Explosion at the Gulf Oil Refinery in Philadelphia, Sunday, August 17, 1975.

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Explosions rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions complex on the morning of June 21, causing a fire that raged for hours and sent plumes of smoke across the region, rising behind homes and above busy highways crowded with commuters. It’s the second fire at the refining center just this month.

How did an oil refinery end up in the heart of a major metropolitan city?

On its website, PES boasts that the petroleum processor has been “part of the neighborhood” along the Schuylkill River since the Civil War era. But it hasn’t always been a peaceful neighbor.

Friday morning’s thunderclap explosion at the South Philly complex is far from isolated disruption.

Disaster and oil are old bedfellows in South Philly. In the second half of the 20th century alone, under various owners and names, the refinery complex killed over a dozen people and injured at least 100, including firemen, oilmen and even a Philadelphia mayor.

Here’s a short version of the long history of fire at the controversial site.

1879-1960s: Lightning strikes oil

One of the earliest recorded disasters at the South Philly oil refinery dates back to the 19th century, when a lightning bolt set 25,000 cases of petroleum ablaze along the banks of the Schuylkill. Acres upon acres burned.

“In total, about a half mile of Philadelphia’s waterfront was destroyed,” wrote historian Fredric L. Quivik in a 2015 article in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. “Amazingly, firemen, sailors, workmen, and nearby residents escaped injury, but an estimated two thousand men were thrown out of employment, most sailors lost all their belongings, and some houses were destroyed.”

Over the next century and a half, Quivik noted, the flammable industry along the river would continue to pose risks to workers, neighbors and the environment. A 1921 fire killed four and injured 10. In 1944, three more workers perished in another fire.

Clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer, June 12, 1879

1960: Six-story blaze

Well into the second half of the 20th century, what is now the PES complex was split between several refineries. One of them was the 600-acre Girard Point Refinery, owned by the former Gulf Oil Corp. In 1960, a blaze erupted in a six-story building and raged for hours through the warm September evening. Gulf Oil Corp. estimated damage at around $1 million — about $8.5 million today, adjusted for inflation. No deaths or injuries were reported.

Front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 10, 1960

1966: ‘Flames 400 Feet In the Air’

The Philadelphia Inquirer front-page story on May 24,1966, would sound familiar to current observers: “5-Alarmer At Refinery Shoots Flames 400 Feet In the Air.” This particular blaze snarled traffic and closed bridges. No one was killed or injured this time either, according to archived news reports. But such fires had become a frightening routine for emergency responders, the papers noted.

A spectacular multi-alarm fire hit the Gulf Oil refinery on May 24, 1966. Credit: AP/Bill Ingraham

1970: 5 killed, dozens injured

Four years and several fires later, the plant faced its biggest devastation to date. An explosion rocked a 13-story structure at the Atlantic Richfield Co. refinery in the South Philly complex, killing five workers and injuring nearly 40 others. Such disasters were becoming more and more likely at the accident-prone refineries, officials worried. Then-Fire Commissioner James McCarey described this particular blaze as “the worst I have seen in my 30 years fighting refinery fires.”

Front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 1970

1975: Mayor Rizzo gets hurt

The South Philly refineries came under heavy scrutiny in the mid-’70s when no less than four fires erupted inside the complex. The most disastrous was an “11-alarm fire” caused by the explosion of numerous petroleum tanks and pipelines. The inferno raged for a full 24 hours, ultimately killing eight Philadelphia firemen and injuring 14 others.

One of the injured was none other than then-Mayor Frank Rizzo. The New York Times reported that Rizzo, whose brother Joseph Rizzo was fire commissioner at the time, collided with another firefighter who was running from the scene of the blast. He was briefly hospitalized.

By this time, the Inquirer cautioned that such fires were no longer flukes, but rather part of a national pattern of oil-fuelled blazes sweeping the country. This wasn’t just environmental fearmongering: The petroleum industry’s own lobbyists reported that fire damage to U.S. refineries tripled between the early ’60s and the early ’70s.

Clipping from the front page of the Inquirer on January 12, 1988.

1982: A common scene of accidents

In the decade that followed, some refinery accidents — even near-fatal ones — barely made a blip on the radar. On Aug. 1,1982, a Gulf worker was seriously burned after a 125-foot heating tower exploded into flames in the middle of the night, leaving yet another trail of thick black smoke on the South Philly horizon.

1988: Explosions in the night

In 1988, Cherry Hill and Bucks County residents were ripped awake by another explosion at the South Philly plant, newspapers reported. A steel-welded lid blew off one of the oil tanks and flew about 150 feet in the blast. A spokesperson for the oil company acknowledged that it was a stroke of luck the lid didn’t crash with one of the other tanks.

1990 – present

The headlines above are a small sample of the frequent fires, explosions and other accidents at the refinery complex over its century-plus in existence. Some of the more disastrous blasts still haunt the city. In 2015, officials commemorated the 40th anniversary of the 1975 explosion that killed eight firemen.

The archives show numerous other incidents from the 1990s through to today, many of them resulting in minimal injuries.

Fatal or not, environmental advocates continue to warn about the long-term health impact of these recurring blazes. The air quality for neighbors caught in the smoke is a cause for serious concern, they say. PES said it is working with the city health department to monitor the risks.

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...