On September 1, 1979, at 1412, the SS Chevron Hawaii exploded, burned, and sank
while discharging cargo at the Deer Park Shell Oil Company terminal
on the south side of the Houston ship channel.
The cargo of catalytic cracker feedstock and Santa Maria crude oil
spilled into the sea as the fire burned for ten hours.
Lightning apparently ignited accumulated cargo vapors on the deck of the vessel.
None of the cargo tanks had been gas-freed.
The explosion was so powerful that a 5 foot by 7 foot hull fragment from the burning vessel
penetrated the roof of a Shell Oil Company petroleum product shore tank
located 600 feet inland from the vessel.
The contents of that shore tank, approximately 26,000 barrels of ethyl alcohol,
ignited and burned as well.
As the fire spread into a nearby barge slip,
four barges that were discharging cargo caught fire.
Three of these barges exploded and sank.
No significant amount of pollution came from any of these four barges.
Weather during the incident was warm and windy with heavy downpours and lightning.
The maximum reported wind gust for the day was 33 knots, at 1300.
The fireboat M/V Captain F. L. Farnsworth,
which had been moored 2.5 nautical miles from the terminal, was on-scene by 1430.
Four boats and 14 Coast Guard personnel assisted in fire fighting and lifesaving operations.
Two Coast Guard pollution team investigators from the Houston Port Safety Station
were already on their way to the Shell terminal when the accident occurred.
They led the rescue of the burning vessel's boatswain from the forecastle.
Representatives from both the USCG Pacific and Gulf Strike Teams (PST and AST)
monitored all phases of the cleanup.
Eighteen different cleanup companies were involved in the cleanup operations.
Since the spill occurred over a holiday weekend,
it was difficult to recruit companies with equipment specifically needed for this spill.
One crew member and two radar repairmen aboard the SS Chevron Hawaii
were killed and 13 people were injured.
Even though six tugs were available within the barge slip,
no attempt was made by the Shell Oil Company dockman or the tugboat operators
to move any adjacent barges into the channel where they might have been safe from the fire.
Also, the dockman left the scene without activating the emergency cut-off switch.
This would have assured that any adjacent barges' cargo openings were properly secured.
Damages to the vessel, barges and facility exceeded $27,000,000.
Oil leaking from the ship impacted the entire area
from the ship to Diamond Shamrock for the first 6 days following the explosion.
An oily rain fell on nearby houses, cars and swimming pools as a result of the explosion.
The spreading of the oil on the water limited the usefulness of the Coast Guard boats in firefighting
by clogging the boat engines and fire pump intakes.
The oil continued to flow into the main stream in the middle of the channel.
Much of the oil and oily debris collected in a bend in the channel near the incident area.
Boom assisted this natural containment in slowing the spread of oil.
A large amount of the oil collected at the oil tanking area on the north side of the channel.
Due to wind and water movement, a substantial amount of oil accumulated at Jacinto Port.
The western shore of Old River was heavily oiled, from two miles upstream down to the entrance of the river,
while the flatlands on the east side were only slightly oiled.