Massive Fire and Series of Explosions Rock South Philadelph…

Massive Fire and Series of Explosions Rock South Philadelph…

What to Know

  • A vat of butane ignited at a South Philadelphia refinery early Friday causing a massive fire and series of explosions that rocked the city.

  • The explosions shook homes across Philadelphia as well as in New Jersey. Refinery staff were nearby, but not close enough to be injured.

  • Emergency managers issued a brief shelter-in-place for the neighborhood directly around the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.

A massive fire and series of explosions rocked a South Philadelphia refinery complex, the largest on the East Coast, early Friday morning. The blast jolted people awake miles from the scene, but no injuries were reported.

The blaze at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery erupted shortly after 4 a.m. City emergency management sounded early warning sirens at 5:30 a.m. and issued a shelter-in-place for the area immediately around the complex. It was later lifted.

Some residents in Philadelphia said the explosions knocked art off their walls. The blasts were felt as far as South Jersey.

“We’ve just had an explosion with heavy fire. [The commander] is requesting a third alarm for this location,” a fire official relayed to dispatchers shortly after the largest of the blasts.

“I thought it was a meteor or something,” a resident who lives next to the complex said after seeing a mushroom-shaped cloud rising from the facility.

Officials have not released details on what caused the fire.

The fire was contained on the property of the refinery off Passyunk Avenue, fire officials said shortly before 6 a.m. The fire was still burning as of 9:08 a.m., a spokeswoman for the refinery said in an email.

The spokeswoman said refinery officials have not determined what product is burning, but believe it is propane. That differs from official reports by top Philadelphia fire officials.

At a news conference, Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said a vat of butane had ignited and eventually exploded. A series of smaller explosions erupted as the fire worked its way through the tangle of pipes carrying fuel across the complex. In all, three explosions took place.

Workers were on site at the time of the explosion, but were far enough away to avoid serious harm, Murphy said. Four refinery staff members suffered minor injuries and were treated at the site, a refinery spokeswoman said.

‘I Thought It Was a Meteor’: Witness Describes Seeing Fireballs From Refinery Fire'I Thought It Was a Meteor': Witness Describes Seeing Fireballs From Refinery Fire

Large pieces of debris were thrown blocks away and rained down onto streets and traffic lights. A plume of thick, black smoke billowed east from the large complex near Philadelphia International Airport and over portions of South Philadelphia, the Delaware River and into South Jersey.

The smoke could be dangerous, according to Peter DeCarlo, a Drexel University professor and air-quality expert.

“Immediate exposure can trigger asthma and other issues,” he cautioned. “If it were me, what I would do is leave the area for as much of the day as possible.”

The city Department of Health, however, said in a series of tweets that they’ve measured the air and has “no findings that would point to any immediate danger in the surrounding community at this time.”

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery is the largest single source of pollution in the Philadelphia area even when there isn’t an emergency.

A fire burns at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Girard Point refinery in South Philadelphia on Friday, June 21, 2019.

Photo credit: NBC10

The commercial refining complex is the largest refinery on the East Coast and employs about 1,000 people. Many Philadelphians still call it the Sunoco refinery, though it is now owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions, a partnership that includes Sunoco.

The refinery processes 335,000 barrels of crude oil every day at two plants in the complex — Girard Point and Point Breeze. The fire broke out at the Girard Point portion. Gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and petrochemicals are also produced at the plant.

The refinery dates back to the 19th Century, opening a year after the Civil War ended. 

“The PES Philadelphia Refining Complex has been “part of the neighborhood” in South Philadelphia for over 150 years and is closely tied to the growth of the American oil industry in the 19th century,” PES says on its website.

Friday’s fire comes nearly two weeks after another incident at the same complex. On June 10, a small fire broke out at the facility. No one was hurt, but it reignited protests by a group of environmentalists and community members who were concerned about the plant’s safety.

Another fire broke out at the complex in 2015

NBC10 is live at the scene. Stay with us for complete coverage.

Global Trends journalist Jonathan Cartu

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