The Norco Louisiana Shell Explosion of 1988

Originally published in the American Guide.

The Times Picayune. May 6th, 1988.

New Orleans Times Picayune. May 6th 1988.

Shell Oil erected their catalytic cracking unit in the early 1950s during a multimillion dollar expansion boom. The unit itself was 16 stories high, a “colossus of the petroleum industry” as described by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The new machinery grew outwards and upwards from the old tiers of the refinery, consuming 3,178 tons of structural steel, 27,500 cubic yards of concrete, 8,000 valves of all shapes and sizes, and thousands of pilings driven deep into the deltaic mud. By 1955, the enormous expansion was complete. The small river town of Norco, Louisiana now had an industrial skyline, and the cat cracker was its most impressive spire.

As decades passed, however, the unit became just more steel in the bizarre landscape of the town. It was a single component in a system of petrochemical production that was growing ever more complex. More variables, more hazards. A new chemical agent was introduced to the daily production process of the machine, but the corrosive properties of the agent weren’t adequately tested. Over the course of six months, it began to wear away a pipe elbow deep inside the machine. The corrosion formed a hole, and through the hole, hydrocarbons poured into a confined chamber of the unit. It created a dense, combustible ball of gas; and on the predawn morning of May 5th, 1988, within the chamber something sparked.

The shockwave blossomed out in a 30 mile radius, shattering windows across the region. Some Norco residents describe being catapulted entirely from their beds, hitting the ground along with the glass and debris. Doors blew completely off their hinges. Ceilings collapsed. Large shards of window panes shot like daggers across rooms and penetrated sheetrock. The neighborhood dollar store crumbled to its foundation, along with the cinderblock wall of the hardware store. The east wall of the grocery store littered the expanse of the adjacent parking lot. The flames raged on for hours at the explosion site, hampering rescue efforts, and casting a catastrophic glow across the town’s wreckage.

I was two years old when the explosion happened. My family’s home was five blocks from the industrial fence line, and less than half a mile from the catalytic cracking unit. My bed was situated beneath a window that faced east. The blast shattered all the window panes, and the broken glass rained down onto me. My parents entered in a panic. The room was dim and pulsing red from the refinery light. They discovered me sound asleep, covered in glass, and were convinced that I was dead. My father gingerly picked the glass off me and breathed a sigh of relief as I began to squirm. He led my family through the lights and sirens of the evacuation zone to my grandmother’s house 10 miles up Airline Highway. We stayed there for several days, but my father returned to our house to assess the damage. It was relatively minor, only broken windows—a ubiquitous mark of destruction across the town. But upon his return and for many months following, he felt haunted and uneasy in our home.

All told, there were seven casualties, all of them Shell employees who were onsite at the time. With the flames raging and the debris piled high, their remains were difficult to recover. Search teams wearing protective clothing and oxygen tanks scoured the disaster site. FBI agents visited Norco in the days following to assist in the forensics investigation as they pulled bodies from the charred rubble and twisted steel.

The intensity of the blast was 1/20th the size of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. If it occurred in the middle of the day, one could imagine customers dead in the dollar store, crushed where the ceiling met the floor; concussed in parking lots; or laid out in the aisles of the hardware store. There would have certainly been more workers moving about Shell’s premises, more people walking through their homes. But thankfully, the town slept through the blast.