A massive explosion tore through the Texaco oil refinery in Wilmington at 9:45 p.m. Thursday, jolting a wide area of Los Angeles and Orange counties and hurling skyward a ball of flame that was visible for miles.
John Roberts of Wilmington said he was sitting at his desk in his home when he heard "an eerie hissing sound that lasted about 15 seconds, followed by an almighty bang. . . ."
"My whole house shook," he said. "It was like World War II."
"There was just a huge blast that shook the whole house and broke some of the windows," said Noel Peacock, who lives with his wife, Mary, on Pacific Coast Highway about a quarter of a mile from the explosion.
"A huge ball of flame went way up in the sky and the heat from it was tremendous," he said. "For a moment there I thought it was going to get us."
Texaco said 14 people, all employees, suffered minor injuries. The Los Angeles Police Department advised residents of a two-mile area around the plant to evacuate to Wilmington Junior High School because of the possibility of toxic fumes.
Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said a cloud of potentially toxic vapor was moving slowly downwind. He said police were standing by, ready to order further evacuations if needed.
There were no immediate reports on the extent of damage to the plant, which opened in March, 1928, and processes 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
Texaco plant manager Bob Morris said that a hydrogen processing unit exploded and that all of the several dozen employees working at the time of the blast were accounted for.
More than 70 fire engines from Los Angeles, L.A. County, Long Beach and other nearby cities rushed to the area, but firefighters initially staked out the perimeter of the fire rather than rush in.
Assistant Los Angeles Fire Chief Bob Ramirez said firefighters were prepared to extinguish the blaze by using water to cool it and foam to smother it. A Texaco spokesman, however, said the fire would probably be allowed to burn itself out.
The Coast Guard dispatched crews to make sure no oil was spilling into the nearby harbor.
A pipe fitter who said she was inside the refinery at the time of the explosion said it was deafening.
"The ground shook, then there was a big explosion," said the woman, who did not give her name. "I don't think I'm gonna come back here. I have a small child and he has to be taken care of."
Spectators gathered on Signal Hill and atop high-rises in Long Beach to watch the fire.
Los Angeles Police Sgt. Dan Pugel, who was staffing a command post at Anaheim and Alameda streets in Wilmington, said that a strong sulfur odor spread over the area shortly after the blast and that he had been told toxic hydrogen sulfide gas was used at the refinery.
"But we haven't had any strong winds, so the smoke is going straight up," Pugel said.
Joaquin Chacon, who was flying his small plane about five miles north of the refinery when the explosion occurred, said it felt like a bomb went off.
"I was at 1,000 feet and could see the smoke shoot up above me, so I went to 1,800 (feet) and it just kept shooting," he said. "It was something unbelievable."
Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Bob Collis said initial reports from the refinery were that the explosion occurred in one of at least eight hydrogen units at the plant.
Texaco officials said 563 people are employed at the refinery, but could not say how many were on duty at the time of the blast.
At the Carson sheriff's station, Sgt. Marvin Pearson said the swing shift was being held over in readiness in a Carson park, awaiting a decision on a possible evacuation.
"I was talking to somebody at the time and we looked at each other, said a few expletives, and I said, 'that's not an earthquake.'
"I ran out the back door of the station and saw a huge fireball going up in the air," Pearson said.
The Wilmington refinery is about three miles from the station and residents, accustomed to the refineries, did not inundate the station with calls, authorities said. "All they really had to do was walk out their door and look and they figured it was a refinery."
The blast shook loose external panels and insulation above the entrance to the Long Beach Police Department, obscuring the name of the department above the front door with falling rubble. Other panels fell and there was yellow police tape strung around it. A dozen or more ceiling tiles shook loose.
At the Long Beach Naval Station on Terminal Island, a security officer who would not give his name said that Department of Defense personnel evacuated several hundred families from Navy housing.
Times staff writers George Frank, Dave Lesher, Roxana Kopetman, Eric Malnic, Patt Morrison, Tony Marcano, Ron Russell and Robert Welkos contributed to this article.