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The BP oil refinery blast in Texas last week conjures up the oil refinery fire that tore through Whiting 50 years ago. Historically, it still holds the record as the worst fire in the Calumet Region.

A brand new hydroformer at the Whiting refinery, then known as Standard Oil and now owned by BP, exploded in the early dawn on Aug. 27, 1955.

The hydroformer, commonly known to Regionites as a cat cracker, stood 260 feet high and was made of steel plate and concrete to withstand the heavy operating pressures required in the manufacture of high octane fuel. Designed to daily process 30,000 gallons of highly flammable naphtha, it was one of the heaviest vessels ever made for oil refining at what was then described as the world's largest refinery.

The Times described a blazing inferno that darkened region skies with dense black smoke that reached heights of more than three miles and was visible from as far away as Lowell. The fire spread outside the refinery to 30 petroleum tanks, some of which held three million gallons of fuel. The fire burned for three days. It was fought by 500 Standard Oil firefighters and 6,000 firefighters from municipalities throughout the Region. At times there was great trepidation that the nearby Sinclair Oil Refinery would also go up in flames.

When the catalytic cracker exploded, flying steel and concrete flattened homes and businesses. A family on Schrage Avenue in Whiting was asleep in their beds when a 10-foot steel pipe torpedoed through the roof of their house, killing the family's 3-year-old son, severing the leg of an 8-year-old son and severely injuring their father.

A 180-ton steel chunk, "as big as a five bedroom house," was hurled two blocks, leveling a home and a grocery store on 129th Street. The homeowner had only left the house 10 minutes before the blast. Businesses, homes, garages and automobiles within a three mile radius of the refinery sustained substantial damage. Six miles from the epicenter of the explosion, residents were knocked from their beds.

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Like floodwaters, burning oil and naphtha spread over the refinery grounds and into Whiting streets and sewers. Utility poles caught fire. One thousand people were evacuated from the area. Armed National Guard units patrolled the streets to help local police maintain order.

Newspaper photos show incredible scenes inside the refinery where rails resembled strands of spaghetti, bent by the extreme heat and force of the explosion. Freight and tank cars were virtually melted by white hot flames.

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Remarkably, only two people died -- the 3-year-old boy and a refinery foreman who suffered a heart attack on the scene. Due to the early hour of the explosion, only 37 people were injured. Damage was estimated at $30 million.

Homes in close proximity to the refinery were leveled and never rebuilt.

Attesting to the geographic size of the refinery, only 10 percent of it was actually destroyed, and within a week's time, 7,000 of the 8,000 people employed there had returned to work.

Opinions expressed solely are those of the writer. You can reach Janet Moran via e-mail at janetcopywrite@cs.com.

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