Ford Long Beach Assembly Plant Flood and Fire in 1956

On January 27, 1956, during a downpour, water collected in the Dominguez Channel which ran toward the Los Angeles Harbor about a half mile east of the Ford plant. Breaking its boundaries at Anaheim Boulevard, it poured over a dike, flooded oil fields there, and carrying oil field sludge along with it, headed for the Ford Plant. The water traveled down the railroad tracks leading to the plant, coursed through the convoy yard where many finished vehicles were parked, and flowed into the assembly building at its north end. Flooding the entire building, the offices, final chassis line, and body paint oven to mention but a few of the locations photographed that day, the water then backed up behind the dike at the south end of the plant and deepened around the Oil House and tanks situated there. On its way it reached the tunnel or "basement" that lay between the Oil House and the south end of the main building, and rushed up inside of the Oil House.

In the Oil House it caused eight large tanks to float near the "L" in the sea wall and break their connections releasing 30,000 gallons of gas, oil, and paint thinner. An electrical short ignited these flammable liquids and gas causing a massive explosion. Power House Engineer Mark Garret was blown off the south wall, swam for his life to get out of the channel, and was rescued by men in a boat. A huge black cloud of smoke engulfed the south end of the plant, and staff stood by watching their plant going up in flames, or so they thought. Meanwhile Les Schoelerman, Chris Christensen, and Clyde Rone had been caught in a small row boat which was engulfed in flames when the initial explosion took place, Chris and Clyde dived under water using the Navy method of bobbing up with a splash and getting their breath and swimming out and away from the fire. Les walked out and was badly burned.

Plant Manager, Bob Armour, called the department heads together in a strategy huddle, all standing ankle deep in water at the foot of the office stairway, and then led a remarkable example of how labor management teamwork can save a plant. Managers, office help, and assembly floor employees worked side by side at all the tasks. Most of the fire damage was in the Oil House and at the south end of the Assembly plant where windows broke, frames buckled, and the buff-colored brick was blackened. Water had spread 3 to 4 feet deep over the assembly building floor causing 50,000 square feet of wood block flooring to loosen and float. Cars parked outside were muddied above wheel level and also on the inside. Several Ford executives were injured while trying to direct emergency measures. Fire fighters and 3 fire boats efficiently controlled the flames.

Thanks to a rapid clean-up job, the plant reopened only five working days, ten calendar days, from the day the flood hit. To replace the wooden block flooring, more than 60,000 square feet of concrete were poured along the sides of the submerged-depressed rails, those which allowed carload shipments to enter the plant. After it was all over, salvage firms hauled away over 200 truckloads of damaged parts and materials.

The speed of the clean up and resumption of assembly was an indication that Ford was there to stay, a company spokesman said. Plant Manager Armour talked with Los Angeles officials about controlling waters in the Dominguez Channel, and in March the Ford insurers prepared a suit to file against Los Angeles for $4,000,000 in damages. An editorial at the time argued that Ford was at much at fault as anyone for the problem, since it was pumping oil and causing subsidence. The papers then announced that there would be no suit since Ford and the Los Angeles Harbor had the same insurers.

A plan, "Assembly and Oil Storage-Flood and Fire Reconstruction," was drawn up in February 1956, and executed in April. All damaged face brick on the Oil House and on the south end of the Assembly building (Boiler Room) was replaced. The costs of repair to buildings and machinery were estimated at $2,000,000. In addition Ford lost $3,000,000 in damaged parts. This plant work was followed by a sea wall extension involving the installation of new steel sheet pilings 55 and 60 feet long sunk into concrete and constructed so as to be 18 feet above grade. The existing dock and bulkhead were only about 6 feet above grade. An open drain would collect water on the northeast side of the Carpenter building, Shed "A," and progress east into the Ford turning basin. The estimated cost for this was $225,000. It would be Ford's last effort to keep back the sea.

At this time Ford and all the major private oil operators in the shipyard area legally bound themselves to place their properties under a unified management and to conduct water injection repressuring operations designed to arrest subsidence, conserve oil and gas and increase the maximum economic quantity of oil and gas ultimately recoverable. Between 1960 and 1961 the subsidence ended, but by then the Ford plant was closed for good.