Feb 22

Union Oil pier collapse, the storm of 1983

Periodically big storms come in and wreak havoc with piers. For example in 1907 the Oilport pier, in what is now known as Shell Beach was demolished by a fierce storm. The pier at Port San Luis is usually the most sheltered in the region but thirty years ago no place was immune. The winter storm season of 1983 had epic status, damaging every pier in the county.
The combination of high tide and big waves had the tops of waves pounding up through the decks and strong backwash undermining pilings.
After the piers were ripped up at least one person was killed when a wave tossed piling landed on a child at Avila Beach. The storm knocked out the transmitter for KCOY at the same time the heavily anticipated final episode of M*A*S*H aired. At least one of the men that were tossed into the water from the Union Oil pier still lives in the area. Thanks to Jack Spaulding for reminding me of this story written by Carol Roberts and Dan Stephens on March 2, 1983.

The Union Oil pier in Avila Beach collapses into the surf Tuesday afternoon after pounding waves undermined its pilings.  ©Ken Chen/Telegram-Tribune

The Union Oil pier in Avila Beach collapses into the surf Tuesday afternoon after pounding waves undermined its pilings.
©Ken Chen/Telegram-Tribune

County piers take a beating in storm
3 Union Oil men pulled from surf

Giant waves toppled the Union Oil Co. pier Tuesday and three employees were rescued safely after a 15-foot drop to the sea below.
The more than 25-foot waves also knocked out portions of piers at Avila Beach and Pismo Beach.
The 2,700-foot Union Oil pier’s collapse also may have caused oil and gasoline to spill into the ocean of Harford Drive. Cleanup operations by a Clean Seas vessel, Union Oil employees and county crews were to start this morning.
About 100 feet [of] the Pismo Beach pier fell into the ocean Tuesday night and more went down just before 11 a.m. today. Hundreds of spectators crowded the city’s parking lot to watch the high surf and see if what remained of the pier would stand.
About 100 feet at the end of the Avila pier dropped into the heavy seas along with “two sizable areas of mid-section,” said county General Services Director Duane Leib.
He said the Cayucos pier lost some pilings, but was still standing this morning. “The end looks precarious,” said Leib who sent crews to clean up debris there because “the pilings act like battering rams in the surf.”
Three Union Oil employees — D.J. “Dutch” Van Harraveld, regional superintendent; Jack Spaulding, coast area supervisor and Loren Woods, terminal foreman —all were rescued after only about 15 to 20 minutes in the water.
Loren Woods later went to Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo with a bruised hand.
They credited Keith Kelsey and Bret Percival of Avila Beach with their rescue.
Kelsey of Sylvester tugs and Percival, a lifeguard, were standing on the beach at Avila looking toward Port San Luis when they saw the Union Oil pier go down.
“We raced over to Union Oil and they were shutting off the valves so they yelled to us, ‘We got three guys in the water,’” said Kelsey, who skippered the Paul Revere to the rescue.
Van Harraveld, 61, who has lived in Avila Beach all his life, said he’ll never forget March 1 “and waves of the most magnitude I’ve ever seen here.”
He and others were inspecting lines on the dock at the end of the pier when it broke off and took them with it. That was about 12:15 p.m. A few minutes later the rest of the pier collapsed taking down a crane owned by McGray Construction of Santa Maria.
Van Harreveld said he first became aware the pier was going when he heard pipeline caps start cracking.
After the men hit the water, “I told them to float and we’d swim toward Avila because the debris made it too dangerous to go toward the marina” at the port.
“I’ve been in some horrendous situations and I knew I was going to make it out of this one,” Van Harreveld said as he stepped safely ashore at Port San Luis. He later said his daily swims in 52-degree water at the San Luis Obispo Elks Lodge boosted his optimism.
“We’re counting our blessings we’re here,” he said Tuesday night at the San Luis Bay Inn, where he Spaulding and several other Union Oil officials met to discuss the incident.
“We’re very fortunate,” said Spaulding who also expressed thanks to other boat skippers who headed their way during the rescue.
The pier was Union Oil’s tanker terminal for crude oil, diesel, super and unleaded fuel, said Union Oil’s Ed Spielman who flew to San Luis Obispo from Los Angeles Tuesday.
Seven pipelines carried oil and gasoline from tankers — mostly from Los Angeles and San Francisco — both tow and from shore, he said. From there it is sent underground to tanks on the Avila hillsides, a Santa Maria refinery or tanks in San Luis Obispo.
Some of the pipelines may have ruptured. “We think there’s about 20 barrels of product (fuel) in the water,” said Spielman.
The pier, built in 1914 and once on the historic Pacific Coast Railway route, lost 30 to 40 pilings Monday. McGray Construction was working on repairs, Van Harreveld said.
The Union Oil officials had no estimates late Tuesday night on rebuilding the pier but Van Harreveld said that project could take at least two months.
In the meantime Spielman said the company’s lines could be run out from shore to the small portion of the tanker dock left, “but that’s an alternative we’re still considering.”
Clean Seas, which is financed by the oil companies to clean up oil and chemical spills, started work today and Van Harreveld said Union Oil will pay for any crews used to clean pier debris from beaches at Avila, Pirates Cove and Port San Luis.

It was a big storm, one wave washed over the harbor parking lot and burst through the door of the Harbor District office. Fishermen saved several boats that were cast adrift. Union Oil rebuilt the pier in concrete, changed their name to Unocal and sold the pier to Cal Poly for marine research. Thirty years later with higher sea levels we can only imagine the havoc that will ensue under similar conditions.

The Union Oil pier in Avila Beach collapses into the surf Tuesday afternoon after pounding waves undermined its pilings.  ©Ken Chen/Telegram-Tribune

The Union Oil pier in Avila Beach collapses into the surf Tuesday afternoon after pounding waves undermined its pilings.
©Ken Chen/Telegram-Tribune

Related posts:

  1. Union Oil Ad 1926
  2. Avila Beach in 1941
  3. Pacific Coast Railroad Bridge, Avila Beach 1966
  4. Avila Beach
  5. Oil on the beach