Romeoville, IL Refinery Explosions, July 1984

Oil Refinery Explosion Romeoville


Romeoville, Ill. (AP) -- Leaking gas caused by a mechanical failure may have sparked two thundering explosions and a fire at a Union Oil Co. refinery that killed at least 14 people and injured 23, authorities said Tuesday.
A 14th body was found Tuesday afternoon, and a search for two other missing workers continued amid smoldering debris by federal safety investigators working shoulder-to-shoulder with refinery crews. All but two of the dead were Union Oil employees, officials said.
Two of the injured were in critical condition with burns over at least 70 percent of their bodies.
The spectacular Monday night blast, which was felt up to 35 miles away, flattened buildings at the 1,030 acre plant and toppled a 55-foot utility tower two miles away -- cutting power temporarily to 10,000 residents.
Company officials initially said damage would exceed $10 million, but later said they could not estimate the cost. The facility, Union's largest gasoline refinery, was shut down.
The site was marked by blistered trees and scorched grass. Union Oil trucks were reported overturned and sheet metal lay twisted and charred along nearby roadways.
"You can see what it did to all the steel," said Assistant Fire Chief STEPHEN CLANCY. "When it melts steel girders like butter, then you know what you've got."
"I have never seen such devastation," said Will County Coroner ROBERT TEZAK, who was trying to identify victims through dental charts. Progress was slow, he said, because "we wanted to pinpoint as much detail as possible and preserve as much evidence as we could."
The bodies were taken to funeral homes in Joliet, about 10 miles away.
None of the bodies had been identified by midafternoon Tuesday. Some telatives went to the plant gates hoping for word of loved ones. Among them were JERRY and RAYMOND STAGGS, whose two brothers worked at the plant.
"I still have hope they're alive, but God, it sounds bad," said RAYMOND STAGGS.
A 5-foot piece of sheet metal struck a house a half-mile from the refinery, and a 9-month-old boy whose home is a mile away from the site was in a Joliet hospital with head injuries suffered when a jewelry box flew across a room and struck him.
The company established a telephone number where underwriters fielded calls from homeowners with damaged property. Most reports involved broken windows.
"I don't know how I got out," said Union employee KENNETH BOLAND, 38, who was in a building about 70 feet from the site of the explosion, which hurled a 34-ton petroleum tower more than half a mile.
BARRY LANE, a spokesman for Unocal, the Los Angeles based holding company that owns Union Oil Co., said 14 of the 16 people dead or missing were Union Oil Co. employees. The two others were believed to be security guards working for a company under contract to Union.
Officials believe "a mechanical failure" may have resulted in gas "escaping and then igniting," LANE said.
There were at least two separate explosions, with the second, much more powerful one taking place in an alkylation unit -- where high-octane natural gas is processed into blending stock for regular gasoline, he said.
"We believe the second explosion possibly was caused by an accumulation of volatile gases," he said.
Company officials believe the blasts were several minutes apart, and that an alarm was sounded by employees who noticed either the mechanical failure or the gas leakage, LANE said.
"We know some people in our firefighting crew were responding to the alarm when the second explosion took place," he said.
Despite a steady drizzle and periods of heavy rain, a half-dozen smoldering fires and intense heat lingering after the blast hampered the efforts of work crews, firefighters and investigators.
HAROLD GURGONE, JR., a Union Oil employee, was trapped by the searing heat inside a windowless, blast-proof bunker where workers control the flow of gas in a portion of the refinery. A TV monitor enabled him to see the devastation about 300 yardss away while waiting for rescuers.
Because of a power loss, GURGONE and his co-workers could only wait for a chance to safely escape the blast-proof bunker with its 3-foot concrete walls.
GURGONE felt the furious explosion inside the bunker.
"There are no words to describe it," he said. "I've never felt anything like that before."
"We couldn't see, but knew what was going on out there," he said. "We have a camera and turned it towards the fire."
THeir work continued for nearly two hours, until rescuers managed to open a door after two escape routes were cut off by flames.
The refinery, about 25 miles southwest of Chicago, was shut down Tuesday, said LANE.
A partial list of fatalities, members of Union Oil Fire Brigade:

Frederick News-Post Maryland 1984-07-25