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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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.

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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.