A massive fire and series of explosions has rocked a South Philadelphia refinery complex, the largest on the East Coast, early Friday morning. The blast jolted people from their sleep miles from the scene, but no injuries were reported.The blaze at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery erupted shortly after 4 a.m. Some residents in Philadelphia said the explosions knocked art off their walls. The blasts were felt as far as South Jersey.
“We’ve just had an explosion with heavy fire; [the commander] is requesting a third alarm for this location,” a fire official relayed to dispatchers shortly after the largest blast.
One resident who lives next to the complex said “I thought it was a meteor or something” after seeing a mushroom-shaped cloud rising from the facility.
The fire is contained on the property of the refinery off Passyunk Avenue, fire officials said shortly before 6 a.m. The blaze is still burning.
Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said a vat of butane had ignited and eventually exploded. A series of smaller explosions happened as the fire worked its way through the tangle of pipes carrying fuel across the complex.
Workers were on site when the explosion happened, but were far enough away to avoid serious harm, Murphy said.
Large pieces of debris were thrown blocks away and rained down onto streets and traffic lights. A plume of thick, black smoke billowed east from the large complex near Philadelphia International Airport and over portions of South Philadelphia, the Delaware River and into South Jersey.
The smoke could be dangerous, said Peter DeCarlo, a Drexel professor and air-quality expert. “Immediate exposure can trigger asthma and other issues,” he said.
The refinery is the largest single source of pollution in the Philadelphia area even when there isn’t an emergency. “If it were me, what I would do is leave the area for as much of the day as possible,” DeCarlo said.
City emergency management sounded early warning sirens at 5:30 a.m. and issued a shelter-in-place for the area immediately around the complex. Though the area is heavily populated, no evacuation orders were issued.
The shelter-in-place was lifted shortly after 7 a.m.
Roads in the area of the fire were closed to allow first responders space to work and protect drivers. The Platt Bridge and portions of Interstate 76 were closed temporarily as fire crews worked to contain the blaze.
One person said on Twitter that they were on I-95 when the explosion happened. “Could feel the heat right through the car,” the person tweeted.
The fire could be seen for miles. Some neighbors in South Philadelphia said debris rained from the sky into their neighborhoods after the explosions.
The complex is the largest refinery on the East Coast and employs about 1,000 people. Many Philadelphians still call it the Sunoco refinery, though it is now owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions, a partnership that includes Sunoco.
The refinery processes 335,000 barrels of crude oil every day at two plants in the complex — Girard Point and Point Breeze. The fire broke out at the Girard Point portion. Natural gas is also processed at the facility.
The refinery dates back to the 19th Century, opening a year after the Civil War ended. “The PES Philadelphia Refining Complex has been “part of the neighborhood” in South Philadelphia for over 150 years and is closely tied to the growth of the American oil industry in the 19th century,” PES says on its website.