‘It Rained Oil’: Remembering the Explosive 1958 Hancock Refinery Fire in Signal Hill

‘It Rained Oil’: Remembering the Explosive 1958 Hancock Refinery Fire in Signal Hill

‘It Rained Oil’: Remembering the Explosive 1958 Hancock Refinery Fire in Signal Hill


May 22, 2:00 p.m.

I'm 9 years old, waiting on a Thursday afternoon for the school day to end. I've lived my whole— short —life in Lakewood, a new suburb incorporated in 1954. There are square miles of the same kind of neighborhood in every direction.


I rode my bike to school and will ride it back. After school, I'll watch black-and-white "Popeye" cartoons with their bewildering 1930s cultural references. People say I live in suburbia, where the routines of family life are everything and nothing ever happens.


The history of oil complicates those clichés. Oil from fields in a wide band from Newport Beach though Long Beach to the Baldwin Hills powered the industrialization of Los Angeles and transformed the city in the 1920s. Even in 1958, the region's oil fields are among the most productive on the West Coast. Refineries in Signal Hill, Carson and Wilmington continue to distill crude oil into volatile fractions, the most important of which is gasoline.


I feel the impact. The stench of hydrogen sulfide and other byproducts of oil distillation are regularly in the suburban air. Refineries flare off combustible gasses from tall stacks in bursts of flame that can be seen for miles at night. With modest effort, I could ride my bike from my house to the cracking towers and storage tanks of the Hancock Refining Company on the brow of Signal Hill five miles away.


The refinery has storage facilities for 290,000 barrels of crude oil and 753,000 barrels of refined products. If it weren't for the smog this May afternoon, I could almost see the Hancock plant from my school yard.


2:05 p.m.

A "white mist" rises from an 80,000-gallon tank of partially refined oil at the southwest corner of the Hancock refinery. Workers a few yards away see it and wonder what it means. Those nearer see the tank bulge, its seams split and the contents empty out in a black tide. Wayne Bradshaw, a refinery worker near the collapsing tank, remembers later that "there was a big whoosh and the whole works was going up." A river of oil from the ruptured tank is burning.


Workers begin shutting distribution valves to other tanks. Some workers close gates on the dike that surrounds this corner of the tank field, hoping to contain the burning oil. But the river of fire escapes and widens as it flows, following the contours of the hillside toward the refinery's parking lot and a natural gas storage facility. At the foot of the hill is a Navy airbase and the Long Beach airport.


In those first minutes, one refinery worker is trapped by burning oil and dies. Another, running to his car in the parking lot, is overtaken and consumed. Amazingly, they'll be the only fatalities.


The moving fire births more fire as more tanks fail and refinery equipment and parked cars ignite. There's a succession of violent explosions — an eyewitness remembers 15 to 20. One blast is so powerful that it rockets the cap of a storage tank into the air "like a flying saucer" until it lands hundreds of feet away. There's no safe distance from this fire.


Fire department units arrive at 2:15 p.m. Class isn't over until 3:00 p.m. at my Catholic elementary school. The fire is running hot on Signal Hill, but from where I'm sitting, the subject isn't disaster, it's English grammar.


2:15 p.m. to dusk

The fire is uncontrollable. The Signal Hill Fire Department and units from the Long Beach and Los Angeles County fire departments struggle just to hose down tanks that are likely to fail as the fire consumes thousands of gallons of oil and petroleum products spilling from damaged tanks.


Signal Hill Fire Chief Lloyd Colson tells reporters, "We've been expecting this to happen for years. We're not trying to put the flames out. We can't. Chances are [the refinery] will burn all night."


‘It Rained Oil’: Remembering the Explosive 1958 Hancock Refinery Fire in Signal Hill. (2022, December 19). KCET. https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/it-rained-oil-remembering-the-explosive-1958-hancock-refinery-fire-in-signal-hill

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