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Scene at Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., after an explosion and fire Friday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/3/2010 12:38:23 AM ET 2010-04-03T04:38:23

An explosion and fire at a Washington state oil refinery shook homes and shot flames into the night sky early Friday, killing five people and critically injuring two others.

The fire struck the Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes, about 70 miles north of Seattle on Puget Sound, at about 12:30 a.m., the company said. The blaze occurred while maintenance work was being performed and was extinguished in about 90 minutes.

Three men died at the scene and four workers -- two women and two men -- were airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, about 70 miles south of the refinery, with severe burns. The women later died and the two men remained in critical condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The blast was the biggest fatal refinery accident since a 2005 explosion at a BP American refinery in Texas killed 15 people and injured another 170, authorities said.

The state of Washington fined Tesoro $85,700 a year ago after an inspection found 17 serious safety and health violations at the Anacortes refinery. The state Department of Labor and Industries reached an agreement with the company in November requiring the hazards to be corrected and an independent safety audit, the agency said on its Web site. The fine was reduced to $12,250, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Web site.

All employees have been accounted for and investigators are trying to determine the exact cause of the blaze, said Tesoro spokesman Greg Wright in San Antonio. The extent of the damage is unknown, but parts of the refinery continue to operate, Wright said. The refinery has about 300 employees.

The blaze occurred while a unit was being brought back online after maintenance. The fire was extinguished in about 90 minutes.

Nearby residents, some five miles from the complex, called Washington TV stations after midnight with reports of an explosion, saying flames were being blown by high winds.

“My house shook, big time,” Lisa Wooding told KOMO-TV. “There were flames. First high, then low to the ground and broad.”

A loud whoosh, then flames
Activity around the complex calmed down considerably as dawn approached. Guards were turning reporters away from the gate and there was no apparent sign of the fire that had lit up the skies only hours earlier.

Greg Cummings, from Abbottsford, B.C., had just gone to bed at the RV park across the bay from the refinery when he heard a loud whoosh and saw the flames.

“I thought it was a terrorist attack,” he said.

Kelly Amos, of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, said he and his wife were awoken by the boom from inside their travel trailer.

“It shook the trailer really good,” Amos said. When he looked outside, he saw flames shooting as high as the refinery’s tower. He said the fire died down considerably within a half hour or so.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is sending six people to investigate the accident, which spokesman Daniel Horowitz called “very serious.”

Horowitz said the board is “extremely concerned about safety in this sector” after a number of accidents and safety violations found at refineries by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The blast occurred in the naphtha unit of the refinery. Naphtha is a volatile, flammable liquid derived during the refining process, and the unit had undergone maintenance and was in the process of returning to operation — a “typically dangerous” step of turning up heat and pressure, Wright said.

“It’s a volatile process,” Wright said. “We are diligent about being safe.”

San Antonio-based Tesoro Corp. is an independent refiner and marketer of petroleum products. The Anacortes refinery can refine about 130,000 barrels of crude daily, according to the company. The U.S. Energy Information Administration Web site ranks it as the 59th largest refinery in the nation.

Tesoro has owned the Anacortes refinery since 1998. It mainly processes Alaska North Slope crude and makes gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, mostly for Washington and Oregon.

Wright said he can’t say yet how long production will be affected, but Tesoro likely can make up the loss by ramping up production at its other West Coast refineries or buying from others.

Other than the possibility of a short spike, Wright said he doubted the refinery problem would affect gasoline prices.

Bruce Smith, Tesoro’s chairman, president and CEO, called it a sad time for the company.

“Everyone in the Tesoro family appreciates the impact that this will have on the families involved, and we are responding quickly to ensure the safety for our employees, contractors and the neighboring community,” he said.

There are four large refineries in northwestern Washington. The oil-refining business in the state began in the 1950s, in anticipation of the crude oil that was to begin flowing from Alaska’s North Slope

This is the first refinery fire in Anacortes since 2007, when a blaze damaged a storage tank at the Shell Puget Sound Refinery and three people received minor injuries. Tesoro had a previous fire in 2002, with no injuries reported.

Six refinery workers were killed in an explosion and fire at the Equilon Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes in 1998.

Previous troubles
Tesoro said the Washington Department of Labor and Industries had been notified about Friday’s fire.

The department fined Tesoro in April 2009. Serious violations are cited when there is potential for death or serious physical injury from the violation.

Inspectors found 150 instances of deficiencies at the Tesoro refinery, including where the company didn’t ensure safe work practices for energy control and failed to update safety information when changes where made to technology and equipment.

The company has appealed the decision, said LNI spokesman Hector Castro.

The state inspections were part of a national emphasis aimed at inspecting all petroleum refineries in the U.S. That program began in 2007 as a result of the 2005 explosion in Texas.

Of the 18 open major accident cases the chemical safety board is examining, at least seven are refineries, Horowitz said. Yet there are only 150 refineries in the country and tens of thousands of other chemical plants.

“Almost half our accidents, the serious ones, are at refineries,” Horowitz said. “We’re seeing a disproportionate number of serious accidents at refineries.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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