KPLC Rewinds to Hackberry Fire - 1978

By Theresa Schmidt - bio | email

HACKBERRY, LA. (KPLC) - Back in 1973 there was an Arab oil embargo that severely crippled America's economy-- and caused long lines at the gas pumps. To make sure it never happens again the U.S. Government set up an oil storage program in case supply is ever cut off again.

One such storage site is in Hackberry-- where 32 years ago, just after the program started, there was a spectacular fire. We look back at that fire in a new segment we call: "KPLC Rewinds."

At the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in West Hackberry they store oil underground in huge caverns hewn from naturally occurring salt. There are millions of barrels underground to provide oil if there's ever a major interruption in the supply of foreign crude to the U.S. But in 1978, when the program was just getting started, there was a huge fire here... One man was killed and another injured in a well pad accident. The men were trying to shut down the rig engine when there was an explosion and fire that could be seen from miles around

A spokesman we talked to on site in 1978 said, "The flow of oil from the well has been reduced from gushing to about thirty feet down to just flowing on a flat flow out of the well."

Firefighting experts Boots n Coots were among those called in to battle the blaze... It would burn for days. And was a frightening episode for some Hackberry residents.  We interviewed those coming and going from Brown's grocery store1978.  Said one young woman, "Well they told us that it's burnin' quite a bit and they're trying to get it under control. They're trying to put it under tap. We're hopin' it's awful soon because we don't want the whole Hackberry to blow up."

A man in Hackberry said then, "Because the oil is underground afraid of getting it into the other caverns and blowin' Hackberry up."  Another citizen added, "It's a threat to the community right now. And uh I think hey ought to take more precautions that things like this wouldn't happen to the community."  Yet one elderly man didn't seem too phased."They just one of those things that happens that's all. I don't think we ain't got too much to worry about it."

Those who might remember first hand are long gone from the SPR at West Hackberry. But those who run it today are amazed to see the historic footage from KPLC archives.  Allison Kuhn is the U.S. Department of Energy's site engineer at West Hackberry. "It was an amazing part of hour history and we've learned a lot from it and it was a large incident that responders immediately responded to and it was a full scale tilt."

Marshall Jackson is the senior DOE staff member at the site. "I was amazed at how quickly they were able to bring it under control I mean this happened on a Thursday afternoon late and within three days they were on the lake cleaning up the oil and within five days they had the fire put out."

In the aftermath there was also a lot of cleanup work to do in adjacent Black Lake.  A spokesman for those working to stop the fire told us at the scene in 1978, "The crew applied 2000 pounds per square inch of pressure. That effectively plugged the pipe and stopped the oil flow."

Obviously much has changed since 1978 and officials here say it's highly unlikely it could happen again. Says Kuhn, "What happened then taught us so many things about ways that we can improve to ensure that our operations are safe from start to finish. We have an in house emergency response team. We have blanket contracts with oil spill response organizations."

Yet they admit it's good to remember to help avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

If you remember a story you'd like us to try to dig up from our archives send Theresa Schmidt an email or call 337-437-7570. Our video archives only go back to 1978.

To see more of the video from the 1978 fire at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve log onto kplctv dot com and check out the raw video.