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Kingman firefighters received the first call for help at 1:57 P.M. and arrived on scene three minutes later. The fire spread quickly and was impinging on the top of the rail car where the vapor space is located when firefighters arrived. This is the most vulnerable place for flame impingement to occur because there is nothing to absorb the heat but the metal itself. Steel does not absorb heat well, so when temperatures top 400 degrees Fahrenheit, the integrity of the tank is quickly in jeopardy.
The firefighters' tactical objectives were to provide water to cool the tank and prevent an explosion. Engine 6, a 1968 Boardman with a 1,000-gallon booster tank, was positioned 75 feet from the rail car and two one-inch booster lines were put into service to cool the tank shell. While the first firefighters attempted to cool the rail car from the booster tank of the engine, others began laying two 2Â½-inch lines to the hydrant 1,200 feet away to supply a deluge gun positioned 50 feet from the burning tank car. The first 2Â½-inch hoselay was completed, but the firefighters ran out of hose for the second supply line. Several firefighters were sent for more hose by Chief Charlie Potter. One of those firefighters was Wayne Davis, a volunteer who was responding to his second fire since joining the department just a couple of days earlier. Davis recalls that he responded directly to the scene upon notification of the incident. He sought out the fire chief and asked what needed to be done. He was assigned to the second engine to arrive at the scene that was stretching hoselines to a deluge gun.
As the firefighters went to get the hose, a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion) occurred at 2:10 P.M., just 19 minutes after the first flame impingement on the top of the tank. Davis ducked behind the hosebed, but still received second-degree burns on his arm, face and right hand. If the chief had not sent those firefighters to get additional hose, they too might have died in the explosion. Engine 6 sustained extensive damage and had to be sent out for repairs. Chief Potter was in his pickup truck directing operations when the explosion occurred. He ducked in the seat of the truck, but still experienced second- and third-degree burns on his arm and was hospitalized for several days.
Eleven Kingman firefighters -- two career and nine volunteer -- died as a result of burns from the explosion. Three were killed instantly and eight more passed away over the following week. The fireball and radiant heat set five buildings on fire, including a tire company, restaurant, truck stop and the gas company office building, and started several brushfires. Responding mutual aid companies were assigned to extinguish the numerous fires, the last of which was brought under control at 5:30 P.M. More than $1 million in property damage was reported.
During my visit to Kingman for the memorial service, my hotel overlooked the Kingman Regional Medical Center (formerly Mohave General Hospital). As I looked out to watch helicopters as they came and went, I was reminded of the evacuation of the injured firefighters 35 years earlier. Mohave General Hospital in Kingman received 107 burn victims from the explosion, including the eight gravely injured Kingman firefighters, by the one ambulance in town, private vehicles and police cars. Six Kingman police officers were also injured by the explosion. Four medevac helicopters were sent from Air-Evac in Phoenix and two helicopters each were provided from Luke and Nellis Air Force Bases. In all, 26 burn patients were flown to hospitals in Phoenix and Henderson and Las Vegas, NV, by 6:30 P.M. Thirty of the patients were admitted to Mohave General Hospital and the rest were treated as outpatients.
Today, the Kingman Fire Department is headed by career Chief Charles Osterman (who was just 16 years old when the explosion occurred) in command of four stations, four front-line and three reserve engines, one 100-foot tower ladder (dedicated to the firefighters who died with each of their names inscribed on the sides of the tower bucket), one new light rescue, a heavy support vehicle, an extrication truck and two brush engines with a response area that has grown to over 30 square miles. Each shift now has nine career firefighters on duty supported by Chief Osterman, two assistant chiefs, five battalion chiefs, an EMS coordinator and a training officer. The career force is complemented by 10 part-time personnel and three volunteers.