Ceremony marks 1975 Gulf oil refinery blaze that killed eight firefighters

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Fire scene at the Gulf Refinery in August 1975.

Lois Campana had just returned home from her shift as a night nurse. Her husband, Ralph, was getting dressed for a shift at Ladder 16. It was Aug. 17, 1975, and Ralph Campana already knew where he was heading: the Gulf Oil refinery in South Philadelphia, where a massive fire had been burning since before dawn.

"Those people are going to blow themselves up one day," he told Lois. The refinery had already been the site of 10 multiple-alarm fires. He finished dressing, got in his car, and drove off as Lois waved from the front porch.

Then he drove back again. "Did you forget something?" Lois called out.

"No - I just wanted to have one more look," Ralph Campana said with a grin.

It was the last time his wife ever saw him.

Campana, 41, was one of eight Philadelphia firefighters killed in the 12-alarm refinery blaze, one of the worst disasters in the department's history.

On Monday, city and fire department officials, survivors, and family members, including Lois Campana, commemorated the 40th anniversary of the fire with a ceremony at the Fireman's Hall Museum in Old City.

The conflagration at the 723-acre facility on the east bank of the Schuylkill near Penrose Avenue began with an explosion in a tank capable of holding 80,000 gallons of crude oil. For hours, firefighters worked to bring the flames under control, and by the afternoon seemed to be succeeding.

David Schoolfield, assigned to Engine 57 at the time, recalled wading through a knee-level mix of oil, water, and flame-retardant foam, headed for the oil tank where the fire still raged. He had been told it was nearly under control.

Then he heard the blast.

The oil mixture on the ground had ignited, trapping several firefighters and setting others alight. Schoolfield ran toward the blaze.

A few blocks away, rookie Firefighter Ray Rajchel had been separated from his company, Engine 20, after tripping and falling into the oil mix. His supervisor, Lt. James Pouliot, told him to walk back to his fire truck and get hosed down before rejoining the group.

Rajchel was on his way back to the fire when the explosion hit. In horror, he watched the flames and smoke spread through the refinery and down the wide avenues between the oil tanks. He never saw the lieutenant again.

Schoolfield, in the flames, heard people screaming, saw men burning, and couldn't reach anyone. He was on fire himself. Firefighters behind him yelled at him to get out. Schoolfield was one of the 14 who were injured but survived. He was burned over 26 percent of his body.

In South Philadelphia, residents outside in the midday heat saw the smoke rising from the banks of the Schuylkill.

Andrew Thomas, 11, could see the black cloud from the top of a tin rocket ship in his neighborhood playground at Second and Jackson Streets. His father, a firefighter, had left that morning for the refinery.

The boy and his family waited for news all day.

Thomas, now the president of the local fire union, said that at one point, his mother began to clean the house in anticipation of fire officials arriving to deliver bad news. Thomas' father survived, but he rarely talked about what happened.

On her front porch, Lois Campana heard from a neighbor that her husband would likely be home late. She let the kids stay out, playing in the street. She waited on the porch until she saw the headlights of a Fire Department station wagon turn down the block.

"They said, at first, that he was missing," she said, "and my oldest daughter said, 'Let's get in the car. We can find him.' "

Then-Fire Commissioner Joseph Rizzo, who had been watching fire operations from a catwalk in the refinery complex at the time of the blast, later told Lois Campana he had seen her husband die.

The fire would burn for six more days.

Ed Marks, then a firefighter with just two years on the job, remembered how subdued his firehouse was after the blast, and how it felt to arrive on the scene two days later.

"When we pulled in, it was the most eerie sense that came over you, knowing the devastation and the loss of life that had just occurred," he said. "It was complete and total devastation. The refinery administration building burnt to the ground, the twisted steel, every vehicle burnt down to the skeletons."

In the years since the disaster, Schoolfield - who was so badly injured he could no longer work as a firefighter - said he gave up trying to forget the fire that nearly took his life.

"I just learned how to cope over the years," he said, crediting his family with helping him through. He embarked on several different career paths, and spent 11 years at Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School as a special-education teacher before retiring two years ago.

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer, whose uncle also fought the refinery fire, said it had been an honor to host Monday's event. Of all that the department has faced in its long history, he said, the refinery fire "stands alone."

"The families know that we support them and their memories," he said, "and this gives them a chance to see we aren't forgetting. It's necessary. It's part of the healing process."

 


Deadly Fire's Toll

Firefighter John Andrews, 49, of Engine 49

Firefighter Ralph Campana, 41, of Ladder 19

Firefighter Robert Fisher, 43, of Engine 33

Firefighter Hugh McIntyre, 52, of Engine 56

Firefighter Roger Parker Jr., 28, of Ladder 27

Firefighter Joseph Wiley, 33, of Ladder 27

Lt. James Pouliot, 35, of Engine 20; died of his injuries Aug. 24, 1975

Firefighter Carroll Brenek, 33, of Engine 57; died of his injuries Aug. 30, 1975

 


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