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John Oliver, 75, a Richmond resident, talks about the Chevron refinery fire and how he is feeling in the wake of the smoke-filled skies at the Senior Center in Richmond, Calif. on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

RICHMOND -- John Oliver, 75, was dozing in his sixth-floor apartment in downtown Richmond Monday night when the Chevron refinery fire started.

The loud "boom" other witnesses have reported was not enough to wake him from his slumber, but he soon got a call alerting him to the situation.

"I looked out the window, saw black smoke, and closed the windows," Oliver said. He was gathered with friends Tuesday afternoon at the Richmond Senior Center.

Oliver said he said he still had problems breathing, difficulty swallowing, and a sore throat -- symptoms many people reported as life returned to normal in this city that sits in the refinery's shadow. Many people also noted that they were aware of the fire, either through seeing the smoke or getting phone calls from friends and family, long before they heard emergency sirens ring.

Some said that the main siren in Richmond's Civic Center didn't ring at all.

At Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, patients filled the lobby of the emergency room and spilled out onto the sidewalk. Tremani Hughes, 18, of Richmond was waiting with grandmother, Julia Forte, 65.

"I have a headache, my eyes are burning, and my voice is going out," said Hughes, who was at a Richmond park when the smoke started pouring over the city.

"I was about to go home when my head started to hurt and my eyes got real red," he said. "I hadn't even seen the smoke yet."

Hughes estimated it took him about 20 minutes to get home, leaving him exposed as emissions from the fire drifted east over Richmond, toward the inner East Bay.

Doctors Medical Center said in a statement that about 300 people had been treated by 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, many for breathing problems and eye irritation. About 350 people were seen for similar symptoms as of noon Tuesday at Kaiser Permanente's facility in Richmond.

At the Laundroland Laundromat on 23rd Street, Jamisha Reames, 23, of Richmond, pulled her clothes out of a dryer, saying she would be taking her three children to the hospital as soon as she finished her laundry.

"It felt like an asthma attack, and I haven't had one of those in years," she said. "I had to give my son a breathing treatment, and my newborn daughter was coughing a lot."

At the senior center, program leader Bryan Harris said that the center was evacuated Monday night once the extent of the danger became clear. Attendance of Tuesday's morning program was a bit lower than usual, he said, as some seniors went to see their physicians.

"I'm miserable," said Calvin Winters, 82, of Richmond, who was watching other seniors play billiards and dominoes. "As (Monday) night went on, I felt pain in my chest and my throat.

"I was outside for about half an hour until they rang the siren. I stayed in the rest of the night."

A few people said they weren't feeling any ill effects. At the laundromat, employee Sonia Oliva, 42, of Richmond, cleaned washing machines and chatted with customers.

"For right now," she said, "I'm feeling good."

Contact Daniel M. Jimenez at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/DMJreports.