An oil tank at the Conoco refinery burst into flames Thursday morning, injuring two people and scattering charred pieces of foam-like debris that one man said resembled "movie rocks" across the city.
Schools rushed children off playgrounds as a plume of thick black smoke billowed up and over the northern part of the city.
Emergency management officials monitored the air for potential hazards. Kenneth Ray, director of external affairs for Conoco, said
the smoke was non-toxic but could be an irritant to people with respiratory problems. No evacuations were ordered.
Smoke could be seen 15 to 20 miles away. Nicholas Spencer, refinery manager, put the preliminary damage estimate at $1.5 million.
"It was kind of a boom. It didn't sound like nothing normal," said Boaz Parker, who was working at Pioneer Rental, directly across from the field of tanks where the burning vessel was located. "I went outside to see what it was." He said he saw a bunch of smoke and then a lot of flames.
The fire Spencer described as violent broke out around 11:30 a.m. in a tank of gas oil, that he said was about the thickness of motor oil, on the west end of Conoco's tank farm. More than an hour later, flames were still visible above the collapsing walls of the burning tank. Ray said the fire probably would be allowed to burn out. He said there was no danger of the fire spreading to other tanks.
Ray said the 80,000-barrel tank contained about 50,000 barrels of the fuel. Spencer said the fuel was used to feed the part of the
refinery where the fuel was turned into gasoline.
Two Conoco employees who were in a lift near the top of the tank inspecting insulation were injured.
The injured workers were flown to Intregris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City. Eric Lowe, 49, was in critical condition Thursday evening with second- and third-degree burns over 16 percent of his body, said Damon Gardenhire, a hospital spokesman. Mike Rowe, 25, was also in critical condition with second- and third-degree burns over 16 percent to 20 percent of his body. Rowe also suffered hip and lower back fractures.
The men were placed in a hyperbaric chamber that creates an oxygen-rich environment that reduces swelling and prevents second-degree burns from converting to third-degree burns, Gardenhire said.
"We do not understsand what caused this," said Richard Severance, general manager Conoco's Mid-Continent Business Unit in
Ponca City. Spencer said it may be a couple of weeks before a cause is determined.
The refinery is the largest in the state and primarily produces gasoline. Spencer said earlier this week that the refinery's
production capacity had risen to up to 188,000 barrels of crude a day. The refinery has about 500 employees.
Pat Ozment, manager of PC Sports Shack, said he saw the black smoke overhead and later discovered chunks of burnt insulation from the tank in the alley behind the store. He said the fire didn't make him apprehensive about the refinery in town.
"Any time they've had a problem, they've always been able to contain it and keep it under control," he said.
Dave Guinn, owner of Hall of Heroes hobby shop, said the falling particles looked like movie rocks.
"We've got people in the city with monitors monitoring the air. There doesn't seem to be any danger there right now," said Tom
Montgomery, emergency management director.
Blackened bits of debris fell on school playgrounds as far as four miles from the tank.
"We didn't hear anything or feel anything," said Mary Ladd, a spokeswoman for Ponca City Public Schools. When administrators
learned what had happened, they called all Ponca City schools within five minutes and told them to take the children inside. The closest schools are about a mile from the site. Debris collected from school sites were a few inches wide, she said. "It's black and looks like big black lava rocks. But it's light. It feels like Styrofoam."
She said emergency management officials said the material was not hazardous.
Conoco offered free car washes to people whose vehicles were covered by soot and sent workers around to pick up the chunks of