ANACORTES - They work in hazardous conditions amid volatile substances, but it wasn't fear and concern dominating the minds of employees at the Equilon Puget Sound Refining Co. today, it was an overwhelming sense of loss.
"Most of them are just deeply depressed over the fact that they've lost friends and loved ones," said Tom Lind of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, which represents about a half of the plant's 475 employees and contract workers.
Grief counselors were at the refinery today to help workers cope with the deaths of six men in the explosion and fire that rocked the plant Wednesday afternoon.
Investigators from state and federal agencies were also on the scene, predicting it may take weeks or even months to say exactly what caused the explosion.
The greatest challenge to understanding what happened is that the only witnesses to the activities leading up to the explosion at the refinery's coke plant are the six men who perished, officials said.
Kandi Paszkowski, who knew three of the victims, said this morning, "It is devastating even if you didn't know them, but to be involved with them personally makes it more difficult."
She predicted the accident will affect the mood of Thanksgiving Day in this town for years to come. Another resident described the local mood as "a state of shock."
Killed were Equilon employees Ron Granfors, 49, of Burlington and Wayne Dowe, 44, of Mount Vernon; and contract workers Dave Murdzia, 30, of Mount Vernon; Warren Fry, 50, of Anacortes; Ted Cade, 23, of Bow, Skagit County, and Jim Berlin, 38, of Anacortes.
Murdzia, Fry, Cade and Berlin all worked for Western Plant Services, which was under contract to cut and remove the coke, residue from the refining process, from the coker.
In working-class Anacortes, reeling over one of the state's worst industrial accidents, mourning supplanted the usually indomitable holiday spirit.
"Hearts are heavy in Anacortes on Thanksgiving Day," Mayor Dean Maxwell said yesterday, summing up the sentiment of the community.
Without witnesses,investigators will try to reconstruct what happened before the explosion, said John Ecker, compliance manager for the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I).
Many workers heard the blast and saw smoke billowing from the refinery's "coker," but no one saw what actually caused the explosion. All six victims were near the coker when the blast occurred.
Extensive scorch marks are visible on the 192-foot-tall tower, which is about 26 feet in diameter, where the fire occurred.
Company officials yesterday would not speculate on the cause of the blast, though they noted it took place as the refinery was coming back on line following a lengthy windstorm-related power outage. L&I officials said they would look into whether the resumption of power at the sprawling refinery played a role in the blast.
Judith Moorad, president of Puget Sound Refinery Co., said yesterday she could not recall a power outage of the magnitude experienced at the plant following the windstorm Monday night and early Tuesday.
Equilon President and CEO Jim Morgan, speaking yesterday during a news conference at the plant, said refineries are "most unstable" during shutdowns and start-ups.
Moorad and Morgan would not say what the workers were doing at the time of the blast. Steve Valandra, spokesman for L&I, said four of the victims were walking around the base of the coker, one was on a ladder and another was on a walkway.
The coker - technically known as the delayed coker unit - was regularly inspected and shut down for maintenance, most recently in August, said Moorad. No particular problems were found, she said.
The blast occurred about 1:22 p.m. Wednesday. One witness described a whooshing sound and then a large, mushroom-shaped cloud billowing over the plant.
Firefighters battling the blaze tried several times to get close enough to search for survivors, but were driven back by heat in excess of 800 degrees, said Tom Sheahan, director of Skagit County Emergency Management Services.
For Sheahan, the tragedy hit close to home. "It wasn't until I got home (Wednesday) night that I realized one of the young men had been to my home" for dinner, he said.
In addition to L&I, the accident investigation will include representatives from the company, union officials and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
The refinery, which opened in 1958, has a production capacity of 6.2 million gallons a day and an annual payroll of $27 million. It employs 375 people and about 100 contract workers.
It receives deliveries of Alaskan North Slope crude oil by tanker and Canadian crude oil through a pipeline. Its products include gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel, propane, petroleum coke and sulfur.
Equilon was formed in January as part of a merger of the refining and marketing operations of Texaco and Shell Inc. Shell has a 56 percent ownership, Texaco 44 percent.
At the Anchor Inn, a smoky, blue-collar tavern in downtown Anacortes, friends gathered yesterday to remember a man most knew simply as "Woody."
Several of Warren Fry's friends were too upset to speak. Others smiled despite their grief, recalling Fry's friendly smile and his fondness for tinkering with old cars.
"I never met anybody that didn't like him," said Whitney Haag, who had been planning an upcoming trip to Reno with Fry.
"He was a real gentleman," added Roxanne Haag, Whitney's wife.
Joe and Claudia Tallerday remembered Fry as a devoted family man, with several children and an extended family that packed the local Eagles hall during family reunions.
Dowe was `a good friend'
A Sandpiper camping trailer, big enough for the family, sits in the yard of Wayne Dowe's modest clapboard house on a quiet street on Mount Vernon's east side.
Dowe had bought it a few months ago, said Mike Dills of Sedro-Woolley, a friend and spokesman for the family. "He didn't really have a chance to use it much, but he loved boating and fishing and he was really looking forward to getting out in it more."
Dowe was an Equilon employee who'd worked for Texaco for many years before Equilon was formed. According to a company spokesman, he demonstrated leadership in responding to safety and emergency situations and was often recognized for work attendance.
"He didn't really brag about stuff like that," said Dills. "We were all talking this morning about how he was safety conscious and all that. But he did his job and what was required of him. He wasn't a braggart or a big talker."
Dills knew Dowe for 20 years. Their wives had been school friends and then the men became close. Dowe belonged to the J.J. Cruisers car club in Sedro-Woolley, Dills said, and loved fixing up old cars.
"The last time I saw him was last week when I ran into him at the coffee shop," Dills said. "We didn't really talk about much. Just how you doing and how's the family. He was a good friend." Dowe is survived by his wife June, daughter Kim, 16, and sons Justin, 17, and Brandon, 19.
Murdzia helped neighbors
The porch light was on in the middle of the afternoon at Murdzia's house, but no one was home. A steep driveway leads from Highway 9 to the house, one of a number of modular homes in a small community overlooking Big Lake between Mount Vernon and Arlington.
Murdzia was a supervisor for Western Plant Services, the company hired to break up the coke in the plant.
Neighbors were shocked to hear of his death. "He was a really nice guy," said Malinda Mason, who lives next door. "He was always offering to help us out when we were all trying to develop our property here. We all lived in trailers, and he was always offering to help us when we were bulldozing and like that."
Mason's children remember Murdzia as a handsome and muscular man as well as a good softball player on community teams.
Mason empathizes with the families of all the men killed in the explosion.
Three years ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, her father, a trucker, died in a fiery crash in California that closed Interstate 5 for hours.
Yesterday, she looked at the remains of the turkey dinner her family had just finished eating and talked of how devastated these families must be.
"This is the first big Thanksgiving dinner we've had since my dad died," she said. "I know how they must feel."
A longtime employee
Ted Cade, 23, is survived by his wife, Aimee, and two sons, Chayce, 15 months, and Drew, 3 months, according to Cade's brother, Mike.
Friends and family for the other victims could not be reached yesterday for comment.
A prepared release read by Moorad said Granfors joined Texaco in 1971 and was named a foreman in the Crude Processing Department in 1996. He is survived by his wife, Colleen, a son and a daughter.
"Mr. Granfors made significant contributions to the management, operations and maintenance of the refinery during his tenure," Moorad said. "He will be remembered for his leadership and dedication to the refinery."
Victims of refinery blast:
-- Ron Granfors, 49, Burlington, department foreman for Equilon Enterprises.
-- Wayne Dowe, 44, Mount Vernon, operator for Equilon Enterprises.
-- Dave Murdzia, 30, Mount Vernon, supervisor for Western Plant Services.
-- Warren Fry, 50, Anacortes, coke-cutter for Western Plant Services.
-- Ted Cade, 23, Bow, Skagit County, coke-cutter for Western Plant Services.
-- Jim Berlin, 38, Anacortes, coke-cutter for Western Plant Services.