Kingman, AZ, Remembers 11 Fallen Firefighters

Sept. 1, 2008
Robert Burke details the memorial service on the 35th anniversary of the Kingman, AZ, explosion that claimed the lives of 12, including 11 firefighters.

One of the most important things we can do as firefighters is to never forget the sacrifices made by those who went before us or the lessons we have learned from them. In particular, we should not forget those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, their lives.

It has been 35 years since 11 firefighters gave the ultimate sacrifice in a propane explosion in Kingman, AZ. In spite of the terrible loss of life, no other hazmat incident has occurred in the United States that has had more of a positive impact on the fire service than the Kingman incident. Many changes in procedures and regulations occurred across the fire service as a result of this explosion. We owe uncounted saved lives to those brave men who gave theirs in Kingman that fateful day in July 1973.

Kingman firefighters, family members of those firefighters lost, brother firefighters from across the region and community residents gathered at Kingman Middle School on July 5, 2008, at 10 A.M. to remember the 11 firefighters and one civilian who perished. Over 700 people attended, including representatives from 35 fire departments and seven law enforcement agencies. I had the opportunity to attend the service as well. It was one of the most moving and heart-warming experiences of my life. Chief Charles Osterman and his staff, with assistance from the community at large, did a remarkable job of honoring the 11 firefighters who died that day and making sure they are not forgotten.

The service began with remarks by Chief Osterman, followed by the Kingman Fire Department Honor Guard under the command of Fire Prevention Specialist Keith Eaton presenting the colors. Next, there was a procession of visiting honor guards and other uniformed firefighters. Department Chaplain Dave Patriquin gave the invocation, then brief remarks were made by Kingman Mayor John Salem; Bob Barger, director of the Arizona Department of Fire, Building and Life Safety; and Tim Hill, president of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona.

The speakers were followed by a video presentation showing scenes from the incident and an American Heat documentary prepared about the incident during the 25th anniversary. Chief Osterman read a biography of each of the 11 firefighters as his photograph was displayed on the screen, followed by the traditional ringing of a fire department bell six times for each firefighter. Following the bell-ringing ceremony, a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" was played by the combined bagpipes from Kingman and Glendale, AZ, and Henderson, NV, followed by a closing prayer from Chaplain Patriquin.

Upon completion of the inside ceremony, honor guard members and uniformed firefighters formed two lines in the parking lot outside as family members passed through. Everyone gathered by the flag pole in nearby Firefighter's Memorial Park. The five-acre park was rededicated with the raising of a U.S. flag, lowering it to half staff and the playing of "Taps." An Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter performed a flyover to conclude the memorial service.

In 1973, 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. Equipment in service at the time of the explosion included four engines and a rescue vehicle. Station 2 was just a half-mile west of the Doxol Gas Distribution Plant, the site of the explosion. At 1:30 P.M. on July 5, 1973, two workers began to connect hoses to a rail car to start the off-loading process. As the off-loading proceeded, one of the men detected a small leak in a connection. A leaking liquid connection was struck with a wrench. That's when a fire erupted. It is thought that a spark was created as the wrench struck the steel fitting.

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 2½-inch lines to the hydrant 1,200 feet away to supply a deluge gun positioned 50 feet from the burning tank car. The first 2½-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.

Chief Osterman reports that the incident that occurred 35 years ago has resulted in many relatives of the firefighters who were killed, including sons, nephews and uncles, becoming career and volunteer firefighters in Kingman and other communities. Assistant Chief Joe Dorner is a nephew of Butch Henry, Battalion Chief Porter Williams is the son of Lee Williams and Captain Bob Casson is the son of Bill Casson and all are career firefighters with the Kingman Fire Department. Chuck Casson, a former volunteer captain and currently a volunteer firefighter, is also the son of Bill Casson.

Chief Osterman's father, John, was also a volunteer firefighter in Kingman when the explosion occurred, but was at work at the Ford Proving Ground 25 miles away and missed the original call. John Osterman reported that his wife called him and told him "something was going on in Kingman, but she didn't know what. She said the house just shook." John told her he was on his way. He told his boss he had an emergency and needed to go back to Kingman. Gus Reichardt and Lawson Bradley, also Kingman firefighters, worked at Ford as well and he picked them up and headed to Kingman. They arrived after the explosion had occurred and immediately went to work trying to do what they could to help.

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 protected].

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