ANACORTES, Wash. - An explosion and fire at a Washington state oil refinery shook homes and shot flames into the night sky early Friday, killing four people and critically injuring three 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.
Greg Wright, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for Tesoro, told KING 5 News initially that three workers were killed in the refinery explosion and four were airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Skagit County Coroner Daniel Dempsey says the three who died Friday at the scene were 31-year-old Matthew C. Bowen of Arlington; 43-year-old Darrin J. Hoines of Ferndale; and 50-year-old Daniel J. Aldridge of Anacortes.
Twenty-nine-year-old Kathryn Powell and 36-year-old Donna VanDreumel died later at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Two other employees are hospitalized with major burns over the majority of their bodies: Matt Gumbel, 34, and Lew Janz, 41.
Lynn Westfall, Senior Vice President of External Affairs and Chief Economist at the plant, says all were operators. He said Bowen, Hoines, Aldridge and VanDreumel are married. Powell is single.
The blaze started in a naphtha unit of the complex.
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.
"We do not know the cause. we know that there was maintenance work being performed on the unit at the time," said Wright. "The work was pretty well done and the unit was being brought up to operational status. Other than that, we don't know what had happened."
Tesoro spokesman John McDarment says the plant activated emergency response procedures and that the fire was brought under control by Tesoro emergency personnel. The fire was controlled within 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.
Several people called KING 5 News about hearing or feeling the explosion. One caller, Jason Chinchen, says he lives three to four miles away from the refinery and felt his windows shake. Chinchen said immediately after, there was a noise that sounded like a jet flying overhead, a kind of loud wind.
Chinchen took some pictures and video of the refinery in the distance. The pictures show what appears to be the glow of flames at the facility.
Seth Gabel wrote in an e-mail, "(the explosion) shook my whole house and woke me and my wife from bed."
Patti Newman of Anacortes wrote, "I was sitting in my chair when the whole sky lit up. I thought it was lighting and I would hear thunder next. boy was I surprised when I heard a loud boom then (saw) fire from the stacks."
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.
"This is a very sad time for our organization. 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," said Bruce Smith, Tesoro's Chairman, President and CEO in a press statement.
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. It comes after Tesoro was fined $85,700 a year ago for 17 serious safety and health violations.
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.
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.
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.
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."