1955 Whiting refinery fire ranks as catastrophic industrial accident
Documentary examines the Indiana conflagration that raged for days at Standard Oil plant
Story by Robert Kostanczuk
In the early morning of Aug. 27, 1955, the Standard Oil refinery in Whiting, Ind., was rocked by a titanic explosion.
The destruction that followed still ranks as one of the most monumental industrial accidents in United States history -- 60 years later.
An estimated 1.25 million barrels of crude oil and refined product burned and went up in smoke.
Fighting the fire didn’t totally come to an end for eight days -- it smoldered for that long.
In its coverage of the disaster, The Gary Post-Tribune mentioned that one storage tank was still belching black smoke as the catastrophe entered “its second week.”
A 3-year-old boy was killed when a large, torpedo-like chunk of steel from the blast soared through the air from at least a quarter-mile away and tore through the top of his home, striking him in the bedroom.
The boy’s 8-year-old brother -- who was in the same room -- also was hit by the flying debris and had a leg severed in the 2600 block of Schrage Ave.
A plant supervisor in his early 60s died of a heart attack when he arrived at the engulfed refinery to help battle the disaster.
Dozens of people were injured, several homes were destroyed and many more were substantially damaged.
Refinery workers and firefighters from surrounding cities, who, combined, numbered in the thousands, fought the inferno for days.
I know these facts because I wrote a detailed retrospective on the conflagration to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster in 2005.
I had a personal interest in the story that I did for the Post-Tribune of northwest Indiana.
My elementary-grades education took place at Whiting’s Immaculate Conception School, located just several blocks from the refinery.
My family lived on the 2400 block of White Oak Avenue -- the second street over from the refinery that sits along Lake Michigan.
I was 10 months old when, at around 6:12 a.m., my neighborhood was rocked when the 26-story tall Fluid Hydroformer Unit 700 blew apart -- the result of a combustible mix of gases and oxygen.
The nightmare had begun for the 1,600-acre Standard plant.
Sheets of flames shot a half-mile or more into the air. A dense, gargantuan mushroom cloud of smoke billowed a couple of miles into the sky.
The Saturday blast at FHU 700 caused a frightening shaking of my house. One of the members of my family recalls her bedroom window being shattered. We had to evacuate and stay with relatives for quite a while.
Flying metal rocketed for about two blocks before demolishing a garage. A grocery store was leveled. Numerous windows were broken.
For my 50th anniversary story, I interviewed a 68-year-old Whiting resident who lived just a couple of blocks from the refinery when its gigantic hydroformer exploded in 1955.
He said the concussive force “blew me out of bed.”
The destruction of FHU 700 set off a series of oil-tank blasts.
When it was all said and done, more than 60 mammoth storage tanks were destroyed.
In conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Standard Oil catastrophe in 2015, the short documentary -- "One Minute After Sunrise" -- will be shown free of charge at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27, in the Whiting High School Auditorium. The film includes recollections from numerous people about the massive industrial accident. DVDs of "One Minute After Sunrise" will be available for $12 at the showing.
Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura was born the year after the refinery disaster, but he realizes the memory of it lingers in his community.
“It’s kind of embedded in people’s minds; it was probably a pretty amazing and horrific sight at that time,” Stahura told me in a recent interview.
The mayor has had a personal stake in the oil industry that is part of the very fiber of Whiting, which has been promoted as the “Little City” on Lake Michigan. Stahura said he worked at the refinery for almost 23 years before becoming mayor, having been employed there when the plant went through name transitions -- from Amoco, to BP Amoco to just BP, the refinery’s current name.
The refining of crude oil into gasoline is, you could say, part of Whiting’s personality.
Whiting -- now with a population of about 5,000 -- celebrated its centennial in 1989 based on when the Standard Oil Company broke ground for its refinery in Whiting, which was 1889.
Whiting was not formally incorporated as a city until 1903.
2003 marked the last year Stahura was employed at the refinery, where he worked in the operations department and eventually became a training coordinator in that department who handled safety issues.
Stahura, 58, expressed optimism that a repeat of an industrial accident on the scale of the 1955 incident can be avoided.
“I don’t think something like that could even happen in today’s world with all the safeguards and safety equipment put in place,” he said.
That, for me, is a comforting opinion.
The horrid experience of Aug. 27, 1955, is something you don’t want to relive.
One of the most haunting images from the blast appeared in the Post-Tribune.
The nighttime photo shows two of the Indiana National Guardsmen who were called in to keep onlookers from getting too close to the dangerous accident site, and to protect the peace and prevent looting.
As refinery flames roar in the background, the two helmeted guardsmen stand alone a deserted street with what look like rifles strapped to their shoulders.
You can almost feel the eerie quiet and sense the ravaged, desolate landscape.
Many hundreds of residents who lived near the Standard Oil plant had already been evacuated.
I don’t like using the term “war zone” to describe scenes that are not actually part of military conflict, but in this case, the National-Guardsmen photo really did convey the feel of a war zone.
Part of the National Guardsmen’s responsibilities was to keep traffic away from Indianapolis Boulevard, which borders the refinery.
It was reported that parts of the boulevard melted from flaming fuel.
Amazingly, the Standard Oil refinery was back at normal crude-barrel production levels about three months after the explosions and blaze.
Today, the BP Whiting Refinery remains a crucial source of revenue for the city.
“It’s our largest taxpayer,” Stahura noted. “They’re great partners with us right now. They employ a ton of people.”
The petroleum mecca also keeps the community’s century-old “Oil City” identity going.
Whiting High School sports teams are named the Oilers.