The Southwest Boulevard Fire: Kansas City Remembers a Tragedy

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...


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...


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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.

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