Contributed by Stephanie Lange
It has been 11 years since the day nearby residents say they “felt the ground shake.” Seventeen people were killed in what is still considered the nation’s second worst oil refinery disaster. On July 23, 1984, the Union Oil Company Refinery experienced an explosion that sent a 34-ton tower flying into a small field just beyond nearby houses. Around 6 p.m, a worker had noticed a hairline crack in a high pressure tower with gas vapors escaping from it. The worker tried to shut the tank down, but the vapors ignited from an unknown source before he was successful.
Consequently, much of the refinery was engulfed in flames. A second explosion was so strong that debris from it struck an airplane flying 1,500 feet above the plant. The fire burned to temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees. The explosion, many towers, tanks, and other structures began to rupture or collapse and the site’s fire hydrant system was damaged. It even rocked buildings 15 miles away, including breaking the windows out of a bank in Joliet and sending smoke billowing 2,000 feet. Once the fires were isolated, officials determined allowing it to burn out on its own was the safest method of extinguishment. Damage estimates placed the cost of the fire as high as $177 million.