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In Philly, a history of oil refinery fires going back decades

The four minor injuries Friday pale in comparison to the deaths reported in some earlier blasts. Here’s a timeline of some of the notable incidents in Philadelphia history.

Fire scene at the Gulf Refinery in August 1975.
Fire scene at the Gulf Refinery in August 1975.Read moreFile photo

An explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery in South Philadelphia early Friday is the latest in a string of fires, explosions, and incidents involving the city’s oil refinery compounds.

The five minor injuries pale in comparison to the deaths reported in some earlier blasts, but it was so large and so hot that it could be seen from space in satellite infrared images, according to the National Weather Service.

Here’s a timeline of some of the notable explosions in the city’s history.

Sept. 12, 1931 — Four dead in explosion

Four were killed and nine were injured in a blast at the Atlantic Refining plant at Point Breeze in South Philadelphia. (Atlantic later merged with Richfield Oil Co. to become Arco.)

Feb. 4, 1932 — Marcus Hook explosion kills 18

An oil tanker exploded outside the Sunoco Marcus Hook refinery, killing 18 people and injuring many others.

Sept. 10, 1960 — Lightning strikes refinery

The Girard Point Refinery (then owned by Gulf and now PES) experienced a fire that burned for hours. After being struck by lightning, a tank caught fire, but it caused no injuries.

May 11, 1970 — Seven dead in Arco explosion

A 13-story unit exploded at the Arco plant, killing seven employees and injuring 37.

1975: A deadly year prompts tighter regulation and ‘industry-wide’ changes

Aug. 17, 1975 — 8 firefighters killed, flames last for days

The Gulf refinery complex — cited as one of the largest at the time — filled nearly 700 acres. Early on Aug. 17, the refinery caught fire due to an oil storage tank being overfilled.

The flames killed six firefighters who were on the scene, and by the time the fire was extinguished two days later, two more firefighters had died from exposure. The explosion has been called one of the worst disasters in Philadelphia Fire Department history.

Two weeks later, the refinery caught fire again. This time only one injury was reported — Mayor Frank L. Rizzo suffered a broken femur running from the explosion.

Oct. 12, 1975 — Arco refinery catches fire

Less than two months later, an Arco refinery fire involved more than 200 firefighters, but no deaths occurred.

Following this fire, Pennsylvania Attorney General Robert Kane formed a task force to investigate Philly-area oil refinery fires and explosions. He said in 1975 the task force was going to “determine whether there is a risk and what can be done to protect it.”

According to Kane, there were other, more minor incidents in the area in the 1960s and 1970s that prompted the inception of the task force as well.

Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said Friday that the explosions of 1975 led to industry-wide safety precautions and changes.

“Most of the changes came about in industry changes in refineries,” he said. They include improved fire suppression systems above and below ground, diking between various sections of refineries, and the presence of a company firefighting teams at the facilities.

Late 1970s to present: Less severity, fewer deaths

Jan. 24, 1977 — Four injured in Arco blast

Four were injured in another Arco explosion that blasted the windows out of buildings blocks away. The fire lasted for hours, even with 250 firefighters on the scene.

Jan. 11, 1988 — Explosion felt from Cherry Hill to Bucks County

One morning, an explosion at Point Breeze, then operated by John Deuss’ Atlantic Refining & Marketing Corp., injured one person. Officials said it was “lucky” the tank did not explode toward other tanks, which would have created a bigger and more dangerous explosion.

Oct. 16, 1998 — Blaze at refinery in Delaware County

A fire at the Tosco refinery in Trainer, Delaware County, left residents shaken but uninjured.

July 11, 2007 — Lightning strikes a refinery in South Jersey

Lightning struck the Sunoco Eagle Point refinery in South Jersey, creating an hours-long blaze. No injuries were reported. John McCann, a Sunoco spokesperson at the time, said the tank fire was an “extremely rare occurrence” for the refinery.

(In 2012, Sunoco became Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) as a result of a partnership between the Carlyle Group and Sunoco Inc.)

May 17, 2009 — Sunoco refinery crippled

A rusty pipe was said to be the cause of the 2009 refinery fire at Marcus Hook. Following the natural-gas leak, the plant closed in 2011. There were no injuries.

Aug. 24, 2011 — Small fire at Girard Point

A small fire at Girard Point was declared under control an hour later. According to a Sunoco spokesperson, the fire began at a pump.

May 22, 2015 — Another fire at PES

At the same PES refinery, another fire broke out, with no reported injuries.

Dec. 10, 2016 - And another

Officials responded to a fire at PES late on a Saturday, and brought it under control about an hour later, with no injuries reported.

June 21, 2019 — An early morning fireball

The cause of Friday’s explosion is still under investigation. But the National Weather Service said it was so large and so hot that it could be seen from space in satellite infrared images.