Refinery fire at Feyzin. 4th January 1966

Accident summary

On 4th January 1966, an operation to drain off an aqueous layer from a propane storage sphere was attempted. Two valves were opened in series on the bottom of the sphere. When the operation was nearly complete, the upper valve was closed and then cracked open again. No flow came out of the cracked valve, so it was opened further. The blockage, assumed to be ice or hydrate, cleared and propane gushed out. The operator was unable to close the upper valve and by the time he attempted to close the lower valve this was also frozen open. The alarm was raised and traffic on the nearby motorway was stopped. The resulting vapour cloud is thought to have found its source of ignition from a car about 160 m away. The storage sphere was enveloped in a fierce fire and upon lifting of the relief valve a stream of escaping vapour was ignited.

The LPG tank farm where the sphere was located consisted of four 1200 m3 propane and four 2000 m3 butane spheres. The fire brigade arrived on site, but were not experienced in dealing in refinery fires, and it appears they did not attempt to cool the burning sphere. They concentrated their hoses on cooling the remaining spheres. About 90 minutes after the initial leakage, the sphere ruptured, killing the men nearby. A wave of liquid propane flowed over the compound wall and fragments of the ruptured sphere cut through the legs of the next sphere which toppled over. The relief valve on this tank began to emit liquid.

The fire killed 18 people and injured 81 others. Five of the storage spheres were destroyed.

Failures in technical measures

  • The drain system on the base of the tank was poorly designed requiring manual operation and no insulation or tracing to prevent ice blocking the valves.
  • Design Codes - Pipework: draining / flushing, sample points
  • The escaping liquid accumulated beneath the storage sphere rather than draining away from it to a place where it could be allowed to burn harmlessly.
  • Secondary Containment: bunds
  • It took ten minutes to raise the alarm as the operator travelled on foot 800 m to alert other people. He was afraid to use the local telephone or start his truck and drive. There was no strategy for raising the alarm in the event of a flammable release.
  • Operating Procedures: emergency procedures
  • Emergency Response / Spill Control: emergency operating procedures / training
  • Attempts to keep motor vehicles away were only partially successful. The fire fighting strategy adopted was inappropriate. The local fire brigade had not been briefed about how to deal with such an incident.
  • Emergency Response / Spill Control: site emergency plan, fire fighting
  • Many of the design deficiencies such as insulation or permanent water sprays on the spheres, and reinforcement of the legs, which are now standard, have been incorporated into codes of practice following this incident.
  • Design Codes - Plant: special cases for LPG storage


FP Lees, 'Loss prevention in the process industries – Hazard identification, assessment and control', Volume 3, Appendix 1, Butterworth Heinemann, ISBN 0 7506 1547 8, 1996.

Is this page useful?