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George L. Schrufer, 72, survived refinery fire, ran marathons

Burned over 78 percent of his body in the 12-alarm 1975 Gulf Oil fire, he went on to operate a successful catering business.

George Schrufer
George SchruferRead more

WHEN TRACEY Schrufer saw her father in the Crozer-Chester Burn Center, he looked like a mummy, wrapped in white bandages.

Tracey was 7, and she didn't realize it then, but there was no reason why her father, George L. Schrufer, was still alive.

He had suffered burns on 78 percent of his body in the horrendous 12-alarm Gulf refinery fire in August 1975, a blaze in which eight firefighters died and 14 others, including George Schrufer, were injured.

Not only did George suffer burns, but his lungs were damaged by the smoke and oil vapors he had inhaled as he struggled through burning thigh-deep oil and foam to try to help his fellow firefighters.

He saw a sight that would haunt his dreams and waking hours for the rest of his life: two men virtually disintegrated by fire in front of him.

George was saved from even more deadly injury by his quick thinking. He dived under the oil and managed to get far enough away from the flames to come up for air, even though the air was poisoned by smoke and oil and foam vapors. But he managed to drag himself to relative safety.

Another factor that enabled George to survive and eventually to lead a relatively normal life until he died Dec. 18: the ministrations of a burn specialist who had just returned from treating wounded soldiers in Vietnam.

"He saved my father's life," Tracey Schrufer said, although his name has faded from family memory.

Tracey still remembers the police officer at the door of their home in Frankford just after the family came home from a vacation in Wildwood, telling them that there had been an accident, and offering to drive family members to the hospital.

Tracey didn't make that trip, but she remembers seeing her father later, wrapped in bandages, isolated behind glass to prevent infection.

He spent three months in Crozer, then for months afterward there were many more return visits, surgeries and skin grafts.

George was never entirely free of pain for the rest of his life, but went on to operate a successful business, Cameo Caterers in Oxford Circle, and to become a marathon runner and a leader in veterans' affairs. He died at his home in Bridesburg at age 72.

"My father was an amazing man," Tracey said. "He was in constant pain, but you never heard a peep out of him about it. When he was in the hospital, we had to tell the nurses that he would never complain. We would say, 'He's an excellent patient. You're going to love him.' "

George had a number of health issues over the years, including a stroke in July. In 2011, he contracted chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder.

"Doctors said he would never walk again," Tracey said. "But they didn't know my dad. He walked again."

George participated in several marathons over the years. His daughter said running helped him clear his mind and took his thoughts away from his physical problems and those haunting memories.

The Gulf fire at the sprawling 723-acre refinery at Girard Point on the Schuylkill started before dawn Aug. 17. By afternoon it was considered close to being under control when disaster struck.

Three members of Engine 133 were wading in the mixture of foam, water and petroleum when the liquid ignited, trapping the men. Other firefighters rushed to help their comrades and were themselves consumed by fire.

George, assigned to Engine 49, apparently was taking a break when the explosion occurred, and he was one of those who plunged into the oil and foam to help his comrades.

"No one knows why my father was alive," Tracey said. "At least twice a year, doctors would tell me to say goodbye to my dad. But he always came back.

"He was my best friend. He had a goofy sense of humor."

George was a 1960 graduate of North Catholic High School, and served in the Army in Korea.

He was past commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2, and was active in other veterans issues.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Charlene Schrufer Rothe, and a grandson.

Services: Were Sunday. Burial will be at 11:30 a.m. today at Washington Crossing National Cemetery.

Memorial donations may be made to the Firefighters' Widows Fund, c/o Philadelphia Fire Fighters' and Paramedics' Union, 415 N. 5th St., Philadelphia, PA 19123.