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‘We got three guys in the water!’ — 1983 storm wiped out Union Oil Pier

Retired worker relives 1983 storm that wiped out Union Oil Pier in Avila Beach

The Union Oil Pier in Avila Beach was demolished and every pier in San Luis Obispo County was damaged when a powerful storm hit in March 1983.
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The Union Oil Pier in Avila Beach was demolished and every pier in San Luis Obispo County was damaged when a powerful storm hit in March 1983.

March 1983 was no time to be sittin’ on the dock of the bay.

A clerk at the Port San Luis harbor office was watching the waves roll in when a sneaker wave pushed 160 feet across the parking lot.

“I was standing at the window and saw it coming,” Gray Salzgeber said. “I ran to the back of the office as it burst through the front door.”

The storm season 35 years ago ravaged a section of Highway 1 in Big Sur. The whale-watching boat San Mateo was flipped in the Morro Bay Harbor mouth, tossing more than 20 schoolchildren into the foam.

All of the piers in the county suffered damage, and March 1, 1983, was the death knell for the wooden Union Oil Pier (now the Cal Poly Pier).

The Union Oil Pier was built in 1914 by the Pacific Coast Railway, which used it to ship dry goods.

When the fortunes of the steamship/rail company fell and Union Oil rose, petroleum transport was moved from the Harford Pier to the middle pier.

After leasing it for a number of years, Union Oil bought the pier in 1941 as the railway was being dismantled. Avila Beach for a time was the busiest oil port in the world by volume. It was so critically important to World War II logistics that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower sent a 1942 telegram of congratulation to Union Oil in Avila Beach.

According to retired Union Oil employee Jack Spaulding, the 1983 storm was anticipated, with pipes purged of oil product and closed off to the pier. What wasn’t anticipated was that the pier would fail completely.

Spaulding was on it when it collapsed “like a freight elevator.”

Spaulding and his two companions were rescued in daring fashion by Keith Kelsey and Bret Percival, who navigated waves filled with spiked pilings.

1983 03-01 Union oilpe
Spectators survey the demolished Union Oil Pier in Avila Beach on March 1, 1983. Telegram-Tribune Ken Chen

Debris from damaged piers and trees washed down creeks and piled up on shore for many days. A child was killed that year, hit by heavy debris while playing near the surf.

It wasn’t the first oil pier to be demolished in the area. The ill fated Oilport refinery went out of business after three days of storms wrecked its wharf in 1907. We now call that area Shell Beach.

Union Oil, later called Unocal, rebuilt the pier with steel to a length of 3,000 fee and resumed shipping oil, but when the company shut down Avila operations, the pier became surplus. It was donated to Cal Poly in 2001 and is now a home for marine research.

Carol Roberts and Dan Stephens wrote this Telegram-Tribune story on March 2, 1983:

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 off Harford Drive. Cleanup operations by a Clean Seas vessel, Union Oil employees and county crews were to start this morning.

1983 03-02 Union oil pier
Front page March 2, 1983 Telegram-Tribune after ocean storms damage piers in Avila Beach. File Telegram-Tribune

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 of the end of the Avila Beach 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.”

The three Union Oil employees — D.J. “Dutch” Van Harreveld, 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 Harreveld, 61, who has lived in Avila Beach all his life, said he’ll never forget March 1 “and waves of the most magnitude I’d 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 pipleline 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.

LEAD 1983 03-01 Union oil pier
The Union Oil pier in Avila Beach collapses into the surf on the afternoon of March 1, 1983 after pounding waves undermined its pilings. Three men were thrown in to the surf and later rescued. Ken Chen Telegram-Tribune

“We’re counting out 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 to and from shore, he said. From there it is sent underground to tanks on the Avila hillsides, a Santa Maria refinery of 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.

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 from shore out to the small portion of 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 the beaches at Avila, Pirate’s Cove and Port San Luis.

The Cal Poly Pier in Avila Beach, California, provides a place for students to research marine life off the coast of San Luis Obispo County.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

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