Torrance, population 147,405, is no stranger to the seismic phenomena that routinely disrupts the Southern California landscape. Tremors are an accepted part of life near the San Andreas Fault, said Torrance Fire Department Capt. Steve Deuel.
“If it isn’t something substantial under your feet, people don’t get too riled up about it,” Deuel said.
On February 18, the ground in Torrance shook with enough force to register as a magnitude 1.7 earthquake. However, this tremor came with sound effects.
“Our fire chief, William Racowschi, said it sounded like someone dropped a big 40-yard dumpster,” Deuel said. “Everyone within half a mile heard it.”
At 8:50 a.m., a catastrophic explosion tore through the fluid catalytic cracker unit (FCCU) at a 155,000 barrels-a-day crude oil refinery near the center of town. Damage to the 12-story FCCU was so staggering there was concern about its structural stability.
Faced with an emergency, operators immediately vented hydrocarbon to the refinery flares, releasing significant but controlled flame and smoke. Other than a small ground fire that was quickly extinguished, no flames touched the FCCU.
Miraculously, only four contract workers were injured. All were transported to hospitals by private vehicle rather than ambulance.
“Happenstance being what it was, most of the workers and operators were taking a break in a block house away from the unit,” Deuel said.
Torrance, near Los Angeles, covers 21 square miles of southwestern Los Angeles County in a region known as South Bay.
“It’s a very diverse city,” Deuel said. “We’ve got a mile and a half of ocean front. The rest is a blend of residential, commercial and industrial. The freeway system makes everything an easy reach. A major highway cuts through the middle of the refinery.”
Products manufactured in Torrance include cars, helicopters, engine parts, fasteners, flashlights, solar panels and metal detectors. The 750-acre refinery has bolstered Torrance’s economy since the California oil boom of the 1920s.
Like so many older plants and refineries, the refinery in Torrance is neighbor to both residential and industrial properties. To the north, the refinery abuts homes and schools, Deuel said. To the east is a tank farm and to the south and west are businesses and manufacturing.
Protecting it all falls to the Torrance Fire Department that consists of six stations, seven engine companies, two ladder trucks and five rescue squads. Save for a small auxiliary of volunteers, the majority of the department’s 180 personnel are paid.
The ExxonMobil refinery fire brigade belongs to the Southern California Industrial Mutual Aid Organization. Torrance FD is part of a statewide mutual aid system as well. TFD firefighters have been guests at an annual fire training school conducted by the refinery owners, often at the Texas Engineering Extension Service fire school at Texas A&M University.
“We’ve done some fire training with them, enough that we can operate hand-in-glove,” Deuel said.
TFD’s closest station to the refinery is only a half mile away. That close, the firefighters at Fire Station Three could see the smoke as clearly as they could hear the alarm.
“The firefighters looked out the window and saw the flaring,” Deuel said. “It was pretty spectacular.”
A preliminary report by the South Coast Air Quality Management district, the government agency monitoring air pollution in the region, attributes the explosion to the electrostatic precipitator (EPU) or scrubber, an air pollution control device housed within the FCCU that removes particulate matter from industrial exhaust.
Instead of a fiery detonation, the EPU blew apart from over pressurization. However, the FCCU was not in operation and was not being vented to the EPU at the time of the blast.
“The cause of the over pressure and explosion of the EPU is not yet provided and is under investigation,” the report states.
As pre-planned, refinery safety personnel met the TFD responders at the front gate, directing them to the damaged FCCU, Deuel said. The refinery’s own fire brigade had already responded from their station near the plant entrance.
“From the looks of it, there had been a catastrophic failure,” Deuel said. “A lot of the catalyst from the unit was still airborne from the explosion. There were reports of ash-like product coming out of the sky off site.”
Although the catalyst was determined to be non-toxic, as with any particulate matter it posed an inhalation hazard, Deuel said.
What surprised firefighters the most was the lack of flames other than the flaring, Deuel said. Because refinery management planned to restart the FCCU soon, the unit had not been hydrocarbon freed at the time of the blast, the SCAQM report states.
“We had an active petroleum leak when we arrived,” Deuel said. “There was a momentary ground fire that was extinguished by the refinery fire brigade with support from Torrance firefighters.”
Worried about the FCCU’s structural integrity, TFD established a safety zone in case of collapse. On opposite sides of the FCCU, TFD divided the scene into north and south action sectors, deploying master stream monitors in case of more fire.
“First reports were that we had two, possibly three people unaccounted for,” Deuel said. “With the immensity of what had happened, that would have been understandable. But people started reporting that ‘we’ve got this one’ or ‘we’ve got that one.’ Within a half hour, everyone was accounted for.”
Beyond that, responders had little to do but wait, Deuel said.
“This was something of a singular event,” Deuel said. “The unit had gone boom. After that, it was anybody’s guess what would happen next.”
Outside the refinery, authorities asked that students at nearby schools shelter-in-place. To keep residents advised, authorities activated Torrance’s new telephone notification system to reach numbers in specific areas threatened.
“The refinery has its own siren alert system with a very distinctive tone,” Deuel said. “It sounds like something out of the movie ‘E.T’.”
However, no evacuations were ordered either outside or inside the refinery. Operators remained at their posts to monitor the shutdown of the remaining units untouched by the blast.
Aside from the FCCU, the explosion also damaged a pre-treater unit and a water de-mineralizing unit conditioning feed water for the refinery boilers. Damage to the pre-treater made it necessary to vent a hydrocarbon leak to the flares, the report states.
As other refinery units shut down, flaring intensified. Slowly, the refinery’s hydrocarbon throughput diminished. Deuel, who serves as the TFD’s public information officer, said the reason for the flaring was particularly hard to explain to the press.
“If you have a process that fails, there may be bi-products of that process being used elsewhere in the refinery,” Deuel said. “All that has to be re-routed and changed to keep the refinery balanced. You can’t just turn off the refinery.”
Other than the catalyst spread by the blast, air monitoring detected no releases into the atmosphere considered hazardous.
“At about 9 a.m., we typically get a breeze that comes out of the east and pushes westward,” Deuel said. “Around 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., it switches and we get an off shore breeze out of the west. At the time of the blast it was pretty still. The smoke from the flares rose straight up.”
But as the emergency progressed, ash started to migrate into neighborhoods north and west of the refinery.
“We started getting more fallout reports about the catalyst coming down out of the sky,” Deuel said.
TFD remained fully committed at the refinery for several hours after the blast, he said. Mutual aid also responded to the scene and staffed local fire stations while TFD firefighters were occupied.
“After about two hours, we started to deescalate and release units,” Deuel said.
Too often, lessons learned from a major incident focus solely on shortcomings. Deuel first noted one area where the TFD showed improvement over past performance – communications.
“In the past, when we had major emergencies at the refinery, there has always been an initial period of confusion about what exactly was going on,” Deuel said. “What kind of product is involved? Who is in charge? What is our biggest concern? It was always a kind of mixed message initially.”
Better lines of communication between TFD and the refinery eliminated that perplexity in the most recent response, he said.
“Now, when something happens, we already know what to expect from the refinery brigade and they know what to expect from us,” Deuel said. “We know who we are working with and can activate our operational plans a lot quicker.”
On the other hand, the first real test of the new telephone notification system indicates that more work is needed, he said.
“It was a real trial by fire,” Deuel said. “We had just gotten the system online. Training to use it was only completed a few weeks ago.”
With the community still unfamiliar with the new system, the pre-recorded message chosen tended to create more confusion than it resolved, he said.
“We’re glad the notifications got out and people knew that something was going on,” Deuel said. “Still, we could have done it a little bit better.”
In his role as public information officer, Deuel said he needs to interface with the media sooner in the future.
“Nowadays, with social media becoming so important, you can touch a lot of people quicker than you could in the past,” he said. “People want information in a hurry. You don’t want to run to the media before you have anything to say, but if you wait too long it can appear like you’re withholding something.”
Information must be correct and quick, Deuel said.
Deuel, a 39-year veteran of the department, said that overall he was pleased with TFD’s performance after the explosion.
“I liked what I saw out there with our guys operating at the scene,” he said. “They did a really good job.”