bradish

Jay K. Bradish, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and photographer for 23 years.