Newspaper headline from 1955
Whiting Explosion newspaper headline

Northwest Indiana’s Apocalypse

On August 27, 1955, many residents of Whiting, Indiana, thought a nuclear bomb had exploded in or near their town. Perceived as a real and present threat, the Standard Oil Company’s Whiting refinery was destroyed after a massive explosion and fire.

Described later as Northwest Indiana’s 9/11 and by others who thought the sun had exploded or the world was coming to an end, the disaster left two dead – a surprisingly low number given the scope and magnitude of the situation – and 26 with serious injuries. The entire Stiglitz Park neighborhood was so damaged that it was eventually demolished . A grocery store was crushed by nearly 200 tons of steel, train cars melted, cars were turned over, and every window within a three-mile radius was destroyed. More than 700 residents were evacuated in the wake of the event and many were left homeless in the $10 million-plus disaster.

In the early morning hours of August 27, night workers at the refinery had been trying to restart a fluid hydroformer; instead, an explosion destroyed the 26-story “cracking” unit (believed to be the largest in the world at the time), creating an 8,000-foot mushroom cloud that obscured the sun, and smoke visible over 60 miles away. The resulting fire burned some four million gallons of high octane gasoline over the next several days, destroying a significant portion of the plant area. Inside the refinery, more than 3,000 workers initially fought to contain the fire.

Aerial view of Whiting refinery explosion
An aerial view of the Whiting refinery explosion.

One worker, 61-year-old Foreman Walter Rhea, was one of the two who perished, dying of a heart attack as he arrived at the disaster scene, according to the Hammond Times newspaper.

Worker Al Plant, who had served 21 years with Standard Oil, was less than 20 feet away from the unit when it exploded, somehow escaping with only a few scratches to his face. The Times wrote that Plant, speaking with the paper from his home the night of the explosion, was reflective, noting that his own father was killed in a similar explosion at the refinery 33 years earlier.

The other death was that of 3-year-old Richard Plewniak, who died just after 6:14 a.m., when the explosion sent a 10-foot steel pipe through the roof of his family’s home on Schrage Avenue in Whiting. Richard’s 8-year-old brother, Ronald Plewniak, had one leg severed off by the pipe.

Young Ron took months to recover sufficiently to return to school, though his recovery was aided by his young cousins, who lived in the neighborhood, according to the Times. Ron’s parents opted to stay in the Whiting house despite the tragedy, with Ron later noting that his mother, though obviously deeply pained by the loss of her son, remained a cheerful and steadfast person for the rest of her life. The Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society’s website,, includes a detailed story on Ron and his family, including his father Frank, who served in the invasion of Normandy during World War II. Ron died at age 72 in 2020, having lived a life, despite the tragedy, that he said “went very well.”

Not surprisingly, hundreds were injured as a result of the explosion, including a number of residents with feet cut by the broken glass from their windows, since most were awakened from sleep by the blast and hurried to investigate while still barefoot.

In the days following the explosion, the Standard Oil Company sent some 700 firefighters to battle the ongoing blaze, relieving firemen from Whiting and a number of surrounding communities. Among other incidents during the course of the firefight, a three-million-gallon tank exploded, though luckily it gave enough visual warning of the impending explosion to allow the firefighters time to escape. Fires burned at the site for more than eight days following the initial explosion.

The National Guard was deployed in Whiting after the explosion.

Two hundred National Guardsmen were sent to the area to quell looting of local homes that had already begun by August 29, and the equivalent of martial law was declared. Temporary aid shelters were set up to accommodate the many refugees from the community while widespread support from across the region came in the form of volunteers and donated goods and services. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley sent the city’s fire boat amid fears that the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal would catch fire.

Fears also persisted for a time that the fuel spilling into Whiting’s sewers would lead to underground fires or even explosions with manhole covers projected skyward like shrapnel, though nothing of the sort took place.

At the time of the explosion, Whiting was home to some 10,000 residents, many employees of the refinery, though today its population (as of the 2020 census) is listed at 4,559. The town’s oil refinery, which today is still the sixth-largest in the U.S., producing more than 400,000 barrels per day, dates to 1889, when the Standard Oil Company, recognizing the area’s proximity to Chicago and an ever-growing number of rail lines, “along with large parcels of cheap, ‘unusable’ land,” according to the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society, concluded Whiting was “an ideal location for John D. Rockefeller’s ‘world’s greatest refinery.’”

The website, noting that the refinery even had its own fleet of boats, reports that “in the first 10-and-one-half months of 1919 the Whiting refinery shipped more gasoline by boat than was exported in 12 months from the customs district of New York, and half as much as was exported from the entire United States during the same 12-month period.”

Part of the 1910s boom in the oil refining industry could be traced to the technical innovations of the Whiting plant, which by then was connected by pipeline not only to eastern plants, but those in Kansas and Oklahoma as well, though by the latter half of the 20th century Texas, Louisiana and California became the leaders in the industry. Standard Oil changed its name to Amoco in 1985 and merged with BP, under whose name the refinery operates, in the late 1990s.

Not surprisingly, for those who remember the 1955 explosion, it stands in their memory as something akin to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the September 11, 2001 attacks.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the event in 2015, the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society produced a 30-minute documentary about the disaster, “One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the Standard Oil Refinery Fire of 1955,” which includes interviews with 80 people, including many who remember the incident firsthand. Author John Hmurovic published a book of the same title, which is available online.

Jeff Kenney serves as museum and archives manager for Culver Academies in Culver, and serves on the board of the Historical Society of Culver.

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