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Witnesses and residents recount Superior refinery explosion

Eric Mathews, a boilermaker for Wales, Wis.-based CTS Inc. contractors working inside the refinery, said he was about 200 yards away on break when the blast at Husky Energy refinery in Superior occurred. It was like "a big sonic boom and rattled ...

Shana Ross of Superior evacuates her cat Smudgie from her home on East 13th Street in Superior after a series of fires and explosions at the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior Thursday. Ross remarked, "She does not travel well, as you can hear she's already unhappy."--- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
Shana Ross of Superior evacuates her cat Smudgie from her home on East 13th Street in Superior after a series of fires and explosions at the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior Thursday. Ross remarked, "She does not travel well, as you can hear she's already unhappy."--- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
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Eric Mathews, a boilermaker for Wales, Wis.-based CTS Inc. contractors working inside the refinery, said he was about 200 yards away on break when the blast at Husky Energy refinery in Superior occurred.

It was like "a big sonic boom and rattled your brain," Mathews told the News Tribune. "I was running and then the debris started falling out of the air ... I stopped under a pipe rack then waited for the debris to stop falling."

Mathews said most or all of his fellow contractors were on break, in blast-proof shelters at the scene, when the first explosion occurred.

"The really lucky part is that it happened during our break so all of our people were in blast shacks," he said.

A second wave of employees and contractors were rapidly leaving the scene after 12:30 p.m. - some piled into the backs of pickup trucks - as a series of seven or eight more explosions occurred at 12:40 p.m. when fire trucks were seen moving away from the fire.

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Earlier in the morning witnesses said they saw at least seven ambulances enter the facility, with helicopter ambulances also shuttling to and from the refinery and the Richard I. Bong Airport in Superior.

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Passersby and people near the refinery said they felt the first explosion rock buildings up to a mile away.

"It felt like a bomb," said Katey Geistfeld, who works at the Challenge Center at the nearby Mariner Mall. "Everything kind of shook."

"It shook the houses all over. They felt it at Belknap Plaza. ... Tons of people were trying to get down there. They should be staying out," said Mark Androsky, owner of Stadium Towing who was watching from just outside the refinery. Androsky was using his wrecker to block traffic at one point to allow emergency vehicles to enter.

News Tribune photographer Bob King, who flew over the site in an airplane on two different occasions, said one of the large, white storage tanks at the refinery was fractured and that a thick black liquid - asphalt - was pouring out onto the ground.

King said the smoke plume "smelled like burning rubber" and that the intense heat from the fire tossed the small plane.

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Local contractor Carl Vana was working in a lab at the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior Thursday during the first explosion.

"The building went completely dark," he said, waiting in a parking lot following his evacuation. "The fluorescent lights came out of the fixtures ... I'm still not sure what happened. I saw a lot of black smoke."

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A distraught contractor walking out of the refinery property following the second, larger fire during the noon hour said he was "emotional. I thought I was going to die."

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Gerald Looker, who tags lumber at Peterson Wood Treating - a short distance from the refinery - said everyone felt the initial blast at 10:06 a.m. People pressed up against the building's windows to see what was happening. Ten minutes later, Looker said, emergency crews passed the lumber yard at the corner of Hill Avenue and Randy Johnson Street.

Even closer to the refinery, Swanstrom Tools at 3300 James Day Ave., voluntarily chose to evacuate within a half hour of the blast, a company representative told the News Tribune as the building was being locked and the last employees were sent home.

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Great Lakes Elementary is a couple of miles from the refinery. Principal Ryan Haroldson felt the first explosion.

"It sounded like something was shaking on top of the building," he said.

His students were evacuated to Amsoil's corporate headquarters in the early afternoon.

"It's not a good situation, but all the adults in the school community did a good job keeping kids safe."

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Thursday afternoon at a tavern on the edge of the evacuation zone, a contractor who had been working at the refinery during the explosion recounted his experience.

A break period had just begun when the first explosion happened, and he had left the area of the blast only moments before.

"We hit the floor," said the equipment operator, who declined to give his name. "Everything on the walls fell off the walls."

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Mary and Gary Holcombe live two miles from the refinery. Law enforcement knocked on their door Thursday afternoon and told them to evacuate, and they ended up at the designated Four Corners Elementary with their Chihuahua, Shondra. They planned to spend the night.

"This is our second time evacuating," Gary Holcombe said, with the first during the 1992 benzene spill in Superior. "It's not fun. It's going to be a hassle for a lot of people."

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South Range resident Cathy Erickson was also at Four Corners Elementary. The smoke from the explosion billowed over her house, she said, so she and her husband closed their nearby auto repair shop and sent their employees home. Worried about what she was breathing, she said, "I was like, I'm not sticking around for this."

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The Superior school district bused students to the Amsoil parking lot near the base of the Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge Thursday afternoon where they could be picked up by a parent or guardian. A line of vehicles sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic along Belknap Street and Susquehanna Avenue waiting to enter the facility. Some families just pulled over and walked more than a half mile to reach their kids.

The students and their teachers gathered along the loading docks and held large cardboard signs with the names of their schools written on them.

Amsoil staff, school staff and police directed traffic and helped families to their children's locations.

Scott Davis, vice president for operations at Amsoil, described the situation as "well-coordinated chaos."

Davis said when he got the call at 1:09 p.m. Thursday that the schools were being evacuated, he assembled a team of employees trained in the company's emergency response protocol. The company works closely with the city of Superior to develop these plans, Davis said.

Rae Dunbar, a junior at Superior High School, and her brother, Sawyer, an eighth grader at Superior Middle School, were walking back to their car from Amsoil with their mother, Carol.

Rae was getting ready for fifth hour - AP U.S. History - when students began to evacuate. Students who had not left on their own were brought into the gym and placed on buses headed for Amsoil.

Carol said it was alarming to drive into Superior as everyone was fleeing the city, but that the situation was handled well by officials.

"I never felt like I was in danger," Carol said.

Except for tense moments while waiting for traffic, including a minor fender bender near Amsoil, Students, staff and family members appeared calm throughout the evacuation.

John Myers of the News Tribune contributed to this report.

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
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