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Inner States presents Inferno at Whiting

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Alex Chambers:  A few years ago, Ryan Schnurr developed a bit of an obsession with industrial fires, but it's not like he's keeping an ongoing spreadsheet with all their stats.

Ryan Schnurr:  I'm really interested, not only in the fires themselves and in their material realities, but in the stories that we tell about them, and how we can tell different stories about them and how they help us make sense of what it means to be human.

Alex Chambers:  This week on Inner States, we have got a special presentation of the podcast Ryan Schnurr made as a result of his obsession. It's called Fire, an American Burning. It's about five different industrial fires - we'll hear about one - and climate change, and what they can tell us about the world we live in now. And, Ryan and I talk about the making of the podcast and what it all means. That's all coming up, after this.

Ryan Schnurr:  I was doing a dissertation project on something entirely different, and one of the things I kept running into was that fires seem to be everywhere. We're surrounded by all these flames that are not alarming to us. But, what's always alarming is the moment when they get out. Like, when there is a fire where it's not supposed to be, and so, ultimately this is all about control and our ability to control fire. My name is Ryan Schnurr, I'm an Assistant Professor of English at Trine University, and I recently produced this limited podcast series called "Fire!" for Belt Magazine.

Ryan Schnurr:  I think about telling stories sitting around a fire as also a distinctly human thing, so sitting around telling stories about fires is a meta version of that. But, they're a story-telling device in the sense that we use them to gather around. There's ways in which the spreading of fire in this series actually does become a story-telling device. What happens if we start here and move out in concentric circles and try to see all the ways that politics, culture, ecology, and economics are all at play here.

Ryan Schnurr:  Some of the language that I was using to make sense of it was, how do these fires illuminate these complex inter-relations or entanglements that we have in these industrial, capitalist societies.

Alex Chambers:  You're listening to Inner States by the way. I'm Alex Chambers. And, before we hear more from Ryan about why he created this podcast series about industrial fires, let's listen to an episode. This is "Fire!: An American Burning," Episode Three; Inferno at Whiting. It's a fascinating story about an explosion at an oil refinery that was so big it created a mushroom cloud. It's about how it affected the community at the time - that's Whiting, Indiana - and how the refinery continues to shape the region now. Here we go.

Frank Vargo:  It was a Saturday morning and I remember it was very hot, and my brother and I were sleeping in our bedrooms over there, and couldn't sleep because it was hot.

Ryan Schnurr:  It was 1955 and Frank Vargo was six years old, living in Whiting, Indiana, an industrial community on the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Whiting was a company town and the company was Standard Oil, whose massive Whiting refinery sat right in among the neighborhoods.

Frank Vargo:  I was just laying in bed wide awake and all I remember is a tremendous blast, and my mom jumping up in the other bedroom yelling, "What's going on?" And, we all ran to the kitchen window which was facing the refinery. To me, as a little kid, the fire looked like it was in our backyard - that's how close it was.

Ryan Schnurr:  A 26 story hydroformer, the largest in the country, had exploded. It shot a mushroom cloud 8,000 feet into the air and ignited a 40-acre fire with thousand-foot flames.

Frank Vargo:  Our house was about a half-mile from the blast itself, so we were very close to it. Luckily the house did not have any major damage. There were a couple of windows broken in the garage, but luckily there was no physical damage to the house or my brother, my mom and myself.

Ryan Schnurr:  Vargo's family evacuated to his grandmother's house, a mile further away.

Frank Vargo:  We didn't stay at my grandmother's that long because about noon the fire chief ordered an evacuation of the area where we were. I remember, on the corner of my grandmother's house, there was a little candy store. Right across from there was the school I attended, Immaculate Conception. It was a three-story building and I remember the flames were way up above the three-story building. You could feel the heat, and see the flames billowing.

Ryan Schnurr:  So, they drove to his aunt's house which was even further away, also in Whiting. After a couple of explosions rocked the city, they left Whiting completely for nearby Hammond. They didn't return for two days. Frank told me things were strange after that.

Frank Vargo:  Back in those days you didn't talk about things that people respond to today, like veterans who have nightmares and flashbacks of when they were in combat. To me, as a little kid, I felt the explosion shook me up more than I actually thought it would. I didn't remember some of these things for a while, but eventually I realized it did have an affect on me personally.

Ryan Schnurr:  From Belt Magazine, this is Fire, a podcast about industrial fires in American life. I'm Ryan Schnurr. This episode, episode three, takes us inside the 1955 inferno at the Whiting Refinery, and what it meant for the region.

Ryan Schnurr:  I've passed this facility hundreds of times. I grew up in Indiana, lived and went to school in Chicago for a while; now I'm back. I still pass the Whiting Refinery regularly on Amtrak or south shore trains, or drives into the city. If you're taking inner state 90, the toll road, you're only about a mile away. There is a thing that happens when you get into the Calumet region - that's the name for the area where Whiting sits on the southern shore of Lake Michigan - because it has a distinctive smell, and industrial odor. Which, from what I can tell, is a combination of a few things: sulphur dioxide from the U.S. Steel Plant; fermenting corn; maybe the emissions of a soap factory and other miscellaneous chemicals; and gasoline from the BP Whiting refinery.

Frank Vargo:  It's the smell of industry, which is to say it's the smell of transformation. A byproduct of the sorts of processes that take oil, coal, metals, sand, and other raw materials and turn them into products for consumption. Fire is a fundamental part of this process, but, the intention, usually is to contain its effects and channel them toward production. So, what happens when it breaks free, and the consequences of an industry spread through the community? When the boundaries we have so painstakingly imagined between nature and culture and industry collapse, and we are left staring into a new and volatile reality. That's the story of the Whiting Refinery.

Documentary Narrator (Archive):  Even though the skies were often dark and dreary, the future looked brilliant and bright in Whiting, Indiana.

Ryan Schnurr:  In 2015, the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society released a short documentary on the 1955 explosion, titled One Minute After Sunrise. The project begins with the arrival of Standard Oil.

Documentary Narrator (Archive):  It was 1895. Just six years earlier, Whiting was not much more than a stop on the rail lines to Chicago. But in 1889, the Standard Oil Company built a huge refinery in Whiting.

John Hmurovich:  When the refinery came here, it changed everything.

Ryan Schnurr:  John Hmurovich is a local historian who worked on the documentary along with Frank Vargo, and who also wrote a book of the same name.

John Hmurovich:  People give the birth date of the birth of the town of Whiting as 1889. All that means is that’s the year Standard Oil came. The birth date of this town is the birth date of this refinery.

Ryan Schnurr:  Standard Oil began in Cleveland, Ohio in 1870, with a single refinery. By 1872, it ran every refinery in the city. By 1880, it controlled ninety percent of the refineries in the country.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  They are a colossus at this time. And it is difficult to try to provide some sort of perspective. You have to go to, like, Amazon today, to get a sense of the scale at which they are operating and how much control they had in their space.

Ryan Schnurr:  That’s Jonathan Wlasiuk, who wrote a book about the rise of Standard Oil called "Refining Nature".

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  They are living, what I describe as the libertarian dream. Amost zero worker rights, zero regulation, and free reign for a company with a lot of capital to do whatever they want.

Ryan Schnurr:  In the late 1880s, Standard Oil moved west. Rockefeller wanted to feed emerging energy markets in the interior of the country, and he needed access to the railroad and shipping networks around Chicago and Lake Michigan. But he didn't want to put his new facility in a city, because space was limited, and because any regulations that did exist were pretty much concentrated there.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  He looks right across the border, at this little sleepy railroad crossing just a couple of miles from it. There’s not a lot there, but, for him it’s ideal, because he can fully realize the dream of efficiency, and create the perfect habitat, for his new refinery which is going to be the biggest on the planet at that time.

Ryan Schnurr:  The southern shore of Lake Michigan, historically, is a mix of marsh and dunes. Enormous sand hills, twenty or thirty feet high, swept up over centuries. It’s hard to build a factory in a landscape like this, so Standard Oil had to rearrange. They leveled the dunes and drained the wetlands.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  They either used French tiles, or they just set up, like, sewer drains directly out into the lake. In the early days, they are going from tank to tank in rowboats because the water is still that high; it hasn't been drained yet. They move the grand Calumet river a half-mile north of where it was running. They canalize it, they create a canal, and they also create what is called Indiana Harbor to serve as a new port on the lake there, so that they can ship out goods and receive them.

Ryan Schnurr:  The community of Whiting begins to form around this developing facility. Neighborhoods crop up, including one across the street from the refinery, called Rockefeller Park, which is renamed Stieglitz Park after Rockefeller sues them for using his name.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  It is everything that a company town would be, from having the company control the housing and the government. Of the first seven mayors, four of them worked at Standard Oil Company while they were mayors. Two of them were superintendents at the refinery.

Ryan Schnurr:  U.S. Steel moved in. So did ArcelorMittal. Gary and East Chicago incorporated, squeezed up against each other like rowhouses. The wider Calumet region, became one enormous factory, with Whiting its most prominent factory town. Here’s John Hmurovich.

John Hmurovich:  Everything revolves around the refinery. At one time, everybody worked there. That’s hardly an exaggeration - maybe just a little bit. Not everybody, but close. The city was dependent on the refinery, the refinery was dependent on the people who worked there, and they had a good relationship.

Standard Oil Promotional Film Narrator (Archive):  On American highways, from one end of the land to another, there is no more characteristic or familiar sight than the oil truck, making its round of deliveries to farms and factories, to homes and service stations. For in the highly industrialized society the American people have developed, oil and oil products play a great part.

Ryan Schnurr:  In the early years, Standard Oil was mostly producing kerosene. But, by the twentieth century, oil was king. Petroleum made its way into nearly every aspect of American life, from plastics to asphalt, to food production, to gasoline.

Standard Oil Promotional Film Narrator (Archive):  Oil provides power and lubrication for the complex mechanism of the American economy.

Ryan Schnurr:  Oil production is an inherently dirty, dangerous business. Pumping the highly flammable, fossilized remains of plants and animals from deep in the earth, shipping them hundreds of thousands of miles, and then heating, pressurizing, and otherwise combining them into products like gasoline and asphalt. Fire is a key part of the process, from the flares burning off natural gas on top of oil rigs, to the flame in the cylinder of every internal combustion engine blazing down the highway. And the linchpins, refineries, are essentially one big fire, perpetually burning behind a few inches of steel and a barbed-wire fence.

Ryan Schnurr:  There’s a lot of chemistry at a refinery. For example: distillation, when crude oil is pumped through a furnace and separated into components called fractions by boiling point. These include gasoline, one of the lightest components, diesel, kerosene and jet fuel, which are mid range, and the more tar-like oils which sink to the bottom. That used to be where it ended, but eventually people figured out how to convert these products into all sorts of other things through processes like cracking. Crackers are enormous rocket-shaped tubes that break or crack hydrocarbon molecules. Depending on the situation, they turn heavy oils into mid-range oils like jet fuel or by-product liquids like nether and ethane into ethylene, the building block of plastics.

Ryan Schnurr:  Cokers are a type of super-cracker that turns residual oil into products including petcoke, which is basically a dirtier coal.

The final products are treated, blended, and then stored temporarily in massive tanks at or near the refinery, surrounded by a network of pipelines, railroads, and highways, which transport these oil products all over the country, propelled by, among other things, diesel and gasoline.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  The air pollution, it clung to everything. You have journalists from Chicago write about the housewives who are outside hanging their clothes on the line, and the clothes just get speckled with the fallout, the soot that is coming from the pollution.

Ryan Schnurr:  Through the whole process, oil and other chemicals and byproducts are leaking out of pipes and tanks, soaking into the ground and water table.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  The drainage program they initiated, of course killed the wildlife habitat. But, probably more significant for the human population is all the acids, that Standard Oil and the steel plants to the east are dumping into the water system there, are going into Lake Michigan. And Lake Michigan is the source of drinking water for all the communities around there, including Chicago. In the absence of any regulation to say “You can’t do that!” they just dumped it down into the nearest drain, or into the nearest river or tributary.

Ryan Schnurr:  By the turn of the century, regulations had become a little more stringent, but mainly on the commerce side. One of them is the Sherman Antitrust Act, which is supposed to keep one person from controlling too much of an industry. In 1911, after some tremendous muck-racking by the journalist Ida Tarbell, the federal government forced Rockefeller to divide his empire. Standard Oil splintered into 34 separate companies, most of which survive today in one form or another, under different names: Exxon, BP, Pennzoil, Chevron, Amoco.

The refinery at Whiting continued to be integral to U.S. oil production, eventually under the Amoco name. It’s now operated by BP. For a while, it distilled boron-10 for the Manhattan Project, but mostly it produced gasoline and related products.

Scientists there figured out how to get twice as much gas, and with a higher octane from a barrel of oil.

Ryan Schnurr:  In 1955, the refinery, which was by that point one of the four largest in America, built the country’s largest hydroformer, a 250-foot-tall tank with steel walls up to three inches thick. It was specifically designed to produce high-octane gasoline. Then, on August 27, 1955--

Universal Newsreel (Archive):  Whiting Indiana is almost engulfed in flames and smoke that roll four hundred feet into the air as an oil refinery fire runs amok...

Ryan Schnurr:  The hydroformer exploded.

Universal Newsreel (Archive):  Upwards of four million gallons of high octane gasoline pose an almost impossible task for firefighters, summoned from every surrounding community. In addition to the towering flames, a series of blasts rocked the entire countryside.

Ryan Schnurr:  The hydroformer was only around six months old at this point, and had been shut down temporarily for maintenance. While it was offline, a valve malfunctioned, mixing oxygen and highly flammable gases, transforming it into a 26-story bomb. And that morning, when the workers went to start it back up, it detonated.

Universal Newsreel (Archive):  Despite heroic efforts, the explosions hurled tons of steel from storage tanks into the community, making a shambles of houses and causing two deaths. The force of the blasts can be seen from the caved-in walls and windowless residences, and upended cars tossed for several hundred feet. Before the holocaust had been brought under control, damage estimates had reached ten million, in one of the worst fires of its kind on record.

John Hmurovich:  Everybody that we spoke to said that there were probably one or two events in their lives that they remember.

Ryan Schnurr:  Hmurovich again, talking about the documentary he worked on at the historical society.

John Hmurovich:  If they were old enough, they remember Pearl Harbor. If they were a little bit younger, they remember when JFK got shot. Everybody we talked with said the other thing they remember is this explosion, because it just seared into the minds of people.

Ryan Schnurr:  The hydroformer was ripped to shreds. Shrapnel flew everywhere. It landed on homes and railroad cars. One five-ton piece crushed a grocery store. Another piece landed in the bed of three year old Ricky Plewniak, who was killed instantly. His brother, Ron, lost his leg, and more than forty other people were injured. Meanwhile, a fireball unfurled thousands of feet into the air. One paper wrote that the mushroom cloud “obscured the sun and turned day to night.”

John Hmurovich:  It was just so frightening. So massive. People thought their lives were in danger. Some people thought initially, that the Russians had dropped the atom bomb on us, and this was what we were experiencing. Some got on their hands and knees and started to pray, because they were convinced this was the end of the world.

Ryan Schnurr:  Back at the refinery, the hydroformer was surrounded by dozens of tanks, each holding up to a million gallons of oil. Steel fragments from the explosion punctured holes in the oil tanks, which began to leak all over the floor. The oil caught fire and spread. By noon, it covered forty acres of land.

Ryan Schnurr:  The refinery had its own fire department, which went to work with support from departments in Whiting, Hammond, East Chicago and Gary. But, the fire was too big, and covered too much land. They couldn't get close enough to put it out. Their only hope was containment.

It took then two days to get the fire under control and more than eight days before the last rogue flame was out.

Ryan Schnurr:  Miraculously, the men who had been working on the unit survived. The only other casualty, besides three-year-old Ricky Plewniak, was a foreman at the refinery, who reportedly suffered a heart attack.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, we're going to take a break. We're listening to Episode three of "Fire!: An American Burning". It's a five-episode podcast series about industrial fires and climate change. This one is about the 1955 refinery explosion and fire in Whiting, Indiana. When we come back, we'll hear how the people who built the refinery really thought they had it all under control. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to the Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. Let's get back to "Fire!: An American Burning," Episode Three - "Inferno at Whiting".

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  When they constructed this refinery, they had a lot of experience with Fire.

Ryan Schnurr:  John Wlasiuk talking about Standard Oil.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  They built kind of levies around all of the tanks, because they knew what happens is, if you have a fire, eventually the tank will rupture, even if you use good, hardy steel and that flow of, at times, millions of gallons of burning petroleum is really dangerous. Not just to bodies, but they were concerned about property.

Ryan Schnurr:  In other words if you're Standard Oil you basically know something like this is gonna happen eventually.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  And so that levy exists to hold all of that burning material - and you still see it today if you go to refineries, they have the same thing.

Ryan Schnurr:  Of course even a levy can't manage an explosion like the one in 1955. So you prepare for that eventuality too.

Jonathan Wlasiuk:  John D. Rockefeller writes about it even in the early days that it was part of doing business - and they write about it so casually, even when people die. It's like, "Okay, well you know we got to start going again. Let's make sure we get out fire insurance going," which is also what they did in this fire.

Ryan Schnurr:  The neighborhood across the street - the former Rockefeller Park, since renamed Stiglitz Park -had gotten the worst of it. Two hundred homes were damaged. Standard Oil used its insurance payout to buy and bulldoze 140 of them, relocating their occupants. Hmurovich said this marked a kind of turning point for Whiting.

John Hmurovich:  After this explosion things changed. It made everyone feel vulnerable for the first time, and that eroded some of the trust that people had in the refinery, because this was the first time that anyone outside of the refinery got killed. This is the first time that anyone outside the refinery had their homes damaged. This is the first time that it wiped out a whole neighborhood. Even though Standard Oil said, "We won't lay anybody off as a result of this," and they didn't immediately, there was a kind of a urban renewal within the refinery.

Ryan Schnurr:  The company started replacing all the old equipment, which had been destroyed by the fire, with the latest technology and this technology began to replace some of the tasks that had previously been done by people.

John Hmurovich:  And so the years that followed the like 1958, 59 - three or four years after the refinery explosion - people started getting laid off in massive numbers. It then eroded one more thing in the community. There were 7,000 people working in the refinery at the time of the explosion. Today it's down to under 1,800 I think? Massive numbers of people are gone.

Ryan Schnurr:  Over the years more and more workers and their families moved out of Whiting an exodus made possible in part by the very gasoline produced by the refinery.

John Hmurovich:  The time when everybody said, "Oh, everybody works at the refinery. Everybody's got a connection to the refinery," is gone. Now it's tough to find anybody in this town who has a connection to the refinery.

Ryan Schnurr:  But that's not the end of the story, because of course the refinery is still there, and its effects are still being revealed. I called my friend Ava Tomasula y Garcia, a fourth generation resident of North West, Indiana. Ava has written a lot about the Calumet over the years, including one of my favorite pieces ever for Belt Magazine. It's called "What Indiana Dunes National Park and the Border Wall Have In Common" - look it up.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  It's the most incredible landscape I've ever been to, because you'll turn one way, you'll see a Unilever factory; you turn the other way there's a beautiful lake with swans nesting on it, because the Calumet has retained that character as this incredible wetlands living through 100-plus years of pollution.

Ryan Schnurr:  Ava's now at Colombia University working on a PhD in Anthropology. She's focusing mostly on the ongoing health effects of the region's industry.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  So, of course, we all know about these kind of monumental diseases, and their ubiquity in the Calumet. In my family there are many, many painful histories of cancers, dementia, asthma - these things that people know are linked to working in steel mills, working in the air polluted by BP, Amoco, and a million other industries.

Ryan Schnurr:  She says one of the biggest challenges for residents is these undiagnosable illnesses, or when you get sick from living around pollution and contaminants like an oil refinery, but you can't link them to any specific source.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  And yet because of how shitty the law is and how shitty our kind of medical understanding of cumulative trauma of pollution exposure, these are illnesses that are never going to be able to be directly attributed to these corporations. There's never gonna be a kind of restitution or anyway to say, "It was this source specifically that gave me this disease."

Ryan Schnurr:  And this gets at I think one of the most interesting aspects of the relationship between people and the refinery. They're not only connected economically and geographically - there's a chemical, elemental connection. The fire of 1955 was the most obvious manifestation of this when it literally spread into the community, but it's much bigger than that. Industrialization is not something that got tacked onto some preexisting state. It's a fundamental restructuring of nature. It's a new social and economic and environmental compact, in which people bent the arc of our biological relationships towards extraction and consumption, and toward an endless fire burning on the southern shores of Lake Michigan.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia:  Looking at the Calumet, you know the Whiting landscape it's just so clear that there's this other kind of duality that just doesn't make any sense - this division between the discursive and the geologic, or the natural and the man-made. The stuff we're talking about, it's not either/or, natural or not. It's somehow existing in the space where it's impossible to make the division between those two things to begin with.

Ryan Schnurr:  Years ago I went to Whiting, and drove around the refinery with a local activist named Thomas Frank. I went back recently to jog my memory, and ended up just standing around staring at cokers. I thought about what Ava had said about how the refinery is part and parcel of this new and volatile nature - the one we've constructed out of oil and steel. It's easy to understand the bargain Whiting made early on: tolerating the inherent dangers of the refinery in exchange for wealth and amenities, so long as Standard Oil would keep it's dirty business contained. But this idea was never truly possible, not really. As Luis Urreaonce wrote, there is no hero there; it's all here. Here, where the Whiting refinery burns on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, a slow-motion disaster unfolding behind and beyond its walls.

Ryan Schnurr:  This episode was written and produced by me, Ryan Schnurr, with editing by Dirk Walker. Production assistance from Cassidy Duncan. Theme music by Michael Bozzo. Additional music by Jahzzar. Archival recordings courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society, and Periscope Films. Special thanks to everyone who spoke with me for the project, and to Anna Schnurr, Ray Fouché, Shannon McMullen, Rachel Havrelock, Sharra Vostral, Emiliano Aguilar, Alex Chambers, Ed Simon, and the members of the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society.

Ryan Schnurr:  Fire! Is a production of Belt Magazine and Fortlander Media. Support for this project came from Belt readers and members, Indiana Humanities, the Purdue University Department of American Studies, Jim Babcock, and the Albert LePage Center for History in the Public Interest. You can find links to sources and further reading, along with more episodes, at

Alex Chambers:  That was "Inferno at Whiting", the third episode of "Fire!: An American Burning". It's a limited series podcast about industrial fires in American cities and their connection to contemporary climate crisis. Ryan Schnurr researched, wrote and produced the series. It's time for another break. When we come back, we'll get back to the conversation I had with him about what got him studying fires, how he chose these particular fire fires and what industrial fire tells us about being human in the early 21st century. Stick around.

Interviewer:  Inner States - Alex Chambers. I'm talking with Ryan Schnurr about what made him decide to do a dissertation on Industrial fires.

Ryan Schnurr:  Several years ago I was sitting around watching all this media coverage of these massive wildfires out in California and realizing, there are residences here. It was a sort of unfortunate bit of serendipity that this past summer, when I was working on developing some of the scripting for these things, I was sitting at home locked inside because we had these air quality alerts from these Canadian wildfires that were blowing down into the Midwest and northeast, and so there was this immediacy that emerged for me as I was working on this. Like I said, really unfortunate, but it felt really timely, and it felt like the right project to be working on at the time.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, I feel like those of us in the east haven't had to think about fires in the same way, and so we see them in the news and on the Internet. But last summer having all that air quality alerts across so much of the east at least, it really did bring it home.

Ryan Schnurr:  Yeah, they're abstractions for us. They exist out there, and then all of a sudden they existed here in a very visceral way. We're breathing them in, they're becoming part of our bodies, and so you can't really not think about fires at that point.

Ryan Schnurr:  One of the reasons I didn't cover a lot of fires that existed is that they were outside of the sort of industrial Rust Belt region, and so I thought, "If I'm going to think about these legacies of industrial capitalism and the relationship to the climate crisis, I'm going to generally center them on these legacy industrial communities." One of the ways of doing that was to think, "Okay, what can I do in this legacy industrial area that provides a particular context for all this work?" That was a pretty significant part of what I was thinking about, and why I wasn't going to things in Texas and places like that. The one exception of course being in the last episode, when we go out to California, which is part of a storytelling structure to say, "Okay, now this is moved beyond the sort of landscape of these industrial communities."

Ryan Schnurr:  This is probably the fire that, from the beginning, I knew was going to be part of the series; it's probably the first one that was locked-in. I was really excited to think about it, and have an opportunity to engage more deeply with it. A refinery is designed as a massive fire, but a massive fire that is separated, that is closed off and cordoned off. People said, "Okay, we're going to live over here and then we're going to have that fire over here."

Alex Chambers:  It literally has walls around it.

Ryan Schnurr:  Yes, literally walled off. But what happens when it kind of spins out of control?

Ryan Schnurr:  I was doing environmental humanities work, and so I was thinking a lot about oil, and coal, and things like that, and the way that they show up in our storytelling, in our approaches to thinking about our relationships to the non-human and more the human world. What happened was, I started to notice that fires were just everywhere. I started looking into this one fire and realized there's a lot going on here, and suddenly I started to see some of the ways I could tell the stories of the trajectory of industrial capitalism and climate crisis, and all of this stuff in the 20th century, using fires as the sort of touch points for that.

Ryan Schnurr:  That's part of the thing that I was wanting to do with this project, is take this thing that is so abstract, that is so beyond our ability to kind of make sense of it, that we could say, "What happens if we try to look at this through the lens of this one particular fire?"

Alex Chambers:  So, each episode looks at a different fire. You've got a burning river - that's episode one, "Fire on the Cuyahoga". You've got an explosion that was so big it caused a mushroom cloud - episode three, "Inferno at Whiting," which you've just heard. You've got an underground fire that created a ghost town - that's episode four, "Centralia". You've got a town that burned to the ground - episode five, "Paradise on Fire". Then you also have some good news, although it took a terrible disaster to create it, was a fire that led to some big improvements in worker safety. That's episode two - "Remember the Triangle", about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.

Alex Chambers:  And so there's five of them, which sounds like plenty of awful industrial fires, but there have been a lot of other fires as well. I was wondering if we could go through a quick list of the fires you didn't talk about? I just want to ask you to give me a quick "yes" or "no" about whether you considered these fires.

Alex Chambers:  The 1900 Hoboken Dox fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  The Great Fire of 1901 in Jacksonville, Florida?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  The 1905 Grover Shoe Factory Disaster?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  1913 Binghamton Factory fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  Yes. I actually did kind of think about that one.

Alex Chambers:  Alright. Great Salem Fire of 1914?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  1914 Nixon Nitration Works Disaster?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  The Great Fall Rivers Fire of 1928?

Ryan Schnurr:  This is fun. No.

Alex Chambers:  McKee Refinery Fire of 1956?

Ryan Schnurr:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  1958 Monarch Underwear Company fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  No. I did not.

Alex Chambers:  The 1991 Hamlet Chicken Processing Plant fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  The 2006 Danvers Chemical fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  The 2007 Xcel Energy Cabin Creek fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  The 2009 Cataño Oil Refinery fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  The 2016 Bethlehem Steel fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  Since you also talk about explosions, I'm just going to ask about a few of those, too. 1928 Prebble Box Toe Company explosion?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  1945 Edgewood Arsenal explosion?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  1946 Greenbelt propane explosion?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  1956 Bush Terminal explosion?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  1999 Olympic Pipeline explosion?

Ryan Schnurr:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  The 2023 Texas Dairy Farm explosion?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  And the 2023 Pennsylvania Chocolate Factory explosion?

Ryan Schnurr:  No.

Alex Chambers:  What was wrong with all those fires? Why weren't they good enough?

Ryan Schnurr:  Well nothing was wrong with them, except that they were disasters. Fundamentally something was wrong with them, but not for the purposes of the podcast. It's a highly unscientific process - these are the ones that, as I was reading about all these fires, and as I was researching the sort of broader trends and moments in time, I was thinking about what's rising to the surface. Like I said, very unscientific; it's just these are the ones I couldn't stop thinking about. And then I started to shape them into some sort of structure, and they fell into place. These five seemed to work together in some way that was intentional, but also something kind of mystical. Not mystical, but something that was, not me. They just felt right.

Ryan Schnurr:  One of the things that did make these five the most compelling was that they actually work out nicely, that we can move from the sort of really small not-very-intense nuisance-type fires, like the one on the Cuyahoga River, and slowly the fires get bigger over the series. They're not totally chronological - we start in the sixties and then jump back, but I think the Cuyahoga River is accessible for people. It's one that a lot of people have heard of and so I didn't have to do a lot of that background work on that one. I could start to think about how this thing that we think we know about, that we think we've kind of wrapped our minds around, is actually more complex than we realize. Then I could jump back and try to make this semi-chronological argument about the growth of industrialization, the development of capitalism in the 20th century - these sorts of things. The fire grew.

Ryan Schnurr:  There's this sort of structural component of the fires are getting bigger in every episode, until they swallow and are cooking the planet in the last episode. This last episode, where we talk about the indigenous approach to cultural burns, is thinking about what it looks like to have a more reciprocal relationship - literally a relationship, rather than an approach to extraction.

Ryan Schnurr:  When we talk about a fire, there's something inside of all of us that has a response to that. We think about it for warmth, and as a marker of society, and cooking food, and all of these things. Sitting around a campfire as a hearth. Then there's these other narratives of fire as disaster. So we have this complicated relationship with it, and I'm really interested, not only in the fires themselves and in their material kind of realities, but in the stories that we tell about them, and how we can tell maybe different stories about them, and how they help us make sense of what it means to be... human.

Ryan Schnurr:  In many ways I think of industrial fires as cultural artifacts. These are not like books that we wrote, but they kind of are. They're a thing that we created that reveals something about us. The definition of the Humanities that Indiana Humanities uses is, it's a study of the things humans make and the things that make us human and in many ways fire fits that definition. I think about sitting telling stories around a fire as also a distinctly human thing, and so sitting around telling stories about fires is kind of a meta-version of that. When I was talking with Steve Pyne, the fire historian, one of the things he said is that fire is in many ways humans' ecological signature. It's a thing that we do differently and uniquely, and so the ways we choose to use that have a pretty big effect on the world.

Ryan Schnurr:  We get better and better at creating fires and fueling fires, and making them bigger and more powerful. Then suddenly, we've made them bigger and more powerful than our mechanisms for controlling them. We got really good at burning fossil fuels, and finding new and more efficient ways to burn them and all this stuff, and then our own technology outgrew us.

Alex Chambers:  Like I feel like ultimately what kind of what you're saying is industrial capitalism is fire?

Ryan Schnurr:  Yeah. It's driven by fire, right? The combustion engine and all of these things are. There's a way that we can think about the material properties of fire - that it can spark, and it can spread, and it requires fuel. We can get into this, and this is something that I wish I would have even developed a little bit more in the podcast. It, I mean as you know there's so much that you try to do, and you can't always get everything exactly how you want it. But there's something there that's really compelling to me, too, about the ways that fire operates - it's a response. In the last episode Steve Pyne says that we get the fires that are suited to the world we create and inhabit.

Ryan Schnurr:  The behavior of fire is a response to the conditions around it. I mean, that's feels like a real downer! It's such a downer thing to realize, for the last 150 years we basically created a massive wildfire planet.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, that's a downer.

Ryan Schnurr:  I actually think it's kind of encouraging. The thing that is encouraging to me about thinking about these histories, is that they reveal how the present is the creation of the past. If we can create a world where we have industrial fires we can also create a different world where we don't. It can be very hopeless to feel that everything's just spinning out of control, and we have no ability to shape anything, and things are going down the tubes and there's nothing we can do about it, but there actually is. We created this mess - the "royal we". Not us specifically, though that's a whole another conversation, but "we," as a species, contributed to this current state of affairs, but we can also work backward and say, "Okay, how did we get here? And what if we took a different path?"

Alex Chambers:  Okay, one more thing about Ryan and the Fire! POdcast. As you heard in his credits, Fire was produced in collaboration with Belt Magazine. What's Belt Magazine you ask? Don't worry, Ryan and I talked about that too. We first met through Belt - you were the editor at the time; now you've stepped back from that so you can take on this full-time teaching gig. Tell me about Belt Magazine.

Ryan Schnurr:  Yeah, so Belt Magazine was founded in 2013, 2014 by Anne Trubek, and the intention of the magazine was to have something that was focused on the Rust Belt region of The United States. It was born out of a feeling that lot of the national conversation around this region of the country, which kind of roughly goes from the Ohio River, to the Great Lakes, to the Mississippi River on the west, including Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, parts of Pennsylvania. There was this sense that that conversation lacked a lot of nuance. Certainly by the, by the time we hit 2015, 2016 it was all just Trump country, and these conversations were on flyover country, and that nothing important is happening in this area.

Ryan Schnurr:  The magazine was really founded to add some complexity to that, and recognize the complexity of that and say, there are actually a lot pretty massive cities here, and there are a lot of people doing a lot of interesting things, and there's a lot of culture, and all this stuff deserves the same treatment, and the same attention and seriousness that coverage of the coasts has. That's where Belt kind of came from, and it has been doing it for ten years - which is pretty amazing as a small, independent publication that's not affiliated with a university; it's just kind of grinding along. It's had some stamina which I think is a result of the fact that it's doing really important work and talking about some stuff that needed to be talked about.

Alex Chambers:  Right. I mean, there's great parts on cultural reporting, but there's also really good journalism about important issues that aren't necessarily getting addressed in bigger coastal outlets.

Ryan Schnurr:  Yeah, there's a sense in which you're going to have coverage of these areas in, in coastal outlets. New York City has publications that are dedicated to New York City, and some of those publications are going to cover things that happen outside of New York City, but they're not going to be able to do it with the depth and the rigor and the intimate knowledge that they can of their own city. That coverage is fantastic a lot of times, but it's also valuable to have a publication that can have sustained attention to this particular region. It was a struggle when I was in Belt. The thing I struggled with most was trying to figure out where do we fit between these sort of national publications and these hyper-local publications, because we're going to cover the Rust Belt better than The New York Times could - or in a different way, at least, with a different level of detail.

Ryan Schnurr:  We also aren't going to be able to cover Milwaukee with the same depth that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is, and so how do we find a space where we're making connections across areas? There's a lot of shared history here, and a lot of shared experiences in this region, that people in Cleveland can learn from people from Detroit, and people in Detroit can learn from people in Chicago, and all the way around.

Alex Chambers:  That was Ryan Schnurr. He teaches English at Trine University and he produced "Fire! An American Burning" for Belt Magazine. You can listen to the rest of the episodes at or on Spotify. Speaking of podcasts if you're listening to Inner States as a podcast right now and you're in the Saint Louis Metro area, get in touch. For a podcast based in Bloomington, Indiana we have a surprising number of listeners over there, and we'd love to hear how you found us. You can comment on Apple Podcast or send us a note at We've got you a quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first the credits.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with Avi Forrest. Our social media master is Jillian Blackburn. We get support from Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar, and we have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Ryan Schnurr.

Alex Chambers:  Alright time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was walking at the Griffy Dam in winter. Until next week I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks as always for listening.

Fire! An American Burning

FIre! An American Burning is a 5-episode podcast series about industrial fires and the modern world. (Dirk Walker)

A few years ago, Ryan Schnurr developed a bit of an obsession with industrial fires. But it’s not like he just made a spreadsheet where he listed all their stats. He was interested in the fires themselves, sure – how they started, how they affected the places where they happened, in both the short and the long term – but he also wanted to understand the stories we tell about them. Take the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 in Manhattan. It was a horrible tragedy. 146 garment workers, mostly women and girls, died. It also helped lay the groundwork for revolutionary legal protections for workers. Ryan wanted to understand other fires too. So he created a podcast. (For those of you who are interested, it was also his dissertation!) It’s called Fire!: An American Burning. He produced it in collaboration with Belt Magazine, an excellent online publication about the Rust Belt. On this week’s Inner States, we’re presenting Episode 3 of Fire!: Inferno at Whiting, about the 1955 Whiting Refinery fire. We also talk with Ryan what we can learn from industrial fires about the modern world, our relationship to ecology and the climate, and how we organize society. Listen to this episode, and then go listen to the rest of his show on Spotify or at Belt Magazine.

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