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Explosion, Fire Rock Refinery in Martinez

From Times Wire Reports

An explosion touched off a spectacular fire at a Shell Oil refinery here Tuesday, shooting flames more than 100 feet into the evening sky and spewing tall columns of dense smoke visible 40 miles away, authorities said.

“It rattled all the windows in my home,” said Robert Langston, a Benicia resident who lives seven miles from the plant.

Jane Tocher, an engineering assistant at Shell, said the plant--40 miles northeast of San Francisco--was shut down following the 6:35 p.m. explosion. The fire continued to burn out of control for several hours as ambulances stood by at the refinery’s main gate. It was finally brought under control at about 9 p.m. and officials planned to let the flames burn out overnight.

Two Shell contract employees were injured and taken to Brookside Hospital in San Pablo. One man had second-degree burns over 25% of his body, mainly on his back and arms, said hospital spokeswoman Cynthia Crawford. He was reported in good condition in the hospital’s burn unit.

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The other worker also was in good condition with second-degree burns.

They were identified only as Jim Siri, 34, and Mike Byron, 26.

Oil-Processing Unit

The flames in the light-oil processing unit came from “bleed-off valves” in pipes designed to burn off excess fuel during an accident, said Shell spokesman Bill Sharkey. The unit, which occupies about 15 acres of the 800-acre facility, is built entirely of metal.

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The cause of the explosion and fire was under investigation, he said.

Neighborhoods were not being evacuated, but the sky over Martinez was thick with the billowing black smoke. Shell informed the Contra Costa County Consolidated Fire District that the smoke was not toxic. Contra Costa health officials said that the plume of smoke contained low levels of sulfur dioxide, but presented no significant health threat.

The smoke, which stretched for more than 20 miles, gradually was blown northeast toward the sparsely populated Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Residents throughout the region said they heard a loud blast followed by a rushing sound, which one San Francisco radio caller described as “like three jet engines starting up.”

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Dozen Smaller Blasts

The big explosion was followed by more than a dozen smaller ones, releasing large balls of fire over the processing unit.

Shell firefighters were battling the blaze, although a county fire truck was loaned to the oil company. Under a mutual aid agreement, Shell called firefighting experts from nearby refineries of Chevron and Exxon. Martinez city firefighters were at the plant’s gate, but had not been asked to help.

The refinery is on the Carquinez Strait, a 10-mile stretch of water that runs from the San Francisco Bay to the delta.

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