On the Saturday morning of Aug. 27, 1955, the overnight shift at Standard Oil's Whiting, IN, refinery neared quitting time with one big chore left to accomplish — restart a 252-foot-tall hydroformer reputed to be the largest in the world. Beyond that, the weekend held the promise of breakfast, bed and warm weather.

Then, at 6:12 a.m., without warning, several explosions tore apart Fluid Hydroformer Unit 700. Debris weighing many tons rained down across a quarter-mile radius of the blast. Moments later, flames began to spread that would consume the refinery's tank farm acre by acre for the next two days. In the end, the fires took eight days to extinguish with 67 storage tanks destroyed.

Most tragic, deadly metal projectiles flung by the blast reached a residential neighborhood adjoining the refinery, damaging homes and killing a 3-year-old child as he slept. By coincidence, the refinery's current fire chief, Ken Harman, was the same age when the disaster happened.

Today, just as in 1955, the Whiting refinery remains the largest inland refinery in the United States, covering more than 1,600 acres. Standard Oil became Amoco in the late 1950s, which merged with BP in 2000. To most people, the biggest event of 1955 is that Elvis shot his first movie. Harman, however, refuses to let the memory of that terrible weekend 45 years ago fade into the past. The refinery fire inspectors keep a photograph on the wall of the dispatch office showing one of several storage tank boilovers during the fire.

"I'm a history buff by nature," Harman said. "I firmly believe that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it."

The Hydroformer


No single error or breakdown destroyed FHU-700. Rather, as in most industrial accidents, it was a specific sequence of events, one after another, that lead inexorably to the final outcome. In the case of FHU-700, the beginning of that sequence goes all the way back to the drawing board.

Prior to the Whiting blast the risk of detonation in large vessels containing hydrocarbon gases was not sufficiently realized, a report submitted by Standard Oil to the American Petroleum Institute states. Engineers were more concerned about the risk of detonation in vessels or lines carrying hydrogen, acetylene or carbon monoxide than hydrocarbon gases.

"As a result of the disastrous explosion of FHU-700 and the engineering study following that explosion it has been found that a concept of pressure generation not generally known in the petroleum industry can be encountered in process equipment containing the right ingredients."

FHU-700, operational only since the previous March, had been taken out of service for routine maintenance and alterations. No catalyst was in the hydroformer's system the morning of the blast. Yet, unbeknownst to the 13 workers assisting with the start-up, inert gases being used in the start-up procedure had been contaminated, the Standard Oil report states.

"Inert gases used to heat the recycle system during the start-up was in contact with naptha in two vessels — the high pressure quench drum and the high pressure separator," the report states. "As a result of this contact, the inert gas was contaminated with naptha vapors, primarily pentanes and hexanes, which were carried throughout the recycle system."

For ignition, there had to be oxygen. It is believed that accidental but undetected air leakage from the regenerator into the reactor vessel via the catalyst circulating pipes provided the oxygen. The skin temperature of the recycle furnace tubes did the rest.

"When you bring a process unit down or up, it is a very critical time," Harman said.

The report states that witnesses heard a loud thud or muffled explosion, then saw a sheet of flame surround the reactor. Two loud, sharp explosions followed. One witness said the reactor seemed to "peel apart," an observation substantiated by the reverse curvature of some of the major fragments.

Oil refinery stillman Al Plant survived the explosion with only a few scratches on his face. He told reporters he was less than 20 feet from the blast.

"I was right outside the unit control room getting ready to make an inspection when everything let loose," Plant said. "I was knocked to the ground. Metal and stuff were flying all around." FHU-700 "broke into flames right away." After a second explosion, Plant fled.

Thad Bogusz, an instrument mechanic at the unit who was also an East Chicago city councilman, told the Hammond (IN) Times that he was 100 feet from the unit when it exploded.

"I saw nothing but smoke and flames when the unit first blew up," Bogusz said. "Things were pretty hot around here then and the smoke was so dense that it was really hard to see exactly what had blown up. We had no warning of the explosion. Everything was as normal as usual."

In construction, Standard ordered FHU-700's 600-ton reactor shell built using 2½-inch thick steel alloy, reportedly the heaviest used in refining up to that point. The blast smashed the shell into 13 pieces ranging from three to 136 tons. Of these, a 60-ton fragment traveled farthest — 1,200 feet. The separator portion of the hydroformer broke into 29 pieces, one found 1,500 feet away from the blast.

Along with the major pieces, a volley of metal debris ranging in size from two inches to 80-feet long tore through the air, acting much like shrapnel. This would cause most of the damage in residential areas. The blast's concussion broke almost every window in a three-mile radius.

Remarkably, the 13 workers assisting in operations at FHU-700 survived. Only four suffered lost-time injuries. Of the entire refinery only nine employees received lost-time injures due to the initial blast. The worst injury directly related to the blast was a 23-year-old worker hospitalized in critical condition with a skull fracture.

Debris from the blast hit 20 storage tanks ranging from 50-to-120 feet in diameter, a vapor recovery unit and damaged the elevators on one of the fluid catcrackers. Had there been no fire, that would have been the extent of damage to the refinery.

"With the exception of one naptha tank, no equipment would have been scrapped due to mechanical damage from the fragments alone," the report states. "With the exception of the fluid hydroformer, the major damage in the refinery was due to the subsequent fire."

The Fire

Only moments after the explosion, flames enveloped most of the refinery's pressure tank field and heavy tank field, an area of about 17.5 acres. Firefighters who entered the tank field attempting to contain the individual fires were soon forced back by flash fires arising from the spreading oil spills.

Again, the rapid spread of the fire is a step in the disaster sequence that traces back to the drawing board.

"At that time, storage tanks were inside the process area, adjacent to many of the process units," Harman said. "Today we don't do that. Our tanks now are in segregated tank fields away from the process area. We've also got more separation between the process units."

Having directly adjacent tank fields handling different types of product is another situation that would not exist today. Finally, instead of individual dikes for each storage tank, the refinery used common diking procedures with as many as three tanks in the same dike. These shortcomings, taken together, made the fire impossible to stop.

At first, the fire seemed satisfied with what it had. After two hours, the area ablaze had only increased by a few acres. But by noon burning oil overflowed the tank farm, doubling the area on fire. Worse, the burning oil now poured onto Indianapolis Avenue, Whiting's main thoroughfare. With flames rising several thousand feet into the sky, the only substantial break for firefighters was a southwesterly wind that blew the smoke out over Lake Michigan.

Firefighters realized early on that the fire would remain beyond their control for some time, said Harman. For the first few days of the disaster, the major effort would be to shut down the refinery and isolate the product.

"The biggest thing they tried to do was contain the fire and keep it from spreading into other tank fields," Harman said.

Refinery Fire Chief Frank A. Horbleck had ample resources to call on. His fire brigade consisted of himself, 11 fire marshals, 300 refinery employees trained as firefighters, and still another 300 employees with enough training to provide back up. In equipment, the brigade had seven fire trucks, 44 hose carts and 80,000 feet of fire hose, probably 2 1/2 inch.

Since the refinery stretched across three municipalities, Horbleck also had everything that the fire departments in Whiting, Hammond and East Chicago could send. Firefighters and equipment from Gary, IN, was also dispatched. Chicago, only 16 miles away, had a fire boat on standby at the Indiana Harbor Canal.

Early on it was realized that the fire fighting effort would extend for days, Harman said. An emergency organization was established to provide manpower across five fire fighting zones using 50-person teams. The teams operated on a routine three-shift basis.

"They were using their heads," Harman said. "They were 'rehabing' their firefighters."

By 1955 standards, there was no shortage of water at Whiting. The refinery had 400 hydrants in its high-pressure looped system. Eleven stationary pumps maintained 175 pounds pressure whenever the emergency siren sounded. However, with most of the 51 turret nozzles stationed throughout the refinery called into action, together with other demands on the system, pressure dropped to 70 pounds.

With no hope of gaining the upper hand anytime soon, the fire fighting strategy at Whiting became one of containment. Sand would become as important an asset as water. A fleet of dump trucks delivered more than 2,500 loads of sand used for emergency diking to contain the burning oil. Firefighters threw up one sand dike around the flaming acreage in the southwest part of the refinery and another across Indianapolis Avenue.

Throughout Saturday afternoon the spread of the fire was held in check with progress made against it on the west side. Then, at 4 p.m., the first of several storage tank boilovers pushed the burning oil east across Indianapolis Avenue into a tank area known as the Indiana Field. The total area burned increased to 47 acres. According to Harman, the fact that the boilovers did not result in deaths and further injuries indicates that it was something the firefighters expected to happen.

"Ideally, I would say they did have some feeling it would happen because they did take that into consideration and did not get people killed during the fire fighting operations," Harman said.

Boilover is a phenomenon associated with burning crude oil storage tanks. In storage, water continues to separate from the lighter crude. That and infiltration from rain creates a water layer at the bottom of crude oil storage tanks. With the vapor burning off on the surface, the crude beneath it slowly heats. A thermal wave slowly descends through the crude until hits the waiting water, which immediately turns to steam. The reaction that triggers can only be described as volcanic. Burning crude overflows the rim and spreads over an area at least twice the diameter of the tank.

The spreading fire was now threatening to share its misery with a second company, Sinclair Refining, who had gasoline storage tanks only a few hundred feet from the east and the south of the fire.

From published accounts, the fire chiefs disagreed about how well the fire fighting operations were progressing. Fifteen hours into the disaster, Fire Chief George Macko of the Whiting Fire Department gave reporters an almost cheerful assessment of the situation.

"It looks wonderful," Macko said. "We have it confined, and we'll be okay unless the wind comes up or shifts."

By comparison, Horbleck told reporters shortly before midnight Saturday that with the flames contained the fire could be brought under control in another 12 hours. Although more realistic, Horbleck's estimate proved almost as optimistic as Macko's. It would be shortly before noon Monday before the fire was officially brought under control. And although plant manager A.F. Endres anticipated complete extinguishment within another 24 hours, flames would burn in Whiting at least six more days.

Eleven refinery employees suffered injuries related to the fire fighting effort. In addition to the employees, newspapers note that seven East Chicago firefighters received burns, one severe enough to require hospitalization. Four firefighters from Gary were also treated for burns.

The only death among the plant personnel was a 63-year-old assistant general foreman who suffered a heart attack when he arrived after the initial blast.

The Neighborhood


It says a lot about America in the 1950s that many of the residents of Stiglitz Park, the residential area of Whiting closest to the refinery, told newspapers that they tumbled out of bed thinking an atomic bomb had exploded. One woman said she thought the sun had exploded and that it was the end of the world.

For some people it must have seemed like the end of the world. A grocer on his way to work arrived to find his store and a four-room dwelling behind it demolished by a steel roof that had come off the hydroformer. Only the extreme rear of the dwelling behind the grocery was still standing.

Debris hurled by the hydroformer blast also destroyed at least two other homes, and extensively damaged another 80 houses. Only luck kept many people alive. Moments after one man left for work his home was swept away by flying steel. A family living only 100 yards from the refinery awoke to find chunks of steel pipe coming through the walls and ceiling of their home. Escaping in their station wagon, the family found the alley behind their house blocked by a huge chunk of metal debris.

Another family fled on foot after a large piece of FHU-700 slammed broadside into their house, moving it six feet off its foundation. Only two blocks away from the refinery a car landed upside down atop a demolished house.

Newspaper photos show a black sedan crushed beneath an enormous slab of metal, its brand name clearly visible across the front of the hood — "Dodge."

Steel debris hurled by the blast became deadly missiles. Nearly half a mile away from the blast, an 8-foot length of pipe gouged a huge chunk out of the roof of one house, then continued across a side street to pierce the foundation of another house. And, in the only trauma fatality directly linked to the blast, a 10-foot long steel pipe crashed through the ceiling of a home four blocks from the refinery, killing a three-year-old child as he slept. The pipe also severed the right leg of the child's eight-year-old brother sleeping beside him.

Nearly 1,500 Whiting residents in neighborhoods bordering the refinery were evacuated. Emergency services swung into action. In Washington, D.C., the Red Cross dispatched a disaster specialist by airplane to take charge of the relief efforts. The Whiting Community Center would serve as a feeding station and shelter. (Among donations solicited by relief worker were shoes and socks for children who had fled in their bare feet.)

At the request of Whiting mayor Michael Biastick, Mayor Gen. Harold Doherty of the Indiana National Guard rushed troops to the scene. Indiana governor George Craig would later declare an official state of emergency. Aiding to prevent looting was an armed patrol organized by the local American Legion post.

The blast disrupted electrical and telephone service throughout Whiting Illinois Bell Telephone dispatched 100 repairmen to fix damaged lines. Two emergency telephone trailers were moved into the area, one equipped with six telephones plugged into existing lines and one with six radio telephones. Forty additional operators from the East Chicago telephone exchange, many of them volunteers, were on duty to handle the traffic load.

Hours after the blast, a car equipped with sound equipment cruised through Whiting warning those who remained that gasoline had poured into the sewers, creating a danger of additional explosions. Firefighters issue a "no smoking" order for Whiting streets. Manhole covers were buried with sand to prevent flames from shooting out if ignition occurred.

According to Standard Oil's API report, eight Whiting residents outside the refinery were hospitalized with injuries related to the blast happened while families were sleeping, the final casualty count was nothing less than miraculous. That would not be the only miracle pulled off in Whiting.

After the Blast

Prior to the August 27 explosions and fire, the Whiting refinery processed more than 200,000 barrels of crude a day. Despite the extensive damage, the refinery was back at its pre-fire production level by Nov. 20, only 85 days after the explosions. Within 11 months the destroyed hydroformer was replaced with a newly built ultraformer.

That the refinery returned to full production so soon vindicates the strategy taken by Horbleck and the other chiefs in containing the fire to the storage tank farms and away from the process units.

"It was very well handled," Harman said. "If you look at the fire fighting capabilities available at the time their strategy worked. The refinery was made operational again in no more time than a long turnaround."

With the changes made after the fire, a refinery worker familiar with the old facility would not recognize the modern one that replaced it. The 110-year-old refinery now operates at double its 1955 crude capacity. More important, the design problems that led to the rapid spread of the 1955 fire have been corrected.

Today, tank farms are segregated far away from the process units. More space has been placed between the individual process units as well. Common dikes for more than one tank have been done away with. Most important, a buffer zone now exists between the refinery and residential neighborhoods. However, the Whiting refinery was far from an engineering debacle, as the Standard Oil report makes clear.

"Materials used for fireproofing the structure paid handsome dividends. Concrete covered steel pipe scansions carrying vital lines withstood exposure to high temperatures and many lines of welded construction remained intact. Steel valves and steel pump casings resisted the searing heat while cast iron valves and cast iron fittings simply disintegrated. Threaded and screwed pipe couplings separated leaving hundreds of disjointed lengths of curling pipe."

The changes in refinery design indicated by the Whiting disaster, together with the improved process safety standards of the later 20th century, makes an eight-day refinery fire today extremely unlikely.

"The only kind of refinery fire that could be of longer duration, and this is unlikely, would be if a 300-foot diameter crude tank boiled over and involved a lot of other tanks," Harman said. "But with modern fire fighting equipment and trained professional fire brigades we'd have a lot better handle on getting a fire like that under control."

Harman's brigade consists of one chief, four fire inspectors, 45 refinery operators and other employees who double as paid-on-call volunteers. Most have state certification as firefighters. Harman also has a 25-member auxiliary fire brigade as backup. Firefighters must live within a specified distance of the refinery and are on 24-hour call through a pager system.

"At 3 a.m. in the morning our first rig is rolling out of that bay in seven minutes," Harman said. "Seven minutes is a pretty good response time, particularly for people coming from home."

Harman's equipment inventory includes five foam pumpers, one of which is a 95-foot aerial platform, all rated at 2,000 gpm or greater. Together with three foam tankers, the brigade carries a total of 44,000 gallons of foam concentrate. Other equipment includes 2,000 gpm nozzles, portable monitors and hose ranging from three to five inches. The brigade also boasts a hazmat rescue vehicle. Oil spill response equipment includes four boats and six trailers.

Back in 1955 it was not unusual to have as many as a dozen operators on one process unit. Today, there may only be three. In that precious seven minutes before the firefighters arrive it is more important than ever that operators control and contain the fire using fixed systems, Harman said.

"All we ask of the operators is that they start getting water on it," he said.

Improved water resources may be the single most significant improvement in fire protection at Whiting in the past 45 years. The refinery now has 1,000 hydrants and a fire water system that can pump 25,000 gallons a minute. In 1955, the single source of fire water was Lake Michigan. Today, the fire water system draws from the lake, the ship canal and a separate clean water source.

Why is the Whiting disaster so little known today? At the time it ranked second only to Texas City for total property loss in a refinery accident — a distant second. The following year a 500,000-gallon sphere containing pentane and hexane exploded at a refinery near Amarillo, killing 19 people.

In 1984, a community only 30 miles away pushed past Whiting in the refinery disaster rankings . At Romeoville, IL, a rupture in a monoethanolamine absorber column resulted in a $127 million fire. Ten refinery firefighters and seven other employees died when a vapor cloud release ignited.

"I look at loss of life as the driving factor in how bad a disaster was," Harman said. "You can rebuild a process unit but you can't replace a human life."

Standard Oil's action after the explosion and fire is astounding seen from today's ultra-litigious vantage point. The company "stepped up to the plate" and took full responsibility for the disaster, Harman said. Newspaper accounts note that Dr. Robert E. Wilson, board chairman of Standard Oil, flew to the scene to represent the company himself.

"The company will act quickly to compensate families of the dead and injured and to repair the damage caused by the fire in the community of Whiting, as well as the plant," Wilson said.

Aside from the detailed paper submitted to API, Standard Oil commissioned a documentary compiled from news footage of the emergency. Harman and his fire inspectors often review the grainy black and white film to refresh their memories, he said. However, young people do not often ask about the disaster. As is Harman, most refinery personnel in America today are old enough to have been alive when the disaster happened.

"We're not getting younger people in the refining business," Harman said. "Most are in their 40s and 50s. I don't get a lot of young firefighters age 25 or 26 any more. Most new firefighters I'm getting are in their 40s."

The only memorial to the Whiting fire found today at the refinery sits in front of Harman's fire station — a hose reel cart used during the 1955 disaster. Firefighters rescued it off a junk pile and plan to refurbish it. The legend lives on.

"Could we have another big fire?" Harmon asked. "This is an oil refinery and we process volatile products. We are making gasoline here. You have to be prepared for the worst thing that can happen when these products are involved and then be prepared to handle, which we are."

Lessons Learned

  • Like the Romeoville disaster in 1984 or the Sunray disaster in 1956, the Whiting refinery fire traces its roots back to the inception of FHU-700. This was a design flaw that was in place the first time the new unit was put in operation.
  • Management took the lessons learned from the 1955 blast to heart. Tank farms are segregated far away from the process units. More space has been placed between the individual process units as well. Common dikes for more than one tank have been done away with. Most important, a buffer zone now exists between the refinery and residential neighborhoods.

Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.