WHITING | On an already hot morning during one of the hottest summers on record, shortly after the sun peeked over the horizon, a huge blast at the Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting startled thousands out of their sleep and shattered windows as far away as Crown Point.
A great wall of fire rose over the Midwest's largest refinery, darkening the dawn sky with thick, billowing plumes of black smoke 60 years ago, on Aug. 27, 1955.
"I thought the sun had exploded and that this was the end of the world," a witness told The Hammond Times shortly after the region's largest-ever industrial accident. "There was a terrible noise and a big red flash."
Shrapnel laid waste to the Stiglitz Park neighborhood across the street, leading to an eventual demolition that would wipe it clean from the map. Hundreds of residents were evacuated and left temporarily homeless. Indianapolis Boulevard burned.
A 180-ton chunk of steel crushed a neighborhood grocery store. Cars were flipped onto their roofs. A wooden plank was hurled with such force it pierced a brick wall.
Train cars melted in the incandescent heat. Smoke towered more than a mile high and could be seen 60 miles away. Railroad tracks were warped to where they looked like limp strands of spaghetti.
Every window was broken out within a three-mile radius.
"The man of the house got up to go investigate, since it happened around 6:10 a.m. when everyone was still in bed," said John Hmurovic, a volunteer with the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society. "All the windows were blown out, so they'd step in broken glass barefoot, which is why cuts to the feet were the most common injuries they treated at the hospital that day."
Hmurovic and several other Historical Society volunteers, including Frank Vargo, Chuck Kosalko, Gayle Faulkner Kolasko, Rob Shultz and Larry Rapchak, put together a 30-minute documentary, "One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the 1955 Whiting Refinery Explosion" in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the devastating blast. They interviewed 80 people, including 34 who agreed to sit in front of a camera, to preserve memories of a disaster they feared was fading from the collective consciousness.
The free premiere screening of the documentary will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, at the auditorium of Whiting High School. After that, DVDs will be available for $12.
Historical Society volunteers interviewed men working inside the refinery, a nurse who treated the wounded, a boy who was was delivering papers as debris crashed down from above, a woman who refused to cancel her wedding as the fire raged just down the street, a boy whose leg was sliced off by a shard of shrapnel that also killed his 3-year-old brother, and National Guardsmen who were called in to preserve order and prevent looting.
A rumor going around town at the time was National Guardsmen were shooting oil tanks to relieve the pressure so they wouldn't explode, Vargo said. The inferno raged on for eight days and caused extensive damage to the refinery, burning up millions of gallons of oil, though Standard Oil still managed to ultimately have one of the most profitable years in its history.
Unlike previous explosions and fires at the refinery, which first opened on the Whiting lakeshore in 1889, the 1955 disaster affected the surrounding community, Hmurovic said. The Red Cross initially estimated the damage at around $100 million, or more than $890 million today.
Standard Oil's insurance covered much of the losses, and an exact dollar figure for the destruction was never made public, Hmurovic said. But it was unquestionably the worst industrial accident in one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the world. It was like the Calumet Region's 9/11, he said.
"It was like Sept. 11 in that everyone knew where they were or what they were doing when it happened," he said. "Everyone has their own story. It was like when President Kennedy was assassinated. Everyone vividly remembers when it happened."
Miraculously, only two people died: the boy who was killed by shrapnel and a Standard Oil foreman who died of a heart attack just a week before retirement when he went to battle the blaze. The toll could have been much, much worse, but the industrial fire showed a catastrophe could happen at any time, Hmurovic said.
Whiting's population has shrunk by nearly half since then, but the town was built up in the 1890s at a time when people had to walk to their jobs at a refinery that mainly produced kerosene. People were already leaving for southern suburbs in the 1950s, largely because the town was hemmed in by Lake Michigan and surrounding cities and there weren't enough houses for young families to move into.
The explosion continues to reverberate in Northwest Indiana, and was cited by striking refinery workers earlier this year as a reason why they were so concerned about safe working conditions and fatigue while working with such highly flammable fuels. It's all people talked about for years when they talked about Whiting, said Thomas Belinski, a resident of Gary's Glen Park neighborhood.
He was 7 years old at the time, and when his father heard about the disaster on the radio he took him out onto the side porch to see. He remembers watching a tower of black smoke loom over the lakeshore at least 10 miles away.
"At the time there were no houses and no trees, and we could see for miles," Belinski said. "He showed me this big black funnel of smoke. I thought it was a tornado, but he told me, 'No, it's the Whiting Refinery.'"
His father, Steve Belinski, worked for the Gary Street Department and drove out to help fight the fire, which had to be quarantined with sand since water only spread the burning oil around. Firefighters from the refinery and nearby cities focused their efforts on containing the blaze and letting it burn itself out over time. The raging fire triggered a chain reaction of explosions of oil tanks, and many truckers abandoned their trucks and ran away.
"I asked him why he stayed with his truck when other truck drivers left, and he said people needed his help," Thomas Belinski said. "He was gone for quite some time, four days and four nights. We belonged to a Catholic church in Gary, and we were praying in church for him to return safe, and for all the workers involved to return safe from the fire."
The Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society became concerned last year that many of the people who remembered the great fire were getting older, and concluded their stories should be recorded for posterity. The youngest people who would even have memories of it are now at least 66 or 67 years old, Vargo said.
"It's not just Whiting history but region history," Vargo said. "It was a spectacular industrial accident the region's never seen before. When we got out word about the project, people came forward so we could get their stories down."
A 26-story hydroformer — believed to be the biggest in the world at the time — erupted at around 6:12 a.m. that fateful day after workers restarted it without knowing that naphtha vapors had contaminated inert gases used in the procedure. When it blew, it sent volleys of the hydroformer's thick steel hull flying for a quarter mile in every direction.
"They felt it in Michigan," Hmurovic said. "A woman in Michigan City who was having a baby thought it was an earthquake. It was an explosion so huge devout Christians thought it was the end of the world. They got on their knees and prayed."
A janitor from WJOB in Hammond told the Historical Society he was the only one working at the radio station that Saturday morning, and he interrupted the pre-programed recording and got on the air. He asked anyone who worked at WJOB to report to the station immediately, since so many calls were flooding in to ask what the heck happened.
Help poured in from everywhere, including from the Cubs announcer Pat Piper, who delivered food to displaced residents, and Mayor Richard Daley, who dispatched Chicago's fire boat because of fears the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal would catch on fire.
"It never happened," Hmurovic said. "But many people feared the oil would leak into the sewer system and the sewer would catch fire and explode, that manholes would fly up into the air."
Some reported seeing utility poles around town that caught fire.
The explosion ultimately damaged around 200 houses, displacing some 700 residents. Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society volunteers collected sheet music from 1895 that was recovered from one of the damaged homes and recruited a musician to play the song in the half-hour film. It celebrated the new Stiglitz Park subdivision across from the refinery, where 8,000 people once worked in a less automated age.
BP, which has since bought the sprawling refinery, has continued to buy up property within a potential blast radius, demolishing homes in the historic Marktown neighborhood in nearby East Chicago. Standard Oil needed until the 1970s to acquire the last remaining properties from the last few holdouts in Stiglitz Park, which is now an oil tank farm.