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Death Toll Rises to Six in Refinery Blast; One Missing With AM-Industrial Accidents Bjt

May 7, 1988

NORCO, La. (AP) _ Workers wearing protective clothing and carrying oxygen tanks found three bodies in the hot, twisted ruins of a refinery Friday night, raising the death toll from the explosion to six. One person was missing.

″The area is very much in disarray,″ said plant manager Fred Foster. ″There are large pieces of equipment off of foundations and down around the cat cracker. We’re inching along. As time goes on, it’s going to slow down.″

The catalytic cracking unit, used to break crude oil down into usable products such as gasoline, was at the center of the blast early Thursday at the Shell Oil Co. refinery. Forty-two people were injured.

The three bodies found Friday night were so badly burned they could not immediately be identified, officials said. Two bodies were found earlier Friday, and one was recovered shortly after the blast.

Foster said the air is still heavy with fumes and small fires continued to burn, fed by oil and gas residue in the tangle of pipes and equipment.

Dean Perniciaro, president of the Oil Workers union local at the plant, said Friday that he got a look at the blast area and could barely recognize the site.

″There was an impact to virtually every building in the facility. The area around the cat cracker is really tore up. The fire continues around the cat cracker itself,″ he said.

″Some of the equipment is still recognizable, but an awful lot of it has just collapsed into charred remains.″

Shell spokesman Bill Gibson said Friday: ″The plant manager visited the families (of the missing) last night. Afterward, he said there wasn’t much hope, but we’re still hopeful, of course.″

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency sent investigators to the plant Friday to help in the search for the cause of the explosion.

Chemical engineers said they could find no record of an explosion by a catalytic cracker. ″There is no historical trend for this event,″ said Norman Marsolan, professor of chemical engineering at Louisiana Tech University.

Houston Huckabay, chairman of Tech’s chemical engineering department, said he checked a list of 100 refinery fires dating back to 1955 and found none of them involved a catalytic cracker.

The 25-year-old, 16-story catalytic cracking unit produced 336,000 gallons of gasoline a day.

Catalytic crackers were developed to support the nation’s need for high octane fuel after World War II.

After gasoline is distilled from crude oil, the cracker provides a second chance to get usable products from the remainder. A chemical is mixed with the petroleum under heat to produce butane, propane, more gasoline, heating oil and diesel fuel.

Shell officials refused to speculate on how long the plant might be idle, although Shell’s adjacent chemical plant was expected to resume operations quickly. Nor would they estimate the cost of the damage.

It could take as little as 18 months or as long as 27 months to build a new one at a cost as high as $100 million, said Joseph Vasilj, chief estimator at a Long Beach, Calif., company which builds catalytic crackers.

The bodies of Joey Poierrer, 28, of Reserve, and Ernie Carrillo, 44, of Kenner, were found Friday in the control room for the gasoline-processing unit. The body of 20-year Shell employee Lloyd Gregoire, 39, of Paulina, was found shortly after the explosion.

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