BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Christmas Eve 1989 is a night many in Baton Rouge will never forget. It was the night a deadly explosion rocked the Exxon refinery, the nation’s second largest petrochemical refinery at the time.
“Suddenly, something shakes the house like nothing I’d ever felt. I thought it was an accident on Interstate 10,” said former WAFB anchor, George Sells.
“I’ve never been in an earthquake, but if I were to think of what a tremor was, what it would be like, that’s how I would describe it,” recalled former WAFB weekend anchor, Phil Rainier.
Gas released from storage tanks ignited and exploded around 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 24, 1989. The blast blew out windows at the state capitol and throughout downtown. It could be felt some 40 miles away and seen from even further.
Both Sells and Rainier were working that evening.
“That thick plume of smoke could be seen as far away as the other side of New Orleans,” Sells told his audience that night.
There was a bitter cold snap that week in south Louisiana. The record from that day still stands today.
“Eight degrees, lowest temperature that we’d ever seen in Baton Rouge in years. That’s what it was that Christmas Eve morning,” recalls Sells. “We knew it had something to do with the explosion, we just didn’t know what.”
It’s believed the extreme cold built up pressure and caused the gas leak that eventually ignited. The explosion killed two workers and injured four others. As first responders and state leaders worked to contain the fire, many in Baton Rouge became concerned about the burning oil.
“People were calling. They were very concerned there was something that was coming out of the sky. At the time, there were rumors that it was asbestos. It turns out that it was ash,” said Rainier.
The flames burned some 15 hours before fire crews were finally able to put them out around 5 a.m. Christmas Day. Sells remembers plant officials being surprisingly candid with the media and the public.
“I’d covered several explosions at plants in Houston several years earlier, and they just shut up, didn’t tell us anything. This time, the plant manager came out and told us practically everything he knew,” said Sells.
Exxon learned a lot from the incident. A statement from the company released this week reads:
“We sincerely regret the 1989 refinery incident. Many of our current employees were part of the response effort and friends with those impacted. We were able to learn from the 1989 incident to improve safety measures to help prevent future, similar situations.”
The Baton Rouge Fire Department routinely works with Exxon’s own firefighters, and also learned from the event.
“This was an unfortunate incident, but the things that come out of it was the way we do our training now. ExxonMobil is a partner. We’re a municipal, they’re industrial, but we train together, and through our partnerships, we have one of the best teams, and we’re prepared better than I would say most people are in the country,” said BRFD spokesman, Curt Monte.
Thirty years later, south Louisiana hopes to keep incidents like this one in the past, with chilling images reminding us to keep a healthy respect for the industry in our backyard.