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Massive oil refinery fire sends hundreds to Bay Area hospitals

August 7, 2012 |  8:07 am

A massive fire broke out at a Richmond refinery, spewing toxic black smoke across nearby cities and prompting stay-inside orders from health officials.

Officials at the Chevron refinery said in an update early Tuesday morning that the main fire had been extinguished, but a "small controlled burn" was underway "as a safety measure to reduce pressure."

Despite the controlled burn, the "shelter-in-place" order issued by Contra Costa Health Services for Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo was no longer in effect, health officials said. The order was lifted just after 11 p.m. Monday, about the same time refinery officials announced the blaze had been contained.

PHOTOS: Richmond refinery fire

About 200 people complaining of respiratory problems had gone to the Doctors Medical Center in nearby San Pablo by 11:30 p.m. Monday, according to hospital spokeswoman Remy Goldsmith. More patients continued to come into the hospital throughout the night.

Goldsmith said in a statement Tuesday morning that the hospital would "continue to monitor admissions and people seeking services as long as there are heightened air quality concerns."

Several dozen people went to the Richmond Medical Center complaining of shortness of breath, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, but none were seriously ill.

Refinery manager Nigel Hearne told reporters the fire started at the refinery's No. 4 Crude Unit about 6:15 p.m. An inspection crew had discovered a growing diesel leak in a line in the unit minutes before, the Chronicle reported, and the diesel ignited shortly after the area was evacuated.

All employees and contractors were safely accounted for, officials said Tuesday morning. Three employees who suffered minor injuries were treated at an on-site clinic.

The blaze sent smoke several thousand feet into the air, prompting the shelter-in-place advisories, as well as a health advisory for nearby El Cerrito. The Oakland Police Department also warned residents in the north part of the Oakland Hills.

Shortly after the blaze broke out, Oakland resident Lena Brooks told The Times she was going to El Cerrito to pick up friends so they would not be exposed to the smoke.

"Lots of crazy black smoke," she said. "We're evacuating."

Hearne apologized to the community "for the fire and the smoke" at a news conference Monday night.

"Our primary focus is the safety and well-being of our employees and the community," he said.

A fire burned for 10 hours at the refinery, the third-largest in the state, in January 2007 after a pump seal failed, the Chronicle reported. Another explosion injured several workers about a decade ago.


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