Explosion, Fire Rip Oil Refinery

Jay K. Bradish reports on a fire fought by 30 departments in the heart of Pennsylvania's oil country.


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...


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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.

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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.

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