South Bay oil refineries: A history of destructive explosions

Smoke rises hundreds of feet into the air from a fire at the Texaco refinery in Wilmington in 1996.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

The blast at the Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance on Wednesday is a reminder of the dangers that exist at such facilities. The South Bay is dotted with oil refineries and there is a history of destructive accidents. The issue received much political attention in the 1980s and 1990s after a string of blasts:

1996: A spectacular explosion and fire ripped through a Texaco refinery in Wilmington. No major injuries were reported. Nearby residents said it felt like a big earthquake. Black smoke soared thousands of feet into the air, raining a fine dust and metal debris on nearby businesses and homes before firefighters contained the blaze about three hours after it began. The explosion shook boats docked 2½ miles away in San Pedro harbor.

1994: A gas explosion ripped through Mobil’s Torrance refinery, sending flames 40 feet into the air and injuring at least 28 people, at least six seriously. An elevated pipe carrying liquid petroleum gas apparently sprang a leak, releasing flammable vapor into the air that exploded within moments. The resulting fire burned for about half an hour before it was extinguished by Torrance firefighters and Mobil fire crews.


1988: One person was killed and nine others injured in a massive blast at Mobil’s Torrance refinery. Some of the injured suffered serious burns. The case resulted in a criminal investigation and a political movement to make the refinery safer.

1985: Two people were killed and 45 injured when a chain of explosions from a gasoline-processing pump tore through an Atlantic Richfield refinery in Carson, sending 5,000-degree hydrogen flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air. Officials described it as one of the worst refinery accidents in the area in 20 years.