LAFD History – Old Engine 49 and Old Fireboat 2 at the Union Oil Fire – 1951

July 31, 2019

Frank’s Note: There have been a few refinery fires early this year that brings back the story of the Union Oil Fire in 1951. This was a major fire and involved two LAFD apparatus that the Historical Society have restored or are completing. Old Engine 49, the 1923 Seagrave at the Harbor Museum and Old Fireboat 2, “The Ralph J. Scott” in San Pedro at Berth 87.

The following story was written by then Captain Bill Goss for the Firemen’s Grapevine, September 1951. Bill, who retired as a Deputy Chief many years ago was known for having many talents including research and writing. It was a complete report of a major fire at the Union Oil Refinery that involved the LAFD including a great story about Old Engine 49 which has been beautifully restored by retired Engineers Mark Howell and Leo Dempsey after nine years of work. Old Fireboat 2 has been under restoration by volunteers from the LAFD Historical Society for 15 years and is scheduled for completion by the end of this year. I have taken excerpts from the original 9 page article for this issue on our history. By the way, I remember seeing the tremendous loom up from this fire when I lived in South Los Angeles.

The Union Oil Refinery Fire

In 1951, the Union Oil Company’s Wilmington refinery sat atop an elongated hill that runs south from Anaheim Street between the Harbor West Basin and Gaffey Street. It was one of the major refineries on the west coast producing vast quantities of all types of petroleum products. The tank farm portion ran almost the entire distance of the refinery property. In the center of the tank farm were many large tanks of 80,000 barrel capacity containing gasoline, blending stock and diesel fuel. On July 12, 1951, an explosion occurred in a gasoline tank just before 2 pm. The Union Oil Company maintained a fire Department on the plant as well as a brigade made up of technical workers. They responded and laid lines into nearby monitors. When the first tank exploded the roof of the tank blew off and landed in a pipe trench breaking connections to other tanks. In a very short time there was considerable ground fire spreading to other tanks causing them to fail and catch fire. The men manning the two monitors were forced to abandon their position. After the fire the two monitors were found to have completely melted down. At approximately 2:07 pm the first LAFD assignment arrived consisting of Engines 38 and 49, Truck 38, Salvage 36 along with Chief Adams of Battalion 6Engine 38 laid a supply line from a company hydrant into the tank location.

Engine 49 laid a 3 ½” from a hydrant and siamesed it into two 2 ½ inch lines which were used on a tank and the pipe trench. Due to the extensive leaks and overflowing dikes an explosion took place in the pipe trench near engine 38 damaging the water supply system cutting off the water to the Engine forcing the men manning the hose lines and the Engineer to abandon their positions. Engine 38 lost six sections of 2 ½” hose that were burned up.

By this time there was a roaring fire around two more tanks and Chief Adams requested additional help. Assistant Chief Quinn, Commander of Division1B arrived to take command. The additional LAFD companies were: Engines 85, 53, 36, 79, 40, and 64. Rescue 36, Engine 7 and Fire Boat 2 (The Ralph J. Scott) were called in later.

Boat 2 was moved into Union Oil’s Marine Terminal to pump into a 10 inch fuel line bringing water up into the plant. Fire boat 2 pumped for a total of 30 hours after relieving four Navy tugs. Boat 2 with a capacity of over 11,000 g.p.m.’s used only two of its six pumps at a time alternating them every hour.

As additional help rolled in the strategy of fighting the fire by confining it was augmented. Up to this point all efforts had been of little avail as the leakage due to ruptures in the pipe lines and valves in each successive dike area had taken fire. Also the severe shortage of water at this stage made protection of exposures a tremendous problem. The pumpers of newly arriving engine companies were placed at improvised connections on the salt water system coming up from the pump house in the West Basin. These pumpers relayed water into the mains of the fire fighting system for other pumps and to supply hand lines laid directly from hydrants. At this time the entire operation at the refinery was shut down. The Union Oil employees were closing off valves and draining exposed tanks when one of the lines exploded like a Bangalore torpedo spraying diesel fuel over the men from Engine 40 and a crew of Union Oil men nearby operating a hose line. In the confusion the nozzleman abandon the line causing the hose to flail around knocking three employees into an adjacent pipe trench. They were the only injuries during the four days of fire fighting operations.

Shortly after 8pmof the first evening Chief Quinn felt that the situation was under control and the spread of the fire definitely halted. With the situation improving, the companies working at the fire were relieved starting at about 10pm. For the two days, the 13th and 14th, operations consisted of protecting four tanks and letting the ground fire burn out under control. The final attack on the fire around the valves was made on the 15th (three days after it started) using a combination of fog streams, foam and dry chemical. At 4:32 pm the last vestige of fire was out and the battle was over. Acting Division Commander Joe Hoffman was in charge of the final operations.

During the fire fighting operations a total of twenty five 2 ½” hand lines, three 2 ½” foam lines and more than 27,000 feet of 2 ½”” had been laid. Some 3,000 feet of 1and1/2” had also been laid but very little had been used. In excess of 373,100 pounds of foam powder had been and the pile of empty 50 pound cans looked like they would fill a two story house the size of 66’s quarters.

(The following is a brief summary of Engine 49’s actions at the incident)

Engine 49 coming in south on Road 12 laid a line of 3and1/2” hose from a hydrant and reduced it to two 2and ½” lines, one being used on the pipe trench and the other on tank 101. Engine 49’s 1000 g.p.m. pump (shop 160) working from the hydrant on Road 12, pumped continuously for 47 hours and 45 minutes without a shutdown. The 1923 Seagrave used 510 gallons of gasoline. Engine 49’s Wagon was placed at Road 10 and B Street where it was used to transfer water from the 10” fuel line coming up from the marine terminal to the refinery. The operation consisted of taking salt water from the line on one side of the street and pumping it into the fore main on the other side of the street. Engine 49 laid 400 feet of 3and ½” hose and 400 feet of 2and1/2” hose. Counting the relief pump that was sent to the fire from 49’s quarters their pumps worked a total time of 104 hours and 40 minutes.

Frank’s Conclusion

It is amazing to think that we have preserved Old Engine 49 for all of us and thousands of visitors to enjoy. What a history of service it had. Many of the stories about it and the members assigned to it may never be known, but it is a story like this one that Bill Goss wrote that makes a person appreciate our rich history. We thank Mark Howell who arranged to purchase the Seagrave and work on the restoration with the late Leo Dempsey and many others at Fire Station 49 for almost 9 years for maintaining an important part of the LAFD’s past. More about our National Historic Landmark Fireboat 2 in the following pages.

Submitted by Frank Borden

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