The Kingman Rail Car BLEVE

Twenty-five years have passed since a railroad tank car carrying propane exploded in Kingman, AZ. Robert Burke revisits the incident and discusses what lessons (if any) were learned.


It was 25 years ago, on July 5, 1973, that a propane tank car being off-loaded in Kingman, AZ, caught fire, resulting in a BLEVE - boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion - that killed 11 Kingman firefighters and one civilian. Captain Wayne Davis is the only firefighter in the area who was at...


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It was 25 years ago, on July 5, 1973, that a propane tank car being off-loaded in Kingman, AZ, caught fire, resulting in a BLEVE - boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion - that killed 11 Kingman firefighters and one civilian.

Captain Wayne Davis is the only firefighter in the area who was at the explosion and is still active in the fire department. Davis, who was a new volunteer firefighter at the time, recalls that he was riding on the tailboard of the second Kingman engine to reach the scene. The crew had responded to the fire and was stretching hoselines to a deluge gun when the blast occurred.

Davis ducked behind the hosebed but still received second-degree burns on his arm. The engine sustained distortion damage to plastic light covers on the top of the apparatus but was otherwise undamaged. The Kingman chief at the time, Charlie Potter, was in his pickup truck directing operations when the explosion occurred. He ducked in the seat of the truck but still sustained second- and third-degree burns on his arm and was hospitalized for several days. In addition to the 11 firefighters and one civilian killed, three other firefighters were burned by radiant heat from the blast - two from Kingman and one from the Hualapai Valley Fire District. Two police officers and 95 civilians also suffered burns from the radiant heat. More than $1 million in property damage was reported. (Many previous reports erroneously indicated that 12 firefighters were killed).

Except for a career firefighter/engineer who was severely burned but survived and the three firefighters and two police officers who sustained lesser burns, those injured were mostly spectators who had gathered along Highway 66 about 1,000 feet from the fire, ignoring police warnings to stay back.

Photographs of the spectacular BLEVE have appeared in countless articles, books and training programs over the years. Instructors often refer to the Kingman incident when warning emergency responders of the dangers of flame impingement on the vapor space of propane tanks. Within the past year, however, two deadly incidents occurred involving propane tank explosions.

On Oct. 8, 1997, two volunteer firefighters in Carthage, IL, were killed when a propane tank exploded. The call came in as a fire in a grain dryer on a farm outside of town. When firefighters arrived, the found a fire involving a 1,000-gallon propane tank. About 20 minutes later, the tank exploded. The firefighters who died were reported to have been hit by the fireball but not burned; it is thought the concussion from the blast killed them. Two other firefighters were injured.

Exactly six months later, on April 8, 1998, a similar incident occurred in Albert City, IA. This time, two firefighters were killed and six others, including the Albert City fire chief, were injured. Firefighters responded to an 11 P.M. report of a fire involving an 18,000-gallon propane tank at a turkey farm. It was reported that the tank contained 10,000 gallons of fuel when it exploded. Firefighters were positioned 60 feet from the tank, attempting to cool it, when the explosion occurred. The incident apparently was caused by teenagers riding an all-terrain vehicle who struck a two-inch vaporizer line connected to the propane tank. It is believed the pilot light on the vaporizer may have been the ignition source for the leaking propane. The burning propane impinging on the tank caused the relief valve to activate, sending burning propane 80 feet into the air. Firefighters thought that because the relief valve was activated it was safe to approach the tank.

Department Profile

Kingman, with a population of 7,500 in 1973, is a desert community along Route 66, some 80 miles southeast of Las Vegas,184 miles northwest of Phoenix and 147 miles west of Flagstaff. At the time of the incident, the Kingman Fire Department was a combination force of six career firefighters and 36 volunteers operating out of two stations. One career member was on duty in each station at all times.

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