Tuesday, Aug. 18, 1959, started out like many other summer days in the Kansas City metropolitan area, sunny with temperatures in the 90s and a south wind of 13 mph. Before the day would end, five Kansas City, MO, firefighters and one civilian would die in an inferno of burning gasoline referred to by KMBC-TV reporter Charles Gray as "when all hell broke loose."
Gray, always a strong supporter of the Kansas City Fire Department, called it "one of the darkest days in modern history of Kansas City firefighting." It was the second-largest loss of life in Kansas City Fire Department history. The fire changed the way flammable liquids were stored at automotive service stations and how flammable-liquid fires were fought involving horizontal storage tanks. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes were changed to require flammable-liquid storage tanks at automotive service stations to be placed underground following the Southwest Boulevard fire. New procedures for fighting fires in horizontal flammable-liquid storage tanks involved approaching the tanks from the sides and not the ends. Fire officers stressed the importance of wearing full turnout gear during all fires. Many of the firefighters burned at the Southwest Boulevard fire were not wearing full turnouts. Mutual aid played a major role in the Southwest Boulevard fire and became more common as a result. The monetary loss to the service station and tanks of approximately $30,000 paled in terms of the human loss and suffering caused by the fire. However, the lessons learned and code changes brought about by the Southwest Boulevard fire likely saved the lives of countless firefighters who would face similar fires over the years.
At 8:20 A.M., on Aug. 18, the Kansas City, KS, Fire Department received a report of a fire at the Continental Oil Co. at 2 Southwest Blvd. The fire started on a loading rack at the combination bulk plant and service station in Kansas City, KS, near the Kansas-Missouri state line. On the initial alarm, Kansas City, KS, dispatched three pumpers, two ladder trucks and two district chiefs (a fire apparatus equipped with a pump is referred to as a pumper in the Kansas City area). At 8:35, two additional pumpers were dispatched from Kansas City, KS.
Additional equipment was called for at 8:45, including a specially built deluge truck and foam, although foam was not effective on the fire because there was no way to contain the leaking gasoline. The only foam available at the time was protein foam. Although protein foam provides a durable blanket over the surface of a flammable liquid, it spreads slowly and is not as effective as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) in fire suppression. In order for the foam to work effectively, the flammable liquid needs to be contained.
At 9:30, two additional pumpers and all off-duty firefighters were summoned from the Kansas City, KS, Fire Department. Chief Edgar Grass of the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department noticed the fire from his office window (the fire was visible for 15 miles in all directions). Knowing the Kansas City, KS, Fire Department was already there and the fire was near the state line, he sent a district chief to investigate. Upon arrival, the district chief immediately requested a first-alarm assignment from the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department. The first alarm was dispatched at 8:33 and a second alarm was requested at 08:37, followed by a third at 8:45, a fourth at 8:54, a fifth at 8:59 and a sixth at 10 A.M., following the rupture of the tank.
Even before the fatal tank rupture, dozens of firefighters had been treated for heat exhaustion from the combination heat, humidity and radiant heat created by the burning flammable liquids. Ambulances dispatched from across the city stood by in line in case they were needed to transport injured firefighters to a hospital. At the time of the fire, ambulance service in the Kansas City metropolitan area was provided by 16 private companies. Firefighters had advanced first-aid training and responded to some medical calls, but did not provide transportation.
Despite the best efforts of firefighters the burning gasoline from the leaking fuel extended underneath four 11-by-30-foot cylindrical horizontal storage tanks resting on concrete cradles, each with 21,000 gallons of fuel capacity. Three contained gasoline and one kerosene. From left to right at the fire scene, Tank 1 contained 6,628 gallons of gasoline, Tank 2 contained 15,857 gallons of kerosene, Tank 3 contained 3,000 gallons of gasoline and Tank 4 contained 15,655 gallons of premium gasoline. All of the tanks failed during the fire, but Tanks 1, 2 and 3 did not leave the concrete cradles they rested in. This lack of movement of the first three tanks may have given firefighters a false sense of security while fighting the fire involving Tank 4. The tanks began to fail at approximately 10 A.M., about 90 minutes after the fire started. Tank 4 was the last to fail and when it did, it moved 94 feet from its cradles into Southwest Boulevard through a 13-inch brick wall, spreading burning gasoline and flying bricks in its path.
Firefighters with 2½-inch hoselines were just 74 feet from the tank when it ruptured, so their positions were overrun by the tank and burning gasoline that completely crossed Southwest Boulevard. Chief officers had ordered personnel back from the fire lines when Tank 4 began to roar like a jet engine. It was during their retreat that the tank failure occurred. The rear of Tank 4 failed and the force coming out of the tank contributed to its forward movement. Two pumpers were destroyed and three damaged by the fire.
Following the failure of Tank 4, Kansas City, MO, put out a call for six reserve companies and recalled one shift of firefighters. All available ambulances were requested from the metropolitan area, and station wagons were placed into service as makeshift ambulances. Area hospitals put their disaster plans into effect and prepared to receive injured firefighters, police officers and civilians. Twenty-two firefighters were admitted to hospitals, five in critical condition, along with civilian "firefighter" Francis J. "Rocky" Toomes. All five critically injured firefighters and Toomes died, the first at 2:45 P.M. the day of the fire and the last on Aug. 24. An additional 35 firefighters were treated at hospitals and released. Approximately 40 firefighters were given first-aid at the scene. All suffered from burns caused by contact with the burning gasoline from Tank 4. The cause of the tank ruptures, including the fatal rupture of Tank 4, was determined to be over pressurization of the tanks on fire because of inadequate venting of the tanks. Uninjured firefighters picked themselves up following the rupture of Tank 4 and continued to fight the fire with more determination than before. By 11 A.M., the fire had been extinguished.
All five of the firefighters who were killed were from the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department and were from two companies, Pumper 19 and Pumper 25. Pumper 19 lost its entire crew — Captain George E. Bartels, Firefighter Neal K. Owen and Driver Virgil L. Sams. Pumper 25 lost two of its three crew members — Captain Peter T. Sirna and Driver Delbert W. Stone. Driver Earl Dancil was scheduled to work that day, but was on sick leave. He heard about the fire from radio and TV news reports, and responded to the scene to relieve Stone, who joined his fellow crew members on the fire line behind Sirna. Toomes and Firefighter Tony Valentini were helping on the hoseline behind Stone. Toomes was a civilian who was a friend of some of the firefighters. When he appeared on the scene, he approached Sirna and asked whether he could help. The captain told him yes. According to Gray, the KMBC-TV reporter, "Toomes had arrived on scene that day as a civilian, but was a fi refighter by the time he left." Because of his actions in assisting firefighters he was honored by inclusion on the Southwest Boulevard Fire Memorial.
Valentini, a firefighter from Pumper 25, had been on the department for only eight months when the fire occurred. He was the only firefighter close to the tank who escaped the inferno. He suffered injuries from flying bricks, but was not burned. Valentini told me that members of the crew of Pumper 25 had discussed their escape route should they need to abandon the hoselines — they were to move to the left or right of the burning gasoline, staying away from the center. When the tank ruptured, Sirna and Stone went to the left and Toomes went to the right. Valentini went straight away, the wrong procedure, but it ultimately saved his life. Valentini was taken to a hospital because of his injuries and was to be held for observation overnight. He recalls that when he returned home, his wife and mother asked him when he was going to retire. "Tomorrow," he replied, but he stayed for 40 years, retiring in 1999.
The irony for Pumper 25 was that the crew should not have even been at the fire that day. Pumper 25's crew had been dispatched earlier to a fire and saw the smoke from the Southwest Boulevard fire as they were finishing up. They went back to Station 25 to replace their wet, dirty hose with fresh, dry hose, a common practice following fires. Radio calls from dispatch were piped through all stations and any dispatches were heard by all companies on the department. Pumper 2 had been dispatched to the fire scene to stage two blocks from the fire scene in case it was needed. Enroute to the fire, the company was involved in an accident at 11th and Broadway and taken out of service. Pumper 25 was sent to replace Pumper 2 and stage two blocks north of the fire scene. Valentini said they arrived at the staging area and sat on the apparatus, drinking soda and watching the fire. Pumper 11 was deployed on Southwest Boulevard in front of the fire, supplying water to 2½-inch hoselines, when its pump failed. Pumper 25 was sent to the scene from the staging area to replace Pumper 11. When they arrived, the firefighters placed a 2½-inch hoseline in service from their pumper and began fighting the fire.
The magnitude of the fire brought reporters from Kansas City TV stations and newspapers to the scene. Gray and photographer Joe Adams were among those on scene. Adams was covering another event across town and Gray was at home when he got the call about the fire. Gray looked out his window at home and saw the smoke from the fire, which was quite a distance away. Gray and Adams arrived on the fire scene at about the same time. They had been at the fire approximately an hour before the rupture of Tank 4 occurred. TV reporting in the 1950s at Channel 9 centered on still photos from news scenes that were placed into a slide show on the air with narration. They did not use video and the station did not have video equipment that could be taken to a news event.
Gray was the acting KMBC news director the day of the fire and made a decision that both he and photographer thought would get them fired. He let Adams film the Southwest Boulevard fire with his personal movie camera. When the Tank 4 rupture occurred, Channel 5 had already run out of film and the Channel 4 photographer was changing the film in his camera. As a result, KMBC had the only footage of the rupture of Tank 4 and subsequent engulfing of firefighters and equipment by the burning gasoline. This film has been used in countless training sessions over the years to teach firefighters how to fight flammable-liquid fires.
Several hundred firefighters and families gathered on Aug. 18, 2009, at 10 A.M. for a memorial service to honor the five firefighters and one civilian who lost their lives 50 years earlier at the Southwest Boulevard fire. Honor guards from the Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS, fire departments presented the colors while bagpiper John Tootle played. Twenty-eight retired firefighters from Kansas City, MO, and 12 from Kansas City, KS, who were at the 1959 fire attended the service, along with families of the firefighters who died.
Also attending was Firefighter John Sirna, the grandson of Captain Peter Sirna, who was killed in the fire. John Sirna wears badge 440, which was his grandfather's badge number. He joined the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department over the objections of his grandmother.
A memorial that was built on the spot of the fire on land donated by the Union Pacific Railroad and dedicated in 1993 was refurbished and rededicated. Gray was master of ceremonies, with an invocation by Deputy Chief (ret.) Arnett Williams. Fire Chief John Paul Jones of Kansas City, KS, and Fire Chief Richard "Smokey" Dyer of Kansas City, MO, gave keynote presentations, along with Robert Wing, president of International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 64, and Louie Wright, president of IAFF Local 42. Remarks were made by Deputy Chief Robert A. Rocha from the Kansas City, KS, Fire Department. Commemorative 50th anniversary medals were given to the families of the fallen firefighters and an award was given to Gray by the chiefs of the two fire departments.
Thanks to Kansas City, MO, Fire Department Historian Ray Elder; Kansas City, MO, Fire Chief Richard "Smokey" Dyer; Kansas City, KS, Fire Chief John Paul Jones; Kansas City, KS, Assistant Chief Robert A. Rocha; Charles Gray and Tony Valentini for their assistance with this column.
ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
GEORGE E. BARTELS, 33
Station 19, Pumper 19
Died Aug. 21, 1959, at 10 A.M. of third-degree burns
12 years, three months of service
NEAL K. OWEN, 28
Station 19, Pumper 19
Died Aug. 18, 1959, at 4:56 P.M. of third-degree burns
Two years, three months of service
VIRGIL L. SAMS, 27
Station 19, Pumper 19
Died Aug. 19, 1959, at 2:45 P.M. of third-degree burns
Six years, seven months of service
PETER T. SIRNA, 46
Station 25, Pumper 25
Died Aug. 24, 1959, at 12:20 P.M. of third-degree burns
16 years of service
DELBERT W. STONE, 29
Station 25, Pumper 25
Died Aug. 23, 1959, at 3:15 P.M. of third-degree burns
Two years of service
FRANCIS J. TOOMES, 42
Friend of firefighters at Pumper 25
Died on the fire line with his friends