Corinthos on fire 1-31-75 (MH Trainer Fire Dept)
Corinthos on fire. (Photo: Marcus Hook-Trainer Fire Department)

Forty-five years ago, on January 31, 1975, two ships collided at Marcus Hook. The resulting fire killed 26 people and injured 11. Under different weather conditions, the casualties could have been far greater. If this accident happened today and one of the ships was carrying highly-volatile liquids from the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system), the scale of the disaster would be almost unimaginable.

Here is the story of the 1975 collision. I have drawn the details from the Coast Guard’s accident report.

One of the two ships involved, the Corinthos, was moored and discharging crude oil at the BP refinery (this is now the Monroe refinery, on the eastern edge of Marcus Hook). The other ship, the Edgar S. Queeny, had finished discharging part of its petroleum-products cargo at a Monsanto plant (no longer in existence) on the opposite side of the Delaware River. It needed to make a 180-degree turn to proceed upriver to Philadelphia. The pilot who was handling the procedure misjudged the conditions or the capabilities of the Queeny, with the result that the turn was not completed and instead the Queeny crossed the river at an angle and rammed the Corinthos.

The result was a series of explosions of increasing size, until the Corinthos was engulfed in flames. Oil leaking from the Corinthos also caught fire, which meant that the gangplank and the lifeboats could not be used for escape. Initially, a few crew members were able to swim to shore, but soon the burning oil prevented that. The rest were trapped, and perished, despite the efforts of shore-based fire crews to dowse the flames. Ultimately, the fire on the Corinthos was allowed to burn itself out over several days. The ship broke in two and sank alongside the dock. Although attempts were made to contain the oil, it polluted the river as far downstream as Delaware City, DE.

Fires were triggered on board the Queeny as well, but the crew was able to put them out. The Queeny was able to reverse its engines and back away to a safe anchorage.

It could have been much worse. The 26 deaths (all of them Corinthos crew members or passengers) were bad enough. But if the weather had been different, there could have been massive casualties on land. Here is how the Coast Guard report described it:

Common ordinary luck was a principal influence responsible for averting a catastrophic conflagration and/or release of toxic fumes in the Marcus hook area of uncontrollable magnitude. A lack of wind [kept the fire away from the BP refinery] and the array of similar surrounding refineries….

This reflects the fact that the Corinthos was docked at what is now the Monroe Refinery, only a few hundred feet from the Sunoco refinery, and very close to other refinery assets in Trainer Borough. As great a potential for a “catastrophic conflagration” as the Coast Guard identified in 1975, the potential is even greater today.

What if it happened today? On most days now, there is a ship moored at the Sunoco Marcus Hook refinery loading highly-volatile, compressed ethane, butane, or propane from the Mariner East system for shipment overseas. Some days, there have been two, three, or occasionally even four ships loading there. (In addition, crude-oil tankers are often moored at the adjacent Monroe refinery.)

If one of the ships docked at the Sunoco refinery were to be breached by a collision like the 1975 one, and if the contents were released over land, the scope of the resulting disaster is almost beyond imagining. A flammable cloud would envelope the nearby refineries (and any other ships in the vicinity) and the resulting explosions could easily destroy many of the surrounding residential neighborhoods below I-95. Toxic fumes from the refineries could threaten the lives of thousands of additional people far downwind.

Is there an emergency plan in place for a situation like this? I can’t imagine what it would be. All the authorities could do would be to cordon off the burning neighborhoods and try to keep nearby homes and businesses from being caught up in the flames. Pennsylvania’s worst-ever disaster, the Johnstown flood of 1889, took more than 2,200 lives. I have to think this one would be much, much worse.

Can we afford the risk? Our regulators and elected officials (including Governor Wolf) need to be asking themselves: how many hundreds of lives are you willing to risk in order to create a few dozen well-paid jobs in Marcus Hook and a few dozen more at the other end of the Dragonpipe in Washington County?