by John Hmurovic
Sixty-five years ago this month, Whiting was the site of one of the most spectacular industrial explosions in history. A solid, steel hydroformer, a unit used to increase the octane of gasoline, shattered into pieces in a powerful blast at the Whiting Refinery, then owned by Standard Oil. The sound of the explosion woke people up twenty-five miles away, and it shook the earth so hard that some in Michigan, 100 miles away, thought it was an earthquake.
It happened on August 27, 1955, at 6:12a.m., one minute after sunrise. It was a Saturday, and on that hot, humid summer day in the years before home air conditioning became common, most Whiting residents were in bed with their windows open. Eight-year-old Ron Plewniak and his three-year-old brother, Ricky Plewniak, were asleep in the bedroom of their family’s home at 2638 Schrage Avenue, when the hydroformer exploded. The blast sent large and small pieces of steel flying in every direction, and the power of the explosion sent one soaring across the sky, crashing into the bedroom where the little boys slept. The large piece of metal landed on Ron’s leg, but it came down directly on Ricky, who was in the bed next to Ron.
Just over five years ago, Ron Plewniak sat down for an interview with the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society. He talked about how the hot and humid night saved his life. Because of the heat, he slept with his head close to the open window. Normally, he slept with his head on the other end of the bed. If he had not changed sides, he too would have been killed by the chunk of steel that took the life of his little brother. When he talked to the Historical Society about sixty years after the explosion, Ron also looked back on his own life, how he came through that tragic day, and how he lived a successful life with the use of an artificial leg.
Five months ago, Ron Plewniak died at the age of 72. But the memories he had of that tragic day were preserved for all time. So were interviews with 81 other people who lived through the most frightening day in Whiting’s history, when a fire, set off by the explosion, shot flames into the sky that rose as high as today’s Hancock Building in downtown Chicago. As the flames burned for eight days, oil storage tanks within the refinery either collapsed or caught on fire. Rivers of oil flowed out of those tanks, away from the refinery, and into the sewers of Whiting. Residents lived in fear that one match, one cigarette, could ignite the sewers in any part of the city.
Of the 82 people who shared their memories with the Historical Society, 34 agreed to on-camera interviews. Five years ago, the Historical Society presented a 30-minute video it produced, which combined photos of the fire with the interviews from those 34 eyewitnesses to history, to tell the story of the explosion and fire and Whiting’s response. Three years ago, the Historical Society published a book on the subject, adding more details about what happened and how it impacted the people of Whiting. Both the video and the book are called One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the Standard Oil Refinery Fire of 1955.
Both are available for purchase on the website of the Historical Society at wrhistoricalsociety.com, at the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce, or by calling 219-659-2190 (leave a message). The book is $14, the video (DVD) is $12, or you can buy both for $20.
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