Toxic Fire at Chevron Refinery in Richmond, Calif

by Justin Berton, Kevin Fagan and Vivian Ho

Smoke from the Chevron refinery fills the sky above Richmond after a series of explosions beginning around 6:15 p.m. No one was killed, Chevron said.

Thousands of East Bay residents were ordered to stay in their homes with the windows and doors closed Monday night after a series of explosions and fires tore through Chevron’s Richmond refinery.

The explosions started about 6:15 p.m., and at least two large fires spewed thick, black smoke into the darkening sky.

The fire started at the refinery’s No. 4 Crude Unit, Chevron officials said. Just before 6:30 p.m., an inspection crew discovered that there was a diesel leak in a line in the unit – and that the leak was growing.

Shortly after the crew evacuated the area, the diesel ignited, said Nigel Hearne, manager of the refinery.

All employees had been accounted for and there were no fatalities, but one refinery worker suffered burns to his wrist and was treated at the on-site clinic.

About five minutes after the explosions, sirens tore through the air, alerting residents to stay indoors to prevent breathing tainted air. Some people got in their cars and drove away from the smoke that spread throughout the neighborhoods east of the refinery.

“Everybody evacuated so fast people’s car alarms were going off,” said Sara Monares, 55, who lives a short distance from the refinery.

Health officials’ main concern was fumes from crude oil and diesel fuel, but winds were carrying the smoke and pollutants skyward, said Maria Duazo, a hazardous materials specialist with the Contra Costa County Health Services Department.

A shelter-in-place warning was issued for Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo and remained in effect late Monday. An advisory for those with lung conditions or a sensitivity to smoke to stay indoors was expanded to all of Contra Costa County. Residents as far away as the Oakland hills were being warned by police about smoke heading that way.

Air samples taken

As the smoke stretched out over the El Cerrito hills, Contra Costa County hazardous materials units rolled through the neighborhoods, taking air samples.

Trisha Asuncion, hazardous materials specialist with Contra Costa County, said that no hazardous compounds had been detected in the air, but that monitoring would continue.

Kaiser’s Richmond Medical Center said several dozen people came to the emergency room Monday night complaining of shortness of breath, but none was seriously ill.

Julius Bailey, 21, who lives on Barrett Avenue in Richmond, blocks away from the refinery, was at the hospital wearing a face mask. He said his throat had started burning and his eyes itching. After seeing a doctor, he said, “They told me I’m not going to die, but it sure feels pretty serious.”

BART closed the Richmond, El Cerrito del Norte and El Cerrito Plaza stations at about 7 p.m., and shut down service between Richmond and El Cerrito and Richmond and North Berkeley about 30 minutes later. Only the Richmond Station remained closed late Monday.

Toll takers on the westbound Richmond-San Rafael Bridge were told to take shelter because of the fire, said Officer Ralph Caggiano, a California Highway Patrol spokesman. He said he wasn’t sure whether cash-paying drivers would get a free trip, but drivers with FasTrak were still being charged tolls.

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