A toxic cloud of choking vapors injured three workers at Mobil's Torrance refinery, requiring their hospitalization and prompting an investigation by state and local officials.
"I couldn't breathe at all," Herbert Delome, the worker most affected by the fumes, said in an interview from his hospital bed Wednesday.
Cal-OSHA spokesman Rick Rice said his agency and the Torrance Fire Department are investigating the Monday night incident under the heading of a release of acutely hazardous hydrofluoric acid. He said the release stemmed from a leak in the alkylation unit.
Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti at first disputed that any hydrofluoric acid had been released. He later conceded that a small amount leaked along with ammonia vapors being used to purge the alkylation unit.
Hydrofluoric acid is more than 15 times as incapacitating as ammonia, according to federal safety standards. Both substances can form dense ground-hugging clouds of toxic vapors. Mobil's use of hydrofluoric acid at the refinery has been the subject of lengthy controversy.
In the aftermath of the release, Torrance fire officials and the South Coast Air Quality Management District have moved to improve reporting of accidents at Mobil.
Despite vocal public concern about safety there, top city officials did not learn of the accident until early Wednesday.
Torrance Fire Chief Scott Adams, whose department learned of the release when its paramedics were summoned, did not find out about the accident until 30 hours after it happened, according to a memo written by Adams on Wednesday.
In the memo, the chief apologized to City Manager LeRoy Jackson for the delay in informing him about the incident and added that he had issued instructions to be told of any accident at Mobil "so that it may be brought immediately to my attention and [yours]."
Mobil did not notify the air quality agency about the release, but now has agreed to inform it any time a release of air-borne toxics causes injury, according to Arnold Stein, AQMD senior enforcement manager.
Cal-OSHA's Rice said the investigation will determine if hydrogen fluoride, the gaseous form of hydrofluoric acid, was released, and whether human error or equipment failure caused the accident.
"It is being viewed as a serious matter," he said, noting that the state occupational health agency has sent three safety engineers and two industrial hygienists to the refinery.
Carbonetti said the apparent cause of the release was the failure of a half-inch fitting used during the purge of residual vapors from the alkylation unit.
Adams said Fire Department units went to the refinery at 10:54 p.m. Monday and "determined that three individuals had been exposed to hydrogen fluoride vapors and were complaining of symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea and burning sensations in the respiratory tract."
The three men, all contract workers, reported that the impact of the vapors was almost instantaneous.
"I saw a big cloud, like a cloud you see in the sky. I heard a roar noise," said Delome. "I slid down the ladder like a monkey, and I ran about 30 yards."
He held his breath, he said, as long as he could, but he wasn't out of danger. His first breath "cut the wind off to my lungs...I was just gasping. I started puking right away," he said. "I'm 47 years old. I lived this long with my lungs, and I want to keep them until I die."
The three contract employees worked for Mobil subcontractor Serv-Tech Co. of Harbor City. It was their first day at the refinery. Refinery employees were also working in the alkylation unit where the release occurred but missed the worst effects of the gas.
Delome, Roger Gibson and Christopher Griffith were taken to Torrance Memorial Hospital after complaining of chest pains and eye and throat irritation. Examination found a slight reduction in blood oxygen levels and minor eye irritation.
Gibson and Griffith were released from the hospital Wednesday.