Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Oil - The Tragic Cost of Doing Business

               On Thursday, June 23, 1921, the Shell Oil Company struck oil at its well at Temple Avenue and Hill Street, on Signal Hill. A new era was born, and a new city, Signal Hill, came into being.  The City of Signal Hill has been built on oil, so has much of Long Beach, which has benefited from wells drilled on its properties in the Signal Hill oil field.   The Signal Hill oil field runs from northwest to southwest, about five miles long by one mile across. In the northwest, the field begins near the junction of the San Diego Freeway (I-405) and the Long Beach Freeway (I-710) and roughly parallels the 405 freeway near the intersection of Lakewood Boulevard and Pacific Coast highway at the traffic circle. Portions of the field also extend into the Alamitos Heights area by Recreation Park, and the Los Cerritos area of Long Beach, though these areas are no longer productive.
Source: Wikipedia
                Revenues from the oil industry fuel the treasury in both cities, but what brought much wealth also has had costs.  There were numerous explosions, fires and deaths in the oil fields.  Only a few of the tragedies have been remembered.  I’ve included three of the most well-known in this article, followed by a chronological list of other reported accidents and deaths I’ve been able to find in my research.  As you will realize when you see the list there were many.

Fisher Fire

                Fires, explosions and accidents were common in the early days of Signal Hill oil. The newly formed city didn’t have its own Fire Department until 1926 and had to rely on Long Beach for fire protection.  One of them was the 1924 Fisher fire which destroyed four derricks and two storage tanks about 8 a.m. on July 15, 1924.
               The blaze started at the Walter Fisher well No. 7, located in the densest part of the oil field around Lovelady and Crescent streets.  The fire spread quickly to nearby wells but approximately 350 fire fighters, recruited mostly from the oil workers of the Signal Hill field and two companies of the Long Beach Fire Department fought the blaze. Signal Hill had no water system and the nearest hydrant was at Hill and California avenues, nearly a mile away. Connection was made with this hydrant, however, through more than 5000 feet of hose.
Fisher fire, 1924.
The 2000 barrel Fisher Company tank burst into flames with a terrific explosion at 1 p.m. after fire fighters thought they had conquered the blaze and checked its spread. This was followed by a second explosion when tank no. 2 caught fire. Fearing these tanks might rip open due to the heat causing a river of blazing oil to rush down Lovelady Street destroying everything in its path, a dyke was hastily constructed across the street with tractors. Things continued to look bad as unrelenting flames shot from the tanks and it was expected the steel walls would give way at any moment.  However, by 8 p.m. the flames had died down and the danger lessened. The fire, which threatened to destroy the entire oil field, had taken firefighters 12 hours to control.
                Wayne Fisher estimated total damage at $100,000 ($14.3 million today).  By all accounts, the Los Angeles Times reported, Mrs. Z. T. Nelson, Signal Hill’s mayor was the heroine of the fire. Jessie Nelson organized and headed a relief committee to aid the 350 firefighters, saw to it that they were fed in shifts and personally passed among them giving them encouragement.
                The day’s most spectacular feat was that of Alex Scott, one of the crew of the Foster wells. While fighting the Fisher fire he saw the top of his own derrick burst into flames and climbed to the top with a hose strapped to his back in sight of thousands of spectators. He later received $100 for his bravery.
                Fortunately there were no deaths. The only casualty was Fred Harold who tripped and fell badly burning his arm as a stream of blazing oil escaped from one of the oil tanks.
                The cause of the explosion was thought to have been caused by one of the burning derricks falling into the oil tank, causing an instant explosion.
                The story of well owner Walter H. Fisher is similar to many who made a fortune on oil. Fisher and his family arrived in Los Angeles with only $5. He opened an insurance business, and made an early investment in oil, forming the General Petroleum Company.  At the time of his death in June 1926 his estimated worth was $5,000,000 ($69.2 million in today’s money).

 Richfield Oil Fire

                Another disaster occurred 85 years ago on June 2, 1933. This time it was an explosion at the Richfield Oil Company at Twenty-Seventh Street and Lime Avenue which killed ten, and injured thirty-five. 
Richfield field ablaze, 1933.
                It was a horrible tragedy that began with a tremendous refinery blast that was felt in cities thirty miles away.  The fire that followed reached two homes, but the heroic efforts of 500 men, armed with shovels, prevented the oil that flowed from broken storage vats from igniting and spreading the fire further into residential areas. All in all fifty dwellings were damaged and a dozen other small buildings destroyed.
                One body taken to Seaside Hospital was so mutilated staff could not tell if it was a man or woman.  A belt buckle was all that helped identify what was left of 34-year-old Robert Bennett, of 3056 East Second Street, whose remains were pulled from beneath a pile of charred building   Equipment numbers found near other remains were traced back to those who had checked them out, allowing for further identification.  One of the victims was Carl Robinson (226 ½ Covina Street), whose wife told local police that the day of the blast had been the first work her husband had been able to obtain in nine months.
materials the following day.
Richfield fire aftermath.
Not all casualties were oil workers.  The Carlyon’s were “oil people,” having spent seventeen years in the oil fields surrounding Bakersfield. The family moved to Long Beach when the oil in the Kern River fields began to close down.  Little did they realize it would be the mother and daughter, not the oil worker husband that would die because of oil.
                 Lottie Carlyon and her 8-year-old daughter Marilyn were burned to death before firemen could get near enough to put out the flames that engulfed their home.  The mother and the little girl had been knocked unconscious by the blast and were unable to get out of the house before it caught fire. Ironically Lottie Carlyon’s husband, Tom, was directing a crew of men in a derrick near his home when the blast snuffed out the lives of his family.  He was closer to the explosion than his wife and daughter, but was able to stagger from the burning area before being trapped by flames.   The rest of the dead were trapped inside the absorption plant when the blast flattened it.
                Witnesses said there were actually two explosions.  The first, a minor one, caused the second.  The second blast was so intense it wrecked homes and other structures within a radius of several blocks and shattered plate glass windows thirty miles away.  At first everyone thought another earthquake had hit (the massive Long Beach Earthquake had occurred March 10, 1933), but they quickly realized it was an explosion when an immense column of smoke and flame shot skyward.
                Five hundred firemen, police, sailors, marines and volunteers fought for four hours to put out the fire which razed an area of two city blocks.  Fifteen thousand spectators gathered to watch the inferno and the thousands of barrels of crude oil which flowed through Long Beach streets like a river.
                A storage tank failure was ruled as the cause of the explosion which was the worst in the history of the Signal Hill oil field.

Hancock Fire

                Many may still remember the shattering explosions and raging flames from the Hancock Oil refinery fire on Signal Hill in 1958.  Several articles were written about the event on the 50th anniversary of the disaster which occurred on May 22, 1958.  It was indeed a day to remember as a sea of sticky, boiling oil streamed down from Signal Hill as firemen tried to contain the flames to the tank farm area of the 10-acre plant. Homes for miles around – in San Pedro, Long Beach, Wilmington, Seal Beach, Lakewood and other communities – shook as if hit by a series of sonic booms as the explosions continued.  One resident a block away said he heard at least 15 to 20 explosions within a five minute period.
Hancock fire, 1958.
                 It seemed to have started with an explosion in the loading area of the refinery located south of the Municipal Airport and Spring Street.  The first blast tore up a tank containing crude oil; burning petroleum gushed to the ground and quickly spread the fire from tank to tank.  Other explosions followed in rapid succession.  Fifty workers fled for their lives; two, Woodward Langford and James Edwards, didn't make it.
                The stream of oil threatened the airport and the Long Beach Municipal Gas Department plant with its huge storage tanks.  Fire fighters concentrated efforts around this area to prevent further devastation.  A vast cloud of black smoke spread eastward, forcing the evacuation of Long Beach General Hospital's 410 patients.  Sooty oil from the billowing ebony cloud was carried by the wind over neighboring areas damaging homes, cars and everything else in its path.  Bulldozers roared through the night as high earth dikes were built in the area of Termino and Spring to halt the flow of oil from the burst tanks.  Yet some of the oil escaped entering storm drains emptying into Los Cerritos drainage channel.  A quantity also found its way to Marine Stadium, despite attempts to vacuum it up using vacuum trucks at points along the channel.
                After a 52-hour fight by 600 men, the Hancock Refinery fire was extinguished.  However, firefighters could still see the grotesque shapes of twisted metal though lingering ribbons of smoke.  Woodrow H. Langford, 44, and James W. Edwards, 66, lost their lives, eight were injured and property loss was estimated to be in the millions.
                The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but it happened at the same time that rumors surfaced that a large eastern oil company was interested in buying the company.

Signal Hill, 1928. Cemeteries shown.

Reported accidents from the Signal Hill field include:

·         September 2, 1921, a fire occurred as the well was being drilled at Shell’s Mesa No. 1 well. No one was injured but tools and a rig were destroyed with a loss of $12,000.
·         November 17, 1921, asbestos clad expert firefighters were called in to dynamite the blaze at Shell’s Martin #1 well. A column of blazing gas shot 150 feet into the air and scattered thousands of grains of sand for miles around. Adjacent wells and derricks were also destroyed. Damages of $24,000.
·         December 14, 1921, the third fire in four months at Shell Oil Co. resulting from gas escaping from newly dug Wilbur #1 well.  Damages $20,000.
·         May 9, 1923, carelessness in turning on a gas valve to a connecting line was listed as the cause of the blaze near Orange Avenue. No damage estimate given.
·         May 27, 1923, a fire destroyed a derrick at Shell’s Alamitos No. 7 well on Obispo. Damages $50,000.
·         July 10, 1923, a 500 gallon tank of the Gilmore Refining Company threatened to spread downhill into Long Beach threatening homes. $150,000 in damages.
·         October 15, 1923, fires destroy two wells on Arabella Avenue, two firemen injured. Damages $25,000.
·         April 21, 1924, three absorbing towers and the engine room of the Golden State Refinery on East Hill Street were destroyed when fumes from a gas pipe ignited.  $35,000 in damages.
·         May 10, 1924, explosion and fire destroyed the derrick and equipment on Fry #2 well at Freeman Street and Summit Road.  Two die – Frank Guisinger and J.F. Bownds.  Third victim, George Stubblefield also injured.
·         June 20, 1924, four workmen (Thomas Watson, Everett Johnson, A. A. Cochran, J.B. Rose) on the Patton-Shore #2 well on California Street are hurt when a drill pipe falls.
·         July 6, 1924, fire razes Betz oil derrick. 
·         July 15, 1924, Fisher fire. See article in this blog.  
·         August 6, 1924, waste oil which had been accumulating for several months in a gully north of Sunnyside Cemetery caught fire from a spark from a welding gun.  For a time the Lomita Gas Company was threatened by the grass fire which spread quickly. No damage estimates.
·         October 3, 1924, flames from a welding torch started an explosion which destroyed 9 storage tanks of the Hursh Refining Company, 19th and Rose Avenue. Damages $25,000.
·         October 23, 1924, a fire and two explosions occurred at the absorption plant of the Pan-American Refining Company on the north side of the hill at Arabella and Temple. Harry Perry was killed.  Approximately $50,000 in damages.
·         November 27, 1924, two fires, one resulting from an explosion. The Davis-McMillan well at Orizaba and Summit was the most destructive which resulted when a spark of unknown origin ignited gas in the hole. A sump hole filled with waste oil on Spring, west of American (Long Beach Blvd.), was the scene of the second blaze which was started by a grass fire.  Theodore Deihl seriously hurt in first fire.  $20,000 in damages to the first fire little lost in the second.
·         January 13, 1925, two badly burned in refinery explosion.
·         February 19, 1925, spectacular fire razes derrick on Signal Hill; blaze is seen on all roads into Long Beach.
·         February 23, 1926, the presence of a tremendous gas field was found after the eruption of a series of wells in a new area of drilling in the Los Cerritos area in the northwest edition to the original field. Coombs #5 well was the first to explode (2/22/1926), with others following.  Damages to the Coombs well was estimated to be in excess of $50,000. Five workmen injured (J.J. Biller, A.B. McMillan, D.B. McCutcheon, J. Morean, Dewey Davis). Firemen William Minter and Fred Campbell also injured.
·         March 25, 1926, Wilbur-McAlpin-Craig #3 well shoots out jet of fire, crew dynamites well in effort to stop blaze.
·         June 5, 1926, one overcome, two hurt in gas flames as derrick burns on Signal Hill.
·         May 29, 1927, seven burned in explosion at Alamitos Heights, blast shakes J. Paul Getty derrick.
·         June 26, 1927, five wells were destroyed from a blast and fire from the Julian Petroleum Corporations Fuller well no.1 at Colorado and Flint. Losses estimated to be $1 million.
·         October 19, 1927, spectacular oil blaze menaces field, Julian derrick destroyed by fire.
·         February 10, 1928, a refinery explosion kills Ray Thompson at a Signal Oil plant at Atlantic and 32nd Street.  Damages estimated to be between $200,000-$300,000.
·         February 11, 1928, the second of two refinery explosions within two days of each other destroyed the California Petroleum Company’s absorption plant. Damages $50,000.
·         August 5, 1929, fire destroyed 4 oil derricks in the Bixby Heights section of the Signal Hill oil field belonging to the Macmillan concern.  Damages $16,000.
·         August 19, 1929, two gas trucks exploded at the Rio Grande refinery on Reservoir Hill. Fifty foot columns of fire erupted into the air and the fire spread downhill threatening homes. Carl Bonner seriously injured.
·         November 26, 1929, five derricks and ten oil tanks were destroyed in an explosion which threw boiling oil over the tank farm. The fire originated when a storage tank of the Conductor’s Oil Company overheated and steam allowed seepage of oil which was ignited by a boiler. One man, Fred Strong, injured. George F. Storey dies. Damages $50,000.
·         December 4, 1929, brothers Lynn and Dean Titus were killed when fumes  from an empty crude oil tank ignited a fire at the General Petroleum Fulton McKee well #1 (Long Beach Blvd. and Pepper Drive). Two others were also injured. Loss was minimal.
·         December 12, 1929, spectacular fire hits Signal Hill, but loss is light.
·         May 11, 1930, three wooden derricks (Foster well #65, Featherstone & Preston #8, Bolsa Chica #4) and two 15,000 gallon tanks went up in smoke. The fire was on Lovelady Avenue between Willow and Burnett.  $25,000 in damages.
·         August 2, 1930, four were injured in an explosion at the Olympic #15 well of the Western Oil and Refining Company. Friction was said to be the cause. Damages minimal.
·         August 26, 1930, huge derrick topples in flames, blaze caused when fumes of tank are ignited by a nearby boiler. Damages $50,000.
·         September 17, 1930, an explosion of a tank of crude oil at the Macmillan-Wellman lease, Locust and Pepper Drive, started a fire which threatened the Los Cerritos section of the Signal Hill oil field. $6,000 in damages.
·         August 7, 1931, fire damages Los Cerritos oil well; explosion of gas picket blamed. Damages $5000.
·         December 28, 1931, occurred at the O’Donnell-Slater well no. 1 in which two 75,000 gallon storage tanks caught fire. $5,000 in damages.
·         October 1, 1931, wind and lightning do heavy damage; east Coyote field suffers when electric flash strikes tank farm. Damages $35,000.
·         June 11, 1932, a large pool of waste oil was ignited by a grass fire in an area known as “Frog Pond.”  No major damages, but the smoke enveloped the area, blocking the sun for miles around.
·         October 4, 1932, a fire destroyed the Masters and Daniel #1 derrick. A small explosion ignited the blaze. $5000 in damages.  
·         June 2, 1933, Richfield fire. See article in this blog.
·         November 23, 1935, an explosion, probably caused by an accumulation of gas ignited by friction, seriously injured five men at the M and M well #1 near Burnett and Orange. Damages not reported.
·         December 11, 1938, bursting from a refining tube, barrels of scalding oil sprayed a small platform of the Hancock Oil Refinery bringing a flaming death to 3 workers: Homer Huffman, William Hill, Walter Rohrig.
·         May 24, 1939, J.W. Browder was burning grass off a lot he owned on Signal Hill when the fire sped, destroying the engine house and derrick of the Jamesco #5 well at 36th and Elm. Damages $5,000.
·         March 30, 1943, a fire started in a pump engine room and damaged the E.B. Campbell well #4 derrick at Obispo and Pacific Coast Highway.
·         July 27, 1943, an explosion of a retort at the Comet Oil Company refinery at 2930 Cherry Avenue caused $1,000 in damages.
·         October 5, 1945, Harold Rogers was atop a dehydrator tank at the Cree lease on Signal Hill when it blew up. Fire did not erupt, but Rogers was killed when he was hurled 750 feet.  Damage minimal.
·         January 4, 1946, a fire at Ansco Construction Company, 23rd and Walnut, destroyed an asphalt tank and damaged heating equipment at the road oil plant. Damages not reported.
·         July 31, 1946, two derricks and other equipment were destroyed in an oil well fire at Miller #1 and #2 wells in the 3500 block of Pacific Avenue. Damages $10,000.
·         January 26, 1947, a fire of unknown origin broke out at the Hancock Oil Refinery at 28th and Junipero. No report on damages.
·         December 17, 1947, a fire originating in a well on the Signal Oil & Gas lease on Willow between Cherry and Walnut, leaped to two other derricks and two storage tanks. Damages $15,000.
·         May 3, 1948, oil rig fire at 635 E. Wardlow.
·         September 6, 1948, oil storage tank blows up at 31st and Long Beach Boulevard.
·         September 23, 1948, oil well on the crest of Signal Hill, known as Brown & Stack #1, erupted mud and oil as a crew worked puling its casing. 
·         February 2, 1950, an S. D. Coates-Tailor oil derrick fire erupted at Atlantic and 29th Street. Damage estimated at $5,000.
·         May 3, 1950, sparks from a drive belt started a fire in the Trinity Oil Company pumping well at Alamitos Heights.  Damages $2,500.
·         July 20, 1950, the Emperor derrick and pump house were destroyed by fire. Damages $10,000.
·         July 10, 1951, the friction of a belt started a blaze at the Apex Oil Company property at 2450 Gundry.  $10,000 in damages.
·         November 11, 1951, Exeter Oil Company pumping well set ablaze. Well located at 23rd and Junipero. Fire started in the belt house.
·         May 10, 1952, the top of the incinerator at Envoy Petroleum Refinery at 1601 E. Spring blew off when oil coming through the vapor line ignited. Firefighter Lawrence Elder burned.  Damages $5000.
·         April 4, 1953, oil from a broken line spilled onto a superheating flame in a retort at the Cal-State Refinery, 2930 Cherry.  $10,000-$15,000 in damages.
·         August 8, 1954, wind-swept flames engulfed three oil derricks and threatened others when friction from a slipping belt caused a fire.  No estimate of damages.
·         March 28, 1955, fire in oil well near 2817 Gaviota. Timbers snapped power lines, narrowly missing storage tanks.
·         October 15, 1955, a fire originated at the Hancock Oil Refinery, 2823 Junipero, when a hot oil line broke and fumes ignited a fire. Damage minor, but Fenton Oveson injured.
·         March 27, 1957, fire engulfed an 80 foot derrick of the Coast Supply Company’s B & H well #2. Blazing timbers snapped a power line and caused a transformer to explode. A brush fire was also ignited.  Damages $15,000.
·         May 22, 1958, Woodrow H. Langford and James Edwards die in the Hancock Fire. See article in this blog.
·         December 16, 1958, an oil well fire completely destroyed an 80-year-old wooden derrick and threatened five 500 barrel tanks full of crude oil. Cause and damage estimates not given.
·         November 5, 1959, a broken oil line caused a spectacular fire at the Calstate Refining Company, 2930 Cherry. Damages not provided.
·         March 20, 1960, friction of a slipping pump belt caused a fire at Brighton Petroleum on the SW corner of Willow and Orange.  $6,000 in damages.
·         December 23, 1960, a friction spark from a Victory Oil Company well set fire to a 20,000 crude oil storage tank nearby.  $15,000-$20,000 in damages.
·         December 26, 1964, an explosion and fire in a waste oil sump ignited crude oil in five storage tanks of the MacMillan Petroleum Corporation. The blaze was started either by a spark of an electric motor or an overheated steam line. Damage minimal.
·         May 17, 1969, pipeline rupture permits 150 barrels of oil to bubble to the surface at DeForest Avenue and 27th Street.
·         December 1, 1980, an ARCO oil pipeline ruptured at Gale and 28th Street. Two, Robert Davis and Richard Nieto, were injured.  A newly hired operator failed to open two valves on the pipeline resulting in excessive pressure, rupturing the line. Nine homes destroyed. Damages $600,000. Accident resulted in stricter oil pipeline regulations.
·         September 10, 1986, Michael Miller and Michael White were preparing to weld a heater at the MacMillan Oil Co. refinery when the blast occurred. The fire was quickly contained and did not spread to an adjacent Walnut Avenue elementary school. Cause of the fire was not immediately known and no damage estimate was available.
·         November 24, 1992, a 20,000-gallon tank containing unrefined gasoline exploded at the Petrolane Co. plant, 2901 Orange Ave, which processes natural gas for sale primarily to the Long Beach Gas Department. Estimate of damages not given.
Oil in the streets, 1922.


·         August 16, 1922, an explosion at a Signal Hill oil refinery kills John K. Sligh.
·         March 6, 1923. While employed as a derrick man on the Jergins-City lease Paul Wright slipped and fell into a hot mass of mud. He died several days later.
·         June 2, 1923, C. Thomas Lavender killed when a well cable snapped striking him across the back.
·         September 19, 1923. Paul F. Robinson was caught in the catline as a joint drill pipe was being tightened and he was jerked into the cathead and crushed before the tension of the rope could be released.
·         September 22, 1923. Andrew Daly crushed under a fallen iron pipe. He was instantly killed when a load of well casing slipped.
·         December 11, 1923. Edward Wood was struck in the face as the drum on the Bolsa Chica well #3 hurled through the air hitting Wood and killing him immediately.
·         February 19, 1924. G.W. Richards killed at the Wadolene Refining Corporation at Cherry near Anaheim in a refinery blast.
·         May 10, 1924, explosion and fire destroyed the derrick and equipment on Fry No. 2 well at Freeman Street and Summit Road.  Two die – Frank Guisinger and J.F. Bownds. 
·         October 23, 1924, Harry Perry killed when a fire and two explosions occurred at the absorption plant of the Pan-American Refining Company on the north side of the hill at Arabella and Temple.
·         February 11, 1927, H.L. Ward killed in fall from derrick.
·         February 10, 1928, a refinery explosion killed Ray Thompson at a Signal Oil plant at Atlantic and 32nd Street. 
·         July 22, 1928, Forrest Glenn Penney crushed by engine backfire at Standard Oil plant.
·         November 26, 1929, George F. Storey dies when five derricks and ten oil tanks were destroyed in an explosion which threw boiling oil over the tank farm.
·         December 4, 1929, brothers Lynn and Dean Titus were killed when fumes  from an empty crude oil tank ignited a fire at the General Petroleum Fulton McKee well #1 (Long Beach Blvd. and Pepper Drive)
·         June 2, 1933, Richfield oil fire. Ten killed Robert Bennett, Carl Robinson, Lottie Carlyon, Marilyn Carlyon, Ollie V. Jones, Duke Gaughan, Ed Weiler, C.J. Brown, Charles Cope, and J.L. Shumway. See article in this blog.
·         February 23, 1937, GeorgeT. Hinds is blown to pieces as dehydrator in oil field blows up. December 11, 1938, bursting from a refining tube, barrels of scalding oil sprayed a small platform of the Hancock Oil Refinery bringing a flaming death to 3 workers: Homer Huffman, William Hill, Walter Rohrig.
·         October 13, 1944; Darrold W. Peterson killed climbing oil derrick.
·         May 22, 1958, Woodrow H. Langford and James Edwards die in the Hancock Fire. See article in this blog.
·         February 28, 1986, funeral held for refinery blast victim James Broadway.
·         April 3, 1986, two die as pipe breaks at a Long Beach oil island, Steven Linn and Stephen Lowe.

NOTE 1: Accidents and reports of fatalities became so common they were no longer covered by the press. Many of the fatalities reported here were gathered from obituaries (1880-1923) with were indexed by Long Beach Public Library staff.  There were undoubtedly more.

NOTE 2: The Long Beach Collection at the Main Library has maps, reports, etc. on oil wells in Signal Hill and Long Beach.  The library’s Petroleum Collection only has non-Long Beach related items.

Claudine Burnett
August  2018

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