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Caller Who Says He Started Mobil Refinery Fire Sought

November 26, 1987|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

While firefighters controlled a stubborn fire at the Mobil Oil Corp. refinery in Torrance, federal and local investigators Wednesday sought a telephone caller who claimed responsibility for the explosion that caused the blaze.

"We don't know whether it was a bomb, or a natural explosion," said Lt. Jim Papst, commander of the Torrance Police Department's Investigative Division.

The city's fire marshal, Denny Haas, said he is inclined to believe that the call was a prank. But he added that investigators are, nevertheless, seeking a "nervous-looking" man, who was seen near a local public telephone from which the call was made. The phone has been seized as part of the investigation, he said.

The explosion at 5:53 p.m. Tuesday, sent a huge fireball 200 to 300 feet in the air, broke windows in homes and businesses half a mile away and caused minor injuries to two workers.

Gas Lines Cut Off

The damage to Mobil, including loss of revenue while refining is halted, will be more than $1 million, said Tom Gregory, the company's manager of safety, training and community relations.

Another source close to the investigation said the loss will be closer to $10 million.

Although the fire was contained five hours after the explosion, it continued to burn until about 11 a.m. Wednesday, when refinery workers were able to cut off gas lines feeding the flames.

The call claiming responsibility for the explosion was received by an operator in Tustin at 6:10 p.m. Tuesday, Pacific Bell spokeswoman Charlene Baldwin said. "The gentleman indicated there would be further explosions," she said.

Baldwin explained that the call went to the Orange County city because switching equipment automatically routes calls to the first available operators.

Telephone company officials called Tustin police, who notified Torrance police, who in turn called in the FBI.

Later officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration joined the investigation.

Phone 2 Miles From Site

Haas said the call had been traced to a public phone near the corner of Carson Street and Western Avenue, less than two miles from the site of the explosion.

The fire marshal said one witness reported that he saw a man in a parking lot near the pay phone "who looked kind of nervous" shortly after the explosion. The witness provided a description to authorities, but Haas declined to provide details.

Tustin Police Sgt. Jim Peery told the Associated Press the caller claimed that he was a member of an unnamed "South American terrorist group" and that "one bomb had gone off and there were two more that were set to go off."

Haas said he is inclined to believe that the call was a hoax. He said it is unlikely that someone could have walked from the center of the refinery--where the explosion took place--to its boundary, scaled a fence and driven in evening rush-hour traffic to the phone during the 17 minutes that elapsed between the explosion and the call.

"The timing is critical," Haas said. "I consider the possibility (that it was sabotage) remote. That is not to say he (the caller) did not have an accomplice."

Haas said his investigators might not be able to determine the origin of the fire for several days. Any evidence that the explosion was deliberate may have been consumed by the flames, he added.

"We haven't been able to get right at the seat of the fire," said Capt. Ken Hall, Torrance's assistant fire marshal. "There is 50 to 100 feet of pipe completely blown out of that area. It is going to take a while to piece it together."

One of the two plant employees who was injured, Michael Trento Jr., 23, of West Covina, was released from the hospital Wednesday after being treated for smoke inhalation and minor injuries. The second worker was not hospitalized.

The shutdown of the Mobil refinery is expected to put upward pressure on retail gasoline prices in Southern California and nearby states. The plant accounts for about 10% of the refining capacity in the Los Angeles basin, according to industry officials.

A Mobil spokesman said it is too soon to know how long the refinery will remain closed. But he expected it to be out of operation at least through the weekend. The spokesman said the company has enough gasoline stockpiled to prevent immediate shortages to its customers, and will bring in products from elsewhere if necessary.

The refinery puts out 70,000 barrels of gasoline daily for dealers in Arizona and Southern California. It also produces 53,000 barrels of other refined products each day.

The shutdown will affect more than just Mobil customers, however, by reducing the net volume of gasoline being produced in what is a relatively isolated market. Gasoline prices could rise as much as 7 cents a gallon before suppliers in other regions, such as Houston, find it profitable to ship gasoline to Southern California, industry experts said.

Times staff writer Donald Woutat contributed to this article.

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