Philadelphia refinery fire: What we know (and what we don’t)

  • Staff
  • The Associated Press

This story has been updated.

A massive explosion rocked the oil refinery in South Philadelphia early Friday morning, city officials confirmed.

Fires raged throughout the morning at the 150-year-old industrial complex at 3100 W. Passyunk Ave. The refinery is located along the Schuylkill River, just south of Girard Estates and next to FDR Park.

The fire is contained, but not yet under control. The city’s Office of Emergency Management is working with the Fire Department, Philadelphia Gas Works, PECO and the Coast Guard to coordinate with refinery owner Philadelphia Energy Solutions on the response to the disaster.

PES said it recorded four minor injuries to workers, all of whom were treated on site by company medical staff.

Fire fighters continue to battle flames at the PES refinery. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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hood’s favorite vegan@1nicetownbean

@6abc @CBSPhilly @FOX29philly Philadelphia energy Solutions Refining Complex at about 4:15 am

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Nearby residents heard and felt explosions and saw flames shooting into the sky, turning night into day.

“It looked like the sun was coming up early,” said Damon Hudgens, 26, who works at an airport parking lot. “But you looked to your left it was just a big ball of fire. It just kept rising up and sprawling out.”

Residents did not hear an emergency siren — because it did not appear to go off, for reasons unknown. No evacuation orders were issued. There was a shelter-in-place order for residents east of the refinery, but it was lifted around 7 a.m.

Philadelphia OEM


⚠️ UPDATE: Philadelphia Fire Department announces that the shelter-in-place request in portions of South Philadelphia has been lifted. Please avoid area near Passyunk and 26th Street due to amount of fire apparatus and first responders. 

Philadelphia OEM


Map below of shelter-in-place request from @PhillyFireDept due to smoke from PES Refinery fire in South Philly:
26th Street West
22nd Street East
I-95 South
I-76 North
Updates to follow

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We’ll be updating this story as more details come to light. Here’s what we know about the blast and its aftermath.

What we know

  • There were three separate explosions. which happened at approximately 4 a.m., PES said in a statement.
  • The structure impacted is what’s known as an “alkylation unit.”
  • Though Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy originally said it was a butane vat that exploded, PES later said it believed propane was the main fuel that caught fire.
  • Refinery owner Philadelphia Energy Solutions has its own fire brigade, and when Fire Dept. responders arrived on scene around 4:45 a.m., they were already beginning work to isolate the fire.
  • The blaze escalated to 3 alarms, and the Fire Dept. deployed 51 apparatus and 120 responders to the scene. The fire has subsided somewhat since then.
  • Four minor injuries to PES workers on site are the only injuries reported so far.
  • Homes as far away at South Jersey were shaken by the boom, according to NBC10.
  • Multiple SEPTA bus routes have been diverted because of the fire.
  • The Schuylkill Expressway was briefly shut down, but has reopened.
  • The Passyunk Avenue Bridge and Penrose Avenue Bridge were also originally shut down; the former reopened at 6 a.m. and the latter at 7:10 a.m., PES said.
  • The refining complex is still operating, but it’s running at a reduced rate, per PES.

Tom MacDonald–WHYY@TMacDonaldWHYY

Fire at PBS Philadelphia terminal

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Matt Reagan@ReaganMatt

Potential oil refinery explosion and fire near Philly clearly showing up on radar this morning. About half way through the loop.

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What we don’t know

  • What caused the fire. It’s the second fire at the refinery in one month, following a June 10 fire in which no injuries were reported.
  • When authorities will be able to bring the blaze under control. Officials said they are deploying systems that not only fight the fire from above but also from below.
  • Why the emergency sirens, which are set up to alert the neighborhood of danger and are tested on a monthly basis, did not go off.
  • What effect the smoke will have on the air quality in Philadelphia today, or how long the smog will linger. Preliminary testing on Friday morning showed no ambient carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (combustibles), or hydrogen sulfide, the Philly Health Department said.

Jennifer Lynn@GoodMorningJen

Large fire at southwest Philly refinery complex.

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Some who saw the blast say they’re worried about residual effects.

“We still imagine what it’s gonna be to our body system,” said Stanley Nwandiko, who works nearby at a valet service. “If it’s harmful that’s something of concern to me.”

Other longtime residents downplayed fears.

“I think it’s pretty scary, it being so close to home. But I don’t think any real damage can come of anything except for the refinery really,” said Vincent Gugliamo, 49, who lives about two miles east of the blast site.

Reaction from officials

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has not yet issued a statement on the fire. Other elected officials have been weighing in on social media.

Senator Pat Toomey


My office is monitoring the refinery fire in South Philly and is awaiting more information when it is available. Great work by local first responders.

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Helen Gym@HelenGymPHL

This is at least the second fire at the refinery this month. Given all the bankruptcy and uncertainty, just shut this thing down already. 



A massive fire burned in Philadelphia at the largest refinery on the East Coast. Roads are closed and residents were told to shelter in place, @RonAllenNBC reports.

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Background on the refinery

The PES refinery is one of the oldest and largest on the East Coast, and turns up to 350,000 barrels of raw crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel, heating oil, diesel, and chemicals every day. Once owned by Sunoco, the refinery was once on the verge of closure until the shale boom unleashed record-breaking amounts of cheap, domestic oil and gas.

The refinery is also Philadelphia’s single-largest source of particulate pollution.

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