Friday morning's explosion at the Tesoro plant in Anacortes that killed five workers and injured two more was so violent that many felt the shock wave and others heard the roar. But some workers say they understand the risk of the job, as the community rallies in support.
ANACORTES — The two major March Point oil refineries whose puffing towers sit across a narrow bay from downtown Anacortes are an intimate part of this community — the source of year-round paychecks, even in a troubled economy.
But workers and their loved ones know that with those jobs comes risk.
“We have a saying out there: We don’t bake cookies, we boil oil. It can be dangerous,” said a 15-year refinery worker. “It’s a sad day, but we know that it can happen.”
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The worker, speaking anonymously, is employed at the Shell refinery, immediately south of the Tesoro plant where an early Friday explosion and fire fatally injured five workers and left two others badly burned.
But he said employees at both plants know dangers exist, and he personally knew some of the six men who died in a 1998 explosion at the refinery where he works.
Friday’s 12:30 a.m. explosion at the Tesoro plant was so violent that many in Anacortes felt the shock wave across Fidalgo Bay, and others heard the roar, which some compared to a jet plane or a loud clap of thunder. A fireball lit the night sky over the plant.
It took about 90 minutes to put the fire out.
The explosion and fire occurred in a bank of boilers that had been cleaned and had undergone routine maintenance and were being started up, said Michael Silverstein, assistant director of the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Silverstein said the boilers heat fluids to high temperatures under great pressure and are “inherently vulnerable to events like this unless they are maintained and operated in a safe manner.”
Inspectors got permission from structural engineers late Friday night to enter the affected areas of the refinery and begin their investigation, said Hector Castro, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. They remained at the scene Saturday, but had no immediate indications about what caused blast.
“We’re really not going to be able to talk much about that until they’re done, which could be several months,” Castro said.
A team from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board was en route Saturday.
The blast occurred in the naphtha unit of the refinery. Naphtha is a volatile, flammable liquid derived during the refining process. Returning the unit to operation after maintenance involves the “typically dangerous” step of turning up heat and pressure, said Greg Wright, a Tesoro spokesman in San Antonio.
Tesoro workers who died at the scene were Daniel J. Aldridge, 50, of Anacortes; Matthew C. Bowen, 31, of Arlington; and Darrin J. Hoines, 43, of Ferndale. Skagit County deputy coroner Bob Clark said each man was married.
Four more workers were flown to Harborview Medical Center, where one, 28-year-old Kathryn Powell, of Burlington, died later Friday morning. A second, Donna Van Dreumel, 36, of Oak Harbor, died Friday evening.
The remaining victims, each of whom was reported in critical condition Saturday with extensive burns, were identified by Tesoro as Matt Gumbel, 34, of Oak Harbor; and Lew Janz, 41, of Anacortes.
All seven victims worked together as a team, the company said.
Community in shock
As word of the fatalities spread through the community, residents braced for the news and turned to one another for support.
“Right now, we’re all pretty much in shock,” said Joe Solomon, president of United Steel Workers Local 12-591, which represents about 200 Tesoro refinery workers. “Anytime one of our members is injured or a fatality is involved, it hits all of us really hard.”
Aldridge, known by many locals as a skilled finish carpenter, went to work at the refinery relatively recently, said David Yoder, owner of the Brown Lantern Ale House in downtown Anacortes.
“With the construction industry not doing so well, I guess he felt the need to get a more stable paycheck,” Yoder said. “He was very excited to be getting the new job.” He described Aldridge as “just one of those genuine, decent people that’s good to be around.”
At the Aldridge home, on a hillside above town, a woman who answered the door Friday afternoon said, “We’re in a time of grief right now … We don’t really have anything to say.”
At the nearby St. Mary Catholic Church, where a Good Friday service was about to begin, Pastor Vu Tran said the victims would be remembered in prayers through the Easter weekend. “It’s a terrible loss for the community,” he said. “We turn to Jesus for hope and healing and peace.”
The Tesoro plant has 360 full-time employees and pays $33 million annually in salaries, wages and property taxes, according to a company fact sheet. It sits on about 900 acres, with refinery equipment taking up about 60 of those acres.
The Tesoro refinery was fined $85,700 last year for 17 “serious” safety violations — meaning there was a risk of “death or serious physical injury” from each the violation — discovered during a state L&I inspection.
That was later reduced to three violations and a $12,250 settlement.
The plant has been operating at about one-third capacity since Friday morning’s fire.
Wholesale gas prices in Washington stayed flat throughout the day, according to Tim Hamilton, of Automotive United Trades Organization, which represents dealers who operate about 300 service stations in the state.
Hamilton said that so far it appeared unlikely the fire would cause a spike in Washington gasoline prices, but if the Tesoro refinery capacity stays at one-third for an extended period of time, “then we have a problem.”
Blast shakes house
Lisa Wooding lives about a mile away from the refinery and can see it from her window.
She was lying on her sofa when she saw a red glow against her neighbor’s house. When she went to the window, her whole house shook with the explosion. “There were big flames coming out and black smoke, and it looked like embers over the refinery,” she said. “Then the emergency sirens started going off.”
Michael Curran was sitting in the den of his house when he felt what sounded like a large sonic boom. At first he thought it was an exercise by Navy jets, but then he heard the sirens.
“I went to the window and saw a big plume of smoke and knew something had happened at the refinery.”
The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff reporters Jim Brunner, Steve Miletich, Andrew Garber, Susan Gilmore, Hal Bernton, Lynda V. Mapes, Craig Welch and Nick Perry contributed to this report.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org