Oil– the tragic cost of doing business

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On Thursday, June 23, 1921, the Shell Oil Company struck oil at its well at Temple Avenue and Hill Street. A new era was born, and a new city, Signal Hill, came into being. The city of Signal Hill has been built on oil, so has much of Long Beach, which has benefited from wells drilled on its properties in the Signal Hill oil field. The Signal Hill oil field runs from northwest to southwest, about five-miles long by one-mile across.

In the northwest, the field begins near the junction of the San Diego Freeway (I-405) and the Long Beach Freeway (I-710) and roughly parallels the 405 Freeway near the intersection of Lakewood Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway at the traffic circle. Portions of the field also extend into the Alamitos Heights area by Recreation Park and the Los Cerritos area of Long Beach, though these areas are no longer productive.

Revenues from the oil industry fuel the treasury in both cities, but what brought much wealth also has had costs. There were numerous explosions, fires and deaths in the oil fields. Only a few of the tragedies have been remembered. I’ve included three of the most well known in this article, followed by a chronological list of other reported accidents and deaths I’ve been able to find in my research (which can be found on historicalsignalhill.blogspot.com). As you will realize when you see the list, there were many.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Fisher Fire
Fires, explosions and accidents were common in the early days of Signal Hill oil. The newly formed city didn’t have its own fire department until 1926 and had to rely on Long Beach for fire protection. One of them was the 1924 Fisher Fire, which destroyed four derricks and two storage tanks at about 8am on July 15, 1924.

The blaze started at the Walter Fisher well No. 7, located in the densest part of the oil field around Lovelady and Crescent streets. The fire spread quickly to nearby wells, but approximately 350 fire fighters, recruited mostly from the oil workers of the Signal Hill field and two companies of the Long Beach Fire Department, fought the blaze. Signal Hill had no water system, and the nearest hydrant was at Hill and California avenues, nearly a mile away. However, connection was made with this hydrant through more than 5000 feet of hose.

The 2000 barrel Fisher Company tank burst into flames with a terrific explosion at 1pm after firefighters thought they had conquered the blaze and checked its spread. This was followed by a second explosion when tank no. 2 caught fire. Fearing these tanks might rip open due to the heat– potentially causing a river of blazing oil to rush down Lovelady Street and destroying everything in its path– a dike was hastily constructed across the street with tractors. Things continued to look bad as unrelenting flames shot from the tanks, and it was expected the steel walls would give way at any moment. However, by 8pm, the flames had died down and the danger lessened. The fire, which threatened to destroy the entire oil field, had taken firefighters 12 hours to control.

Wayne Fisher estimated a total damage of $100,000 ($14.3 million today). By all accounts, the Los Angeles Times reported Mrs. Z. T. Nelson, Signal Hill’s mayor, was the heroine of the fire. Jessie Nelson organized and headed a relief committee to aid the 350 firefighters and saw to it that they were fed in shifts. She personally passed among them, giving them encouragement.
The day’s most spectacular feat was that of Alex Scott, one of the crew of the Foster wells. While fighting the Fisher Fire, he saw the top of his own derrick burst into flames, and he climbed to the top with a hose strapped to his back in sight of thousands of spectators. He later received $100 for his bravery.

Fortunately, there were no deaths; however, Fred Harold tripped and fell, badly burning his arm as a stream of blazing oil escaped from one of the oil tanks.

The cause of the explosion was thought to have been caused by one of the burning derricks falling into the oil tank, causing an instant explosion.

The story of well owner Walter H. Fisher is similar to many who made a fortune on oil. Fisher and his family arrived in Los Angeles with only $5. He opened an insurance business and made an early investment in oil, forming the General Petroleum Company. At the time of his death in June 1926, his estimated worth was $5,000,000 ($69.2 million in today’s money).

Richfield Oil Fire
Another disaster occurred 85 years ago on June 2, 1933. This time, it was an explosion at the Richfield Oil Company at 27th Street and Lime Avenue. The incident killed 10 and injured 35.
It was a horrible tragedy that began with a tremendous refinery blast that was felt in cities 30 miles away. The fire that followed reached two homes, but the heroic efforts of 500 men, armed with shovels, prevented the oil that flowed from broken storage vats from igniting and spreading the fire further into residential areas. All in all, 50 dwellings were damaged and a dozen other small buildings destroyed.

One body taken to Seaside Hospital was so mutilated, staff could not tell if it were a man or woman. A belt buckle was all that helped identify what was left of 34-year-old Robert Bennett, of 3056 E. 2nd St., whose remains were pulled from beneath a pile of charred building. Equipment numbers found near other remains were traced back to those who had checked them out, allowing for further identification. One of the victims was Carl Robinson (226 ½ Covina St.), whose wife told local police that, the day of the blast, had been the first job her husband had been able to obtain in nine months.

Not all casualties were oil workers. The Carlyons were “oil people,” having spent 17 years in the oil fields surrounding Bakersfield. The family moved to Long Beach when the oil in the Kern River fields began to close down. Little did they realize it would be the mother and daughter, not the oil worker husband, that would die because of oil.

Lottie Carlyon and her 8-year-old daughter, Marilyn, were burned to death before firemen could get near enough to put out the flames that engulfed their home. The mother and the little girl had been knocked unconscious by the blast and were unable to get out of the house before it caught fire. Ironically, Lottie Carlyon’s husband, Tom, was directing a crew of men in a derrick near his home when the blast snuffed out the lives of his family. He was closer to the explosion than his wife and daughter, but he was able to stagger from the burning area before being trapped by flames. The rest of the dead were trapped inside the absorption plant when the blast flattened it.

Witnesses said there were actually two explosions. The first, a minor one, caused the second. The second blast was so intense, it wrecked homes and other structures within a radius of several blocks and shattered plate-glass windows 30 miles away. At first, everyone thought another earthquake had hit (the massive Long Beach earthquake had occurred March 10, 1933), but they quickly realized it was an explosion when an immense column of smoke and flame shot skyward.

Five hundred firemen, police, sailors, marines and volunteers fought for four hours to put out the fire that razed an area of two city blocks. 15,000 spectators gathered to watch the inferno and the thousands of barrels of crude oil that flowed through Long Beach streets like a river.
A storage-tank failure was ruled as the cause of the explosion– the worst in the history of the Signal Hill oil field.

Hancock Fire
Many may still remember the shattering explosions and raging flames from the Hancock Oil refinery fire in Signal Hill in 1958. Several articles were written about the event on the 50th anniversary of the disaster, which occurred on May 22, 1958. It was indeed a day to remember, as a sea of sticky, boiling oil streamed down from Signal Hill, while firemen tried to contain the flames to the tank-farm area of the 10-acre plant. Homes for miles around– in San Pedro, Long Beach, Wilmington, Seal Beach, Lakewood and other communities– shook, as if hit by a series of sonic booms, as the explosions continued. One resident a block away said he heard at least 15 to 20 explosions within a five-minute period.

It seemed to have started with an explosion in the loading area of the refinery, located south of the municipal airport and Spring Street. The first blast tore up a tank containing crude oil. Burning petroleum gushed to the ground and quickly spread the fire from tank to tank. Other explosions followed in rapid succession. 50 workers fled for their lives; two, Woodward Langford and James Edwards, didn’t make it.

The stream of oil threatened the airport and the Long Beach Municipal Gas Department plant, with its huge storage tanks. Firefighters concentrated efforts around this area to prevent further devastation. A vast cloud of black smoke spread eastward, forcing the evacuation of Long Beach General Hospital’s 410 patients. Sooty oil from the billowing ebony cloud was carried by the wind over neighboring areas, damaging homes, cars and everything else in its path. Bulldozers roared through the night, as high earth dikes were built in the area of Termino and Spring to halt the flow of oil from the burst tanks. Yet, some of the oil escaped and entered storm drains, emptying into the Los Cerritos drainage channel. A quantity also found its way to Marine Stadium, despite attempts to suck it up using vacuum trucks at points along the channel.

After a 52-hour fight by 600 men, the Hancock Refinery Fire was extinguished. However, firefighters could still see the grotesque shapes of twisted metal though lingering ribbons of smoke. Woodrow H. Langford, 44, and James W. Edwards, 66, lost their lives, eight were injured and property loss was estimated to be in the millions.

The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but it happened at the same time that rumors surfaced that a large eastern oil company was interested in buying the company.

Burnett is a former Long Beach librarian who, during her 25 years of researching local history, has uncovered many forgotten stories about Southern California that she has published in nine books. She has degrees from UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. For more information, visit claudineburnettbooks.com.