Originally published in the American Guide.
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.