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Delaware County, Pennsylvania
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The Corinthos Disaster

Oil Tanker on Fire

Fire, huge fire. The Corinthos disaster of January 30, 1975 was the biggest fire in Philadelphia history, and one hopes the biggest for evermore. Its immensity has possibly lessened attention for some associated issues which are nevertheless quite important, too. Like the issue of punative damages in lawsuit, or the need to balance environmental damage with a national need for energy independence. And the changing ways that law firms charge their clients. We hope the relatives of the victims will not be offended if the tragedy is used to illustrate these other important issues.

On that cold winter day, two big tanker ships were tied up alongside the opposite banks of the Delaware River at Marcus Hook. The Corinthos was a 754-foot tanker with a capacity of 400,000 barrels of crude oil, tied up on the Pennsylvania side at the British Petroleum dock with perhaps 300,000 barrels still in its tanks at the time of the disaster. At the same time, the 660-foot tanker Edgar M. Queeny

Edgar M. Queeny

with roughly 250,000 barrels of specialty chemicals in its hold, let go its moorings to the Monsanto Chemical dock directly across the river in New Jersey, intending to turn around and head upstream to discharge the rest of its cargo at the Mantua Creek Terminal near Paulsboro. Curiously, a tanker is more likely to explode when it is half empty, because there is more opportunity for mixing oxygen with the combustible liquid sloshing around. A tug stood by to assist the turn, but the master of the Queeny felt there was ample room to make the turn under her own power. With no one paying particular attention to this routine maneuver, the Queeny seemed (to only casual observers) to head directly across the river, ramming straight into the side of the Corinthos. Actually, the Queeny had engaged in a number of backing and filling maneuvers, and the sailors aboard were appalled that it seemed to lack enough backing power to stop its headlong lunge at the Corinthos. There was an almost immediate explosion on the Corinthos, and luckily the Queeny broke free with only its bow badly damaged. Otherwise, the fire might have been twice as large as it proved to be with only the Corinthos burning. The explosion and fire killed twenty-five sailors and dockworkers, burned for days, devastated the neighborhood and occupied the efforts of three dozen fire companies. A graphic account of the fire and fire fighting was written by none other than Curt Weldon who was later to become Congressman from the district, but was then a volunteer fireman active in the Corinthos tragedy.

There were surprising water shortages in this fire on the river, because the falling tides would take the water's edge too far away from the suction devices for the fire hoses on the shore. The tide would also rise above a gash in the side of the burning ship, floating water in and then oil up to the point where it would flow out of the ship onto the surface of the river. Oil floated two miles upstream from the burning ship and ignited a U.S. Navy destroyer which was tied up at that point. Observers in airplanes estimated the oil spill was eventually fifty miles long. All of these factors played a role in the decision whether to try to put the fire out at the dock, or let it burn out; experts continue to argue which would have been better. There were always dangers the burning ship would break loose and float in unexpected directions, that the oil slick would ignite for its full length, and that storage tanks on shore would be ignited. The initial explosion had blown huge pieces of iron half a mile away, and the ground near the ship was littered with charred, dismembered pieces of flesh from the victims.

Of course there was a big lawsuit. When a ship is tied up at a dock it certainly feels aggrieved when another ship crosses a river and rams it. The time-honored principle of admiralty law holds that the owner of an offending ship is not liable for damages greater than the salvage value of its own hulk, which in this case might have been about $3 million. The underlying assumption is that the owner has no way of knowing what is going on thousands of miles away, no control over it, no power to respond in a useful way. Enter Richard Palmer, counsel for the Corinthos. Palmer was aware that the National Transportation Safety Board collects information about ship maintenance inspections in order to share useful information for the benefit of everyone. His inquiry revealed that the inspections of the Queeny for four years before the crash had repeatedly demonstrated that the stern engine had a damaged turbine, and was only able to drive the ship at 50% of its rated power. Why this turbine had not been repaired was now irrelevant; the owners of the ship did have relevant information and had failed to act in a timely safe fashion. The limitation of liability to the salvage value of the hulk now no longer applied if the negligence was judged relevant. The defendants, the owners of the Queeny, decided to settle. While the size of the settlement is a secret of the court, it is fair to guess that it approached the full value of the suit, which was $11 million. Mr. Palmer, by using his experience to surmise that maintenance records might be available at the Transportation Agency, and recognizing that the awareness of the owner might switch the basis for the compensation award from hulk value (of the defendant's ship) to the extent of the damage (to the plaintiff's ship), probably tripled the damage settlement.

Reflections on the extraordinary benefit to the client from a comparatively short period of work by the lawyer, leads to discussion about the proper basis for lawyers fees. Senior lawyers feel that the computer has revolutionized lawyer billing practices, and not for the better. Because it is now possible to produce itemized billing which summarizes conversations of less than a minute in duration, services for the settlement of estates can be many pages long, mostly for rather routine business. Matrimonial lawyers are entitled to charge for hours of listening to inconsequential recriminations; lawyers can bill for hours of time spent reading documents into a recording machine, or sitting wordlessly at depositions. Since the time expended can now be flawlessly measured and recorded on computers, there is little room for a client to remonstrate about their fairness. Discomfort about this system underlies much sympathy for billing for contingent fees, where the lawyer is gambling all of his expenses and effort against a generous proportion of the award if he wins the case, nothing at all if he loses. This latter system, customary in slip and fall cases and justified as permitting the poor client to have proper representation, undoubtedly promotes questionable class action suits and often leads to accepting personal liability suits which should be rejected for lack of merit. The thinking underlying personal injury firms is widely said to be: most insurance companies will settle for modest awards in cases without merit because the defense costs would be no less that that amount, and occasionally a personal liability case gets lucky and extracts a huge award.

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Oil Refineries

Listen to one old-time lawyer describe how legal billing used to be. After the case was over, the lawyer and the client sat down to a discussion of what was involved in the legal work, and what it accomplished for the client. A winning case has more evident value than a losing one, provided the lawyer can effectively describe the professional skills that helped bring it about. The whole discussion is aimed at having both parties leave the discussion satisfied. To the extent that both parties actually are satisfied with the value of the services, the esteem and reputation of the legal profession is enhanced. And the lawyer is a happy and contented member of a grateful community. If he can occasionally claim a staggering fee for a brief but brilliant performance, as in the case of the explosive fire on the Corinthos -- well, more power to him.

It does not take much familiarity with oil refineries to make you realize that cargoes of crude oil are a very dangerous business. We are accustomed to hearing jeers at those who protest, "Not in my backyard", and we deplore those who would jeopardize our national security to protect a few fish and trees in the neighborhood of potential oil spills. Since we do have to import oil and we do therefore have to jeopardize a few selected neighborhoods to accomplish this vital service, the opponents are sadly destined to lose their protests. But that doesn't mean their concerns are trivial. The shipping and refining of oil is dangerous. We just have to live with it, and be ready to pay for its associated costs.

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I was part of a small recon/appraisal team of divers, hired by a Dutch salvage company, to assess the damage to this ship just a few weeks after this tragedy occurred. The thick steel decking was shredded and wrapped about the superstructure like you would see in melted plastic. Another team of divers - whom I would be privileged to work with years later - were tasked with finding and recovering the corpses. These charred remains were tethered together in small groups and tied to pilings so as to be removed in batches. The most humane thoughts I had/have about those poor souls is that they must have died quickly and painlessly from this horrific tragedy.
Posted by: Gerard   |   Oct 6, 2014 7:08 PM
I was in a little bar on Green St in Hook when the initial explosion occurred. The concussion swept though us.We ran toward the refinery against all the people that were running from their houses screaming.The initial explosion blew out all of the windows in their houses.I saw a piece of decking the size of a truck shoot high into the air from a secondary explosion and hit the river with a huge splash.The mushroom shaped fire explosions continued one after another. The heat was so intense, we had to turn our backs to it, to keep our faces from burning.As we left the fire ,I saw a block partitioned off with 14 or more ambulances lined up. I saw no one injured. I believe the fire burned for seven days. I was 21 and immortal.
Posted by: Ron Menna   |   Sep 4, 2013 12:33 AM
My father was on 3rd shift duty that night working for Viscose. The building he was in at the time of the explosion used to be at the intersection of Church Street and W. Delaware Avenue. He - along with a fellow employee - manned the partially destroyed facilities further in from the shore to shut operations down and prevent anything from making the disaster any worse. I was 14 at the time.
Posted by: Bill A   |   Jul 8, 2013 4:04 PM
The article above states that dockworkers perished in the Corinthos Incident. That is not the case. I now work on the dock at Monroe Energy, the former BP refinery and have personal knowledge through working relationships with those individuals that were on duty the night in question and they have confirmed to me that no life was lost at the terminal side (dockmen). The only loss of life came from the 2 vessels involved. The USCG report confirms this. Report number USCG/NTSBMAR-77-2 which you can find online.
Posted by: RTB   |   May 8, 2013 11:47 PM
I was Captain of the coastwise tug MOBIL 1 towing a barge off Cape May, N.J. when the broadcast came of the collision and fire at BP, Marcus Hook, Pa. I was enroute to Paulsboro, N.J., upriver from the scene of the conflagration. As we approached the area later that day the Coast Guard permitted one way traffic on the east side of the river. Before I arrived at my destination the Coast Guard put out a call asking any vessel with a foam fire fighting capability to respond. I delivered the barge I was towing to the Mobil Oil terminal at Paulsboro and called the fleet dispatcher in New York to report the voyage and the call for assistance. Mobil management told me to respond and assist as directed. I assembled my crew, led out our fire hoses and informed the Chief Engineer to ready the fire pumps and foam generating equipment. Proceeding to Marcus Hook I reported to the Coast Guard vessel in charge. Two or three Philadelphia Fireboats and other oil company tugs were also on the scene. The ship had been burning then for about 12 hours, a raging inferno. The Coast Guard Officer decided to mount a unified foam attack from the offshore side of the ship. The shore side firefighters were keeping the fire away from the refinery. As we advanced the foam attack we received word that the fire was being driven toward the shore side terminal facilities. We stood down and continued to apply the foam with lesser force to avoid spreading the fire. We continued this action until called away by the Coast Guard the following morning. I was informed that Fire Chiefs from Seattle and Portland flew east to study how this inferno was being fought from shore and the river.
Posted by: Earl E. Maxfield, Jr.   |   May 1, 2013 9:31 PM
My father was the BP refinery manager at the time. I remember this well. Since he spoke Greek, he was able to interpret for the local fire and rescue people and investigators. It was a terrible disaster, one which I hope will never happen again.
Posted by: Stephanie   |   Apr 26, 2013 9:16 PM
I worked on the dock at BP refinery for 23 years.I was working that night when the Corinthos was struck by the the Edger M. Queenie and exploded. I led the only survivors of the Corinthos off of the dock that terrible night. 29 people perished in the fire which burned for 4 days. I remember it well.
Posted by: GWC   |   Apr 9, 2012 12:05 AM
I have a copy of the book written by my dad, Harry Collins, Jr. and Curt Weldon.
I was in high school at the time. We didn't see my dad for days, while he and all the others battled that horrific fire.
Posted by: Maureen   |   Mar 23, 2012 10:30 PM
The explosions had shaken the house and awakened me three miles away in Claymont, DE. Looking from my bedroom window the entire horizon was illuminated by the fire. I thought, perhaps, the refinery had been bombed by the Soviets.
Posted by: P. C. Stowe   |   Feb 7, 2012 9:00 AM
I lived near the Delaware River when this happened. I remember having to stay with my mother's parents and my step father's parents while the fire was being fought. I also remember school being closed for awhile while they fought the fire. I was about 5 years old when this happened.
Posted by: Richard Heacock Jr   |   Jan 7, 2012 6:27 PM
I was a member of the Drexel Hill Sea Scouts. We kept our 85 foot ex USGC cutter the MV Albatross at the Army Reserve base in Marcus Hook, between BP and Sunoco refineries. I was onboard that night when this all happened. We were so close we were under the explosion and were rained down with blobs of crude oil. The reserve base had two Tug that helped in fighting the fire. Ill never for get the glowing anchor chain link from the Corinthos ,and watched as it slowly parted due to the melting of the iron!
Posted by: David Van Stan   |   Sep 12, 2011 9:32 AM
My Father was a Marcus Hook Police Officer and was on Duty with Officer George McClure the night the Corinthos Exploded. That was a night I will never forget.
Posted by: Don Lewis Jr.   |   Aug 22, 2011 5:55 PM
Uh... Harry Collins Jr of Marcus Hook PA wrote the book WITH Curt Weldon. They both served as Fire Chiefs at the Visco Fire station.
Posted by: [none]   |   Apr 22, 2011 2:07 PM
i arrived 30 minutes after the explosion and spent approx. 12 weeks there on the clean up. the first 4 days you could not see the ship for the flames, so minimal progress was made. 40 years ago many brave firemen,coast guard, police and clean up crews braved the cold and the inferno to try to keep the disaster from getting worse, and in this respect we were mostly sucessful. 4 decades later, i still remember the horror and the brave men who faced it.
Posted by: bill franzen   |   Apr 19, 2010 8:29 AM
as a child i lived on the river in marcus hook and i rememeber my family, grandmother/ ida mae burton& mother/elise anette johnson recalling the account! they said that the energy from the explosion blew all the front windows out of our house!
Posted by: ryan johnson   |   Mar 18, 2010 2:21 PM
I could see the flames and smoke from this at my house in Concordville...nearly 5 miles away. And it was at the BP docks in "the Hook" ..i.e. Marcus Hook.
Posted by: [none]   |   Mar 17, 2010 4:53 PM
yea, this was in Marcus Hook, not philly
Posted by: [none]   |   Dec 16, 2009 6:47 AM
This was not in Philadelphia! This was in Delaware County!!!
Posted by: WRS   |   Aug 31, 2009 11:34 AM

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