Damage to the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance from an explosion is seen from 190th Street. Photo by John Schreiber.
Damage to the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance from an explosion is seen from 190th Street. Photo by John Schreiber.

Story updated 3:15 p.m., Feb. 18.

An explosion at the ExxonMobil Refinery in Torrance Wednesday sent a plume of black smoke in the air and caused ash to cascade down on the area, but there were only minor injuries.

The blast, which apparently occurred in a gasoline-processing unit, was reported shortly before 9 a.m. at the facility at 3700 W. 190th St., a Torrance fire dispatcher said.

One Torrance resident told City News Service the blast shook his home about three miles from the facility, saying it “sounded like someone opened my bedroom door and slammed it shut.”

Melinda Liday, office manager at Withee Malcolm Architects, LLP, 2251 W. 190th St. in Torrance, said she was sitting at her desk when the blast occurred.

“I thought what the hell is happening? It was loud and there were two big jolts,” she told CNS. “At first, I thought is that an earthquake? But then I thought, no, because the earth didn’t move. Did a truck crash into the building? Did a plane just crash on top of the building? It felt like something hit the building from above.”

Residents were initially advised to remain indoors with their doors and windows closed and air conditioners turned off, although there was no immediate word of negative impacts to air quality. Some residents received automated phone calls advising them to stay inside. The advisory was lifted by midday.

Students at Torrance’s 30 schools were told to shelter in place immediately following the explosion, but that order was scaled back to cover only 14 campuses that are nearest the refinery, in the north and west side of the city, according to Tammy Khan of the Torrance Unified School District. The order was lifted about 11:30 a.m., Khan said.

Del Amo Boulevard was closed between Crenshaw Boulevard and Maple Avenue as a precaution, according to the Torrance Police Department. The street was reopened just before 2:30 p.m.

Despite the shelter-in-place warnings being lifted, the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory for areas near the refinery, urging residents who live nearby — or who can see or smell smoke — to avoid outdoor activity if possible. People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children should remain indoors, according to AQMD.

According to Torrance fire Capt. Steve Deuel, the explosion was followed by a ground fire, which was quickly brought under control. Ash fell on streets and vehicles parked nearby, and the air was dark.

Once the fire was controlled, the refinery activated its safety “flare system” to burn off fuel, causing flames to shoot from a smokestack at the refinery, along with a thick plume of black smoke.

Liday said she could see the burnoff from her office building.

“I thought it was a huge fire and then I realized they’re … burning it off to prevent a buildup and … any other explosions. But when you don’t know that, you think maybe we all better get out of here.”

Aerial footage of the refinery showed some areas of twisted metal and some vehicles covered with debris and ash. One vehicle appeared to have a collapsed roof.

Deuel said three people were treated for minor injuries, but officials with ExxonMobil said four contractors were taken to Long Beach Medical Center with minor injuries.

Deuel said the explosion involved gasoline in one of the processing units at the refinery. The cause of the blast was under investigation.

A 24-hour hotline was set up by the refinery — (310) 505-3158 — so people can call to file any damage claims.

“As part of the refinery safety measures, they activated their flare safety system, which is a tall tower (from which) a large column of smoke and flame is often seen,” Deuel said. “That’s one of the safety features built into almost all refineries now …”

Four dozen firefighters from Torrance responded to the third-alarm blaze, and a mutual-aid effort involved personnel from the Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach fire departments, who covered emergency calls normally covered by the stations from which the Torrance firefighters were dispatched, Deuel said.

“The incident itself is stabilized right now,” Deuel said. “We’ll work with refinery (personnel) to continue the stabilization process so they can get back to normal operations … Right now, we’re de-escalating the incident.”

Deuel said the refinery would continue to operate while repairs are made to the damaged areas.

— Staff and wire reports

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