(03-08) 04:00 PDT CONTRA COSTA --
Ernie Pofahl rolled out of bed precisely at 4:45 a.m. on the
final day of his life and brewed a pot of coffee. A half-hour later, he woke
his wife, Pam, and as dawn filtered through their kitchen window in Antioch
they sat quietly together sipping from mugs.
Their talk was that of long-married couples: their little granddaughter's
laughter, their approaching anniversary, what was for dinner. And as he
headed out the door for his job at the Tosco oil refinery near Martinez at
precisely 6 a.m., Pofahl said, ``I love you,'' the same words he told his
wife every morning of their 25 years together.
``It was just a normal day,'' Pam Pofahl recalled last week, her voice
catching. ``You never expect it would be your last moment together.''
The comforting predictability of Pofahl's life was shattered mere hours
later. By early afternoon, Pofahl and three of his Tosco workmates were dead
or dying and a fifth was horribly burned by a tremendous fireball that
ignited when naphtha gushed from a pipe they were repairing on a
The February 23 blast was the worst refinery accident in modern Northern
California history. And even as its victims were being taken to hospitals,
the questions and the anger were mixing with the sorrow and shock.
Sources tell The Chronicle that work crews at the plant knew, more than a
week before the explosion, that naphtha, a highly volatile crude oil
byproduct, had not been drained from the pipe as safety precautions
required. They say that even at the final, fatal moments as Pofahl and his
crew were cutting into the pipe that leaked the liquid, supervisors knew the
potential for danger was still there.
Tosco spokeswoman Linda Saltzman said she could not comment on details of
the accident while investigations are pending.
No one knows whether the explosion was caused by a sloppy safety
decision, bad luck or human error. A horde of investigators from Tosco,
county, state and federal agencies will spend months trying to figure that
The finger-pointing has already begun in earnest, however. And as the
refinery is shut down for at least 30 days for safety assessments, the
86-year-old plant's future is in limbo.
Anthony Creggett was worried that morning.
As the crude oil distillation tower's lead operator, Creggett had worried
every morning since mid-February, when a pinhole leak was detected in one of
many pipes snaking down the outside of the tower.
Creggett wanted the high-temperature distilling process shut down while
the leak was repaired. He later said managers told him to keep it running.
On February 23, he was trying to help workers drain naphtha -- a
hydrocarbon mixture so flammable it ignites by merely flowing onto a hot
surface -- from the bottom of the pipe so it could be fixed.
``I was in the process of doing that when I had someone question me and
say, `No, we're going to go a different route,' '' Creggett later told
At least 100 gallons remained in the line. One source told The Chronicle
that valves at both the top and bottom of the pipe had failed, allowing
naphtha in at one end and blocking its drainage at the other. The stage was
set for the tragedy.
Workers labored all morning on the repair job, and after lunch Creggett
was about to climb onto the 133-foot tower. But he stayed below for a few
minutes to finish a sandwich; that saved his life.
Pofahl had already climbed the scaffold alongside the tower to remove a
section of the pipe. On the job with Pofahl were Rollin Blue and Ricardo
Enriquez, contract workers with Interstate Scaffolding; Raynold Rodacker, a
contract worker with Bigge Crane & Rigging Co.; and pipe fitter Steve
Duncan, a fellow Tosco employee.
Someone -- probably Pofahl, his pipe-cutting partner Duncan, or both --
sliced into the naphtha pipe. Suddenly at 12:18 p.m., a shower of liquid
cascaded out, drenching the pair and the three other men on the scaffolding.
The naphtha stream splattered onto a hot surface, possibly another pipe,
near the ground, and ignited, instantly swelling into a huge ball of flame.
The ball roared up the scaffolding, and the five men were trapped in a
momentary hell on Earth.
``I was on a cooling tower and saw the thing go -- it was like nothing
I'd ever seen before,'' said Mark Anglin, a machinist. ``The fireball just
whipped up that tower, and you couldn't even see the guys after it got to
them, then it was just flames all over the scaffolding. It was awful.''
Within minutes, sirens tore the air as Tosco rescue workers struggled to
reach the four men strewn like broken dolls on the platforms. Duncan had
been blown to the ground with broken bones and burns over 50 percent of his
body, but the rest were still 30 feet to 100 feet above the ground. To bring
them down, rescuers had to pick their way up the tower's honeycomb of pipes,
ladders and scaffolding.
``In someone's worst nightmare, they would've had a tough time coming up
with a more brutal rescue scenario,'' recalled Aaron Edens, operations
manager for American Medical Response, who pulled up to find a forest of
fire agencies, helicopters and other ambulances already ringing the tower.
`'You're on an elevated platform in a confined space with multiple patients
suffering from severe burns. It doesn't get much worse than that.''
Tosco's fire brigade snuffed out the blaze in 20 minutes, but it would
take more than two hours to bring the injured men down from the fried
column, hose the chemicals off their tortured bodies and load them into
Battalion Chief Clark Walker, leader of a highly trained Contra Costa
County fire rescue unit, complained that his team was held back an hour
before Tosco allowed them to assist as the victims were bundled into
stretchers and lowered to the ground by a crane. But even if they had been
let in earlier, county officials said, the result would have been the same:
four men dead with burns covering most of their bodies.
Enriquez, 36, of Antioch, was killed instantly. Pofahl, 48, died at 6:40
a.m. the next day in a Pinole hospital room with his wife at his side. Blue,
35, of Martinez, died a few hours earlier at a Sacramento hospital;
Rodacker, 49, of Martinez, died four days after the blast at a San Pablo
Duncan, 48, of Livermore, clings to life in Alta Bates Medical Center in
Last Tuesday, after heated political and community outrage, company
officials ordered the plant shut down for at least 30 days, with
investigations by several agencies to subject the refinery to the most
intensive scrutiny in its history.
Although it was the worst accident ever in the cluster of five
refineries in Contra Costa County and Benicia -- the only ones in Northern
California -- the blast was hardly the first incident to bring Tosco
Seven workers have died in the past 16 years at Tosco's Avon plant, which
also has the distinction of having more air pollution fines and Cal-OSHA
citations than any other refinery recently. Tosco bought the 2,300-acre
windswept spread of tanks and towers on the eastern edge of Martinez along
Suisun Bay in 1976. When the company bought Unocal's West Coast operations
in 1997, it took over their refinery in Rodeo. The plants produce gasoline,
diesel and other petroleum products.
Tosco Corp., based in Connecticut, has annual revenues of more than $15
billion and, with eight refineries, is the biggest independent oil refiner
in the United States. It has a reputation as one of the most cost-cutting,
manpower-efficient outfits in its industry -- which makes its stock popular
on Wall Street, but makes union leaders at its refineries nervous.
Contra Costa labor representatives have complained for years that Tosco
is trimming so many workers and doubling up so many jobs that safety is
possibly being jeopardized. The Avon plant has shed 150 employees in the
past three years, and a plan to eliminate 70 more jobs was in negotiation
before the blast. The cutbacks had become so severe throughout the company
that people were complaining at the Rodeo plant that managers even stopped
supplying doughnuts at meetings to save a few quarters.
``We have some real concerns about the staffing,'' said Jeff Clark,
representative for Local 8-5 of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and
Energy Workers International Union, which represents 700 of the
approximately 800 workers at Avon. ``They're having operators take on safety
inspection work, others doing maintenance work, having everyone work leaner
and harder, and we're not fully comfortable with that.''
Many workers have been tense because of the doubling up and the
possibility of layoffs. That included several on Pofahl's crew.
``Ernie never was late for work, ever, and usually showed up 20 minutes
early -- he liked to work that much,'' said his wife, Pam. ``But with those
layoffs coming, he was worried for himself and his buddies, just real
nervous. It was like morale there was rock bottom.''
A Vietnam War helicopter door gunner, Pofahl was game for any job they
came up with, but as a former Tosco manager -- he had been laid off, then
rehired last year -- he was concerned about safety. Enriquez's family said
he had the same worry.
``I want to know why my husband, a welder, was being asked to go up on
that scaffold to do a pipe fitter's job,'' Pofahl said. ``I just want some
Blue's sister, Kelley King, said her brother told her that with the
cutbacks he was back to doing the hard labor of an entry-level worker, even
though he was a qualified foreman. ``That job, that's what pushed him to say
it was time to get out,'' she said. ``He was just exhausted when he got home
Whatever the concerns before, the reaction to the blast was swift.
Over the next weekend, the county Board of Supervisors asked that Tosco
voluntarily shut the plant down, and by last Tuesday, Tosco Chief Executive
Officer Thomas O'Malley was standing before the board apologizing and
fulfilling their request.
``There is no way to justify a horrific event like this,'' O'Malley told
the board. ``The loss of human life is never acceptable.''
O'Malley blamed ``human failure'' for the accident, claiming it could
have been prevented if crews had been following company policy. He claims
they should have shut the unit down just before the fire because naphtha
remained in the pipe.
Many workers grumble, mostly privately, that the CEO's contrition may not
be all there is to the picture.
O'Malley, who owns a 27,000-
square-foot house on a private island off the coast of Connecticut and in
1997 collected $5.6 million in pay from Tosco, has a reputation for slicing
things to the bone to maximize profits. He has often said he does this for
efficiency and never at the cost of safety or simply to eliminate jobs. But
some who labor under him wonder.
``Do you believe his crocodile tears? Not me, for an instant,'' said one
worker. ``I think he's intending to shut down the Tosco plant, or at least
leave it closed long enough to get more concessions from the union, and that
he doesn't care how safe the place is as long as it makes money.'' Union
leaders are taking a wait-and-see attitude, but some also are girding
themselves for requests for concessions at the very least.
The disastrous fire particularly horrified county residents, where Tosco
had been the center of a controversy over refinery oversight laws for more
than two years. In early 1997, Tosco and other companies were battling to
overturn one ordinance when a hydrocracker unit blew up, killing worker
The so-called ``good neighbor law'' was overturned, replaced by a weaker
ordinance that environmentalists now blame partially for the explosion. If
Tosco had been required to get permits to do maintenance on the tower in
1997, critics say, the place might never burst into flames.
Already, the lawsuits are beginning. A pipe repairman who was singed in
the blast filed the first in Superior Court last week, claiming that the
company ignored warnings that could have prevented the explosion.
Alfred Simoni, 33, of Martinez, said he has been traumatized by the burns
to his face and the vision of Rodacker, a close friend, and the others being
Nobody, even in their darkest thoughts, ever believed that such a
terrible thing could really happen.
``Ernie was in such a good mood that morning, especially considering how
tense everyone's been about the possible layoffs,'' said pipe fitter Ralph
May, who chatted with Pofahl in the locker room before the job began as
Pofahl put on his fire-
retardant coveralls, hard hat and assembled his wrenches. ``It just seemed
like an ordinary day.
``Now I wonder if any of us who knew those guys can ever have another
ordinary day again, after seeing this thing happen.''
Pam Pofahl, 43, is sure she can't. But she will try to keep going.
``On that last morning, we were talking about how, for our 25th wedding
anniversary in June, we were finally going to take the honeymoon we always
wanted,'' she said softly as she prepared to sort through her husband's
belongings last week. ``We were going to go up to Lake Shasta. Our lives
were finally together.
``Now I've had to think about workman's comp, a funeral, a will, things I
never thought I would have to think about at this age.''
She is focusing on the future: Tending their 3-year-old granddaughter
Erica, helping their son, 19-year-old Steven, through college. Getting
through each day without crying.
``Ernie always told Steven, `I don't want you doing what I do, being a
blue-collar worker like me in a dangerous job. Get a college education, be
something.' '' She paused, sighed.
``We can't do these things together now, but for Ernie's sake, I have to
carry on myself,'' Pofahl said. ``I have to be strong. It's what he would