SH pays tribute to those who conquered the Hancock Oil Fire

hancock-ceremony.jpgBY NICK DIAMANTIDES
Staff Writer

During the Memorial Day weekend, as millions of Americans honored the men and women who died in our nation’s battles, Signal Hill also paid tribute to another group of heroes: the firefighters who fought and ultimately conquered the famous Hancock Oil Refinery Fire. That conflagration ignited on May 22, 1958 and lasted three days and two nights before it was extinguished.
On Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the day the fire was extinguished, city officials, present-day firefighters, and about 100 people-including many of the men who fought the blaze half a century ago-gathered in the Signal Hill Community Center for a special ceremony to commemorate the event.
The occasion began with a prayer offered by Gil Denham, who, as a member of the Signal Hill Fire Department in 1958, was on the front lines of the battle to put out the flames at Hancock. “Father in Heaven, as we gather today for this memorial occasion, we are so grateful that we can look to You in our time of need,” Denham prayed. “Lord, you brought us through this without one single fireman fatality, and in this we are very grateful today.”
Signal Hill Mayor Mike Noll then addressed the audience. He began by thanking the firefighters for their heroic efforts, which saved the city and surrounding areas from what could easily have been a much worse disaster.
Most members of the Signal Hill City Council were present as were elected and appointed officials from nearby cities (or their representatives), and several fire chiefs and battalion commanders from the region.
“I have vivid memories of the Hancock fire,” Noll said. “I was living in Long Beach at the time, and many of you here today also have vivid memories of the fire.” He noted that most of the firefighters did not see their families at all during the three days that they fought the blaze. “At that time, no one knew that it would become the largest oil refinery fire in California history and one of the first instances of successful mutual aid among the fire departments in California,” he added.
The mayor explained that units from the Signal Hill Fire Department, Long Beach Fire Department (LBFD), Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD) and the Vernon Fire Department responded to the disaster. “Fighting fires requires a certain amount of danger depending on the circumstances and it’s unfortunate that there were two fatalities (Hancock employees) during the three days of the fire,” Noll said. “But as you will see in the documentary, it is a miracle that many more people were not injured or killed.”
Noll was referring to a recently completed 35-minute video entitled The Hancock Oil Fire, which was shown to the audience during the ceremony. The mayor added that the famous 1958 conflagration spurred legislation that dramatically changed the ways oil refineries are designed and operated. “While nothing is impossible, it’s quite improbable that a refinery fire of the magnitude of the Hancock fire could occur today because of the lessons we learned in May 1958,” he said.
Noll thanked the firefighters who put their lives in harm’s way for all of the residents in the vicinity of the refinery. He added that the Hancock fire was the career fire of a lifetime for most of them.
“The City of Signal Hill is pleased to recognize you and your colleagues, many of whom could not be with us today,” Noll said. “We want to honor you for the bravery and valor that you displayed 50 years ago for our city, state and country.”
After Noll’s speech, Los Angeles County Fire Department Deputy Chief Michael Bryant and city manager Ken Farfsing made brief comments, prior to the showing of the documentary.
After the audience viewed the video, the city presented certificates of honor to the firefighters who fought the Hancock fire. Certificates of recognition were also given to several residents who were eyewitnesses of the fire and contributed photos or testimonies that were used in the video.
A few years after the fire, the LACFD took over fire protection for the City of Signal Hill, and all of the city’s firemen became employees of the county fire department. Years later the city formed its own fire department again, but that was short lived. For many years, the LBFD provided fire protection to the city, but a few years ago Signal Hill awarded its fire protection contract to the LACFD.
Copies of The Hancock Oil Fire video are available through the city. For more information, phone (562) 989-7305.

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