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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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.

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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.