August 2, 2008

Little Oil Inferno Off I-95 Could Have Been Worse

On a humid June night in 1975, a Colonial Pipeline Co. employee was at work in the company's pumping station on Richmond's South Side. He was on the phone a few minutes past midnight when he saw a blinding flash of light through the windows, and the building shook. Minutes later, he heard calls for help and jerked open the station's door to find a disoriented man with burned clothes and blackened face. The injured man was Morris Englehart, an employee of Little Oil Co., who had crossed Interstate 95 in search of help.

The men were part of what the June 26, 1975, Richmond Times- Dispatch called "one of the most spectacular fires in the city's history." Throughout that day, firefighters battled a gasoline-fed inferno that threatened to become one of Richmond's biggest disasters.

The sequence of events started when Englehart, an employee of Little Oil Co. at 1641 Commerce Road., drove to the company's fuel- tank yard between I-95 and the James River. The company was preparing to receive fuel, and Englehart had to open tank valves. Englehart, who eventually recovered from his burns, was alone at the yard when two mammoth tanks, holding a combined total of 850,000 gallons of gasoline, exploded in flames.

Though fire officials later decided that Englehart's automobile ignition had sparked the blaze, first reports in the June 26 Times- Dispatch said an errant lightning bolt from a distant thunderstorm was believed responsible.

The burning tanks stood next to each other in the company's five- tank yard, just south of I-95's Maury Street exit. Nearby were three other huge storage tanks, each holding 1 million to 2 million gallons of oil or kerosene.

As if that were not enough, the scenario held a greater threat. Not far from the Little Oil Co. yard were tanks belonging to American Oil, Gulf Oil, Southern Fuel Oil and Union Oil companies. If one tank after another ignited, fire officials said the danger was real that flames and burning fuel could reach nearby neighborhoods.

Despite the early hour, residents throughout the city had seen and heard the explosion, and within the hour nearly half the city's fire units were at the scene. By 2 a.m., the interstate had been closed from Maury Street south to state Route 10. By dawn, more than 100 area firefighters battled the flames.

"At about 7 a.m., the fire suddenly exploded higher into the air and the intensified heat drove firemen away from the blaze," The Richmond News Leader reported that afternoon. Trucks carrying chemical foam used to smother fuel fires arrived from Fort Lee and Byrd International Airport by midmorning, but the quantities of foam were insufficient. While the fire raged and one tank ruptured and melted, firefighters could do no more than try to contain the blaze by dousing nearby tanks with water.

Meanwhile, rerouted interstate traffic snaked through the city as drivers craned to watch flames that at times soared 500 feet. Office workers in downtown Richmond high-rises stood by windows all day. Many spent their lunch hours at City Hall's observation deck. "Why in hell," one observer asked, "is something like that so near a national interstate?"

Reinforcements arrived in late afternoon. "The U.S. Navy was sending trucks loaded with 223 barrels of 'light water' from Norfolk this afternoon," said The News Leader's last edition of the day. "This is water mixed with fire-retardant chemicals. A Navy spokesman said light water was developed only recently and this may be the first major fire it's been used on." The Navy also was bringing an "experimental foam-spraying tractor," capable of propelling the light-water mixture nearly 300 feet.

With the help of the military and a surprise thunderstorm that redirected flames away from the nearby tanks, fire officials declared the blaze extinguished at 7:11 p.m. - 19 hours after it began.

"We were lucky to get out of this one," a weary firefighter said as he surveyed the smoldering scene.

Contact Times-Dispatch librarian/researcher Larry Hall at [email protected] or (804) 649-6076. Time Capsules features items from the archives of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Richmond News Leader. To learn more about past events in your community, try searching


ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO (also online slideshow)

Originally published by HALL; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer.

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