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Web Source Return to regular view Tosco death tower Larry D. Hatfield and Ray Delgado OF THE EXAMINER STAFF Jane Kay, Jim Herron Zamora and Malcolm Glover of The Examiner staff contributed to this report. Feb. 24, 1999 1999 San Francisco Examiner URL: Fireball engulfs scaffold, killing 3 workers, hurting 2 MARTINEZ - At least six investigations were under way Wednesday to determine what caused a massive fireball that killed three workers and critically injured two others at the Tosco Avon refinery. Tosco officials remained tight-lipped about what caused the 12:18 p.m. flash fire Tuesday at the plant's 133-foot-high crude processing unit. "The investigation began last night," Tosco spokeswoman Linda Saltzman said Wednesday. "Cal-OSHA (state Occupational Safety and Health Agency) was on site with our people all night long, but it likely will be several days at minimum before they investigate all the factors involved . . ." Contra Costa County fire officials said their preliminary investigation indicated that residual naphtha, a byproduct of crude oil, overheated and exploded. The fireball engulfed five maintenance workers who were repairing a leaking 6-inch pipe attached to the tower, severely burning all of them and sending them crashing through scaffolding that ran the length of the structure, officials said. "We don't know exactly where they all were when this happened," said Noel Luiz, a paramedic supervisor for Contra Costa County. "It appeared that some of them fell a great distance, and all suffered very severe burns . . ." One of the workers, an employee of one of the contractors, died at the scene. His identity was withheld pending a coroner's investigation. Rollin Blue, 35, of Martinez, who was burned over 90 percent of his body, died during the night at UC-Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Ernie Pofhal, 48, of Antioch, who also was burned over 90 percent of his body, died early Wednesday at Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo. Blue was believed to be a Tosco employee, and the two other dead men were believed to have worked for Interstate Scaffolding Inc. of Martinez - one of the two private contractors on the job. When called by a reporter, a person answering the phone at Interstate said "no comment" and hung up. Burn treatment The two surviving victims were in critical condition at area hospitals. Raynold Tom Rodracker, 49, of Martinez, who was foreman of the job for Bigge Crane & Rigging of San Leandro, was being treated at Doctors with burns over 60 percent of his body. Steve Duncan, 48, of Livermore, believed to be a Tosco employee, was being treated at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek for third-degree burns and broken legs. Tuesday's incident is the latest in a string of accidents at the plant, which has the worst safety record of all refineries in the East Bay, according to the Contra Costa County watchdog group Communities for a Better Environment. There have been five fatalities at the refinery in a decade, four of them in the past two years. Before Tuesday's fiery incident, the worst of those occurred in January 1997 when an explosion and fire at the facility killed one employee and injured 26 others. California safety regulators fined Tosco $277,750 and cited the company for 22 safety violations after that accident, at the time marking the highest penalty levied against an oil refinery in California. The company is appealing the fine. Tosco also paid $450,000 in penalties to Contra Costa County. The federal Environmental Protection Agency blamed the 1997 accident on inadequate training of workers. It said the company maintained an unsafe workplace, had unsafe equipment and permitted risky procedures to keep up production. A class action against the refinery stemming from the 1997 incident is in mediation. One of the victims of Tuesday's blast also was injured in the earlier incident, but it was not clear which victim. The Cal-OSHA, Contra Costa County health officials and the federal Chemical Safety Investigation Board, along with Tosco and the two contractors, are investigating Tuesday's accident. 750 degrees According to company officials and investigators, the tower where the eruption occurred takes crude oil and subjects it to intense heat as high at 750 degrees Fahrenheit to separate molecules that are processed as fuels such as butane, propane, gasoline and diesel. Fire Department officials said the flames had erupted in a portion of the unit that typically processed naphtha gas, a highly flammable agent. The ignition did not produce a loud explosion, Tosco's Saltzman said, but rather a flash that erupted into flames. The workers were positioned about two-thirds of the way up the tower when the fuel ignited. Normal processing operations were going on at the time, Saltzman said, but she would not comment on what type of maintenance work the crew was doing. Witnesses said the fire appeared to have started below the workers and roared upward, engulfing them and blackening the tower to its top. At least some of the victims fell from the scaffolding. The fire sent a dark-black cloud into the air above the unit, but did not release harmful chemicals, environmental health officials said. Tosco's firefighters brought the blaze under control within 20 minutes. But it took county firefighters, specially trained in mountainside rescue techniques, more than two hours to build a rescue platform to reach the men and decontaminate them with hoses before lowering them on stretchers. "It was similar, in a sense, to a cliff rescue," Contra Costa Fire Capt. Dave George said. "These people are on this scaffolding, if you can think of little ledges . . . that very few people could get to. You can't just send a bunch of people up on there." Saltzman declined to identify the victims or the companies they worked for, citing privacy concerns. Three of the injured men were taken by helicopter - and one was taken by ambulance - to hospitals with burn units. Blue died at 2:26 a.m. Pofhal died at 6:40 a.m. County needs prodding Denny Larson, the Northern California Director for the watchdog group Communities for a Better Environment, said he hoped the incident would prod Contra Costa County officials to pursue stronger safety regulations at the refineries. Partially in response to the 1997 explosion and fire at the plant, county officials passed the Industrial Safety Ordinance in December 1998, calling for stricter safety regulations at Tosco. But Larson's group sued the county because its members felt the ordinance did not go far enough in cracking down on the refinery. In the 1997 incident, a pipeline rupture caused by excessively high operating temperatures led to an explosion and fire, the EPA's report said. Michael Glanzman, 42, of Pittsburg, was killed. "We just sued over the Industrial Safety Ordinance that they passed because it wasn't tough enough," Larson said. "Maybe this will put a little muscle in it." Communities for a Better Environment said: "Today's accident at Tosco points out exactly why we need a strong ordinance in Contra Costa County. These accidents keep occurring, and will keep occuring until the county has the ability to require these facilities to install advanced safety control equipment to prevent these accidents." Saltzman said many of the regulations called for in the ordinance had not yet been implemented and mainly involved operational procedures, not maintenance issues that appeared to be at the center of Tuesday's accident. She said current safety procedures required that Tosco employees shut down any job if they believe it is unsafe. She said company officials would try to determine not only what had happened Tuesday, but whether Tosco's safety rules had been followed. "This tragedy will be thoroughly analyzed," Saltzman said. "We are constantly updating our safety procedures, and we will be looking at everything we do." Residents of the surrounding neighborhood also criticized Tosco in light of Tuesday's accident, saying they were concerned about the company's safety and alert systems. "What's upsetting is that, once again, the siren did not go off," said Art Duffy, of Martinez, who lives about 2 miles south of Tosco. "I don't know how many times there have been explosions, but the siren has never gone off." Others in the area said they heard the siren. It was unclear, however, whether it was the refinery's warning system or rescue vehicles. 1999 San Francisco Examiner Page A 1

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