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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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.