PART 4: THE AFTERMATH AND KINGMAN STRONG - We Need Ice - The Kingman BLEVE True Story
Updated: Aug 10, 2022
This BLOG contains sensitive and sometimes graphic details, information and testimonials relating to burn injuries, burn victims, death, disaster survivors and PTSD. Reader discretion is advised.
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Hello there, and welcome back to the mini-series, “We Need Ice, Explosion on the Railroad.”
Last time we really got into the meaning behind the “We need ice” message. We took a look at the county hospital situation after the ‘73 BLEVE tore through the town of Kingman, Arizona injuring hundreds, and ultimately taking the lives of 12.
[WITNESS STATEMENT] “I helped at the hospital, I went over to the hospital, and there was a person there who was missing the back of their shirt, all you could see was his back. And the flame came down on his back and seared the back where it wasn’t even bleeding. Just an open wound and it was probably that long down their back and flesh was hanging all over.”
That’s my friend K who was a resident of Kingman Arizona for 13 years and was there for the BLEVE. As a volunteer at the Mohave County hospital in 1973, the main aid she rendered was pouring buckets of ice water over the victims.
If you’re not up to speed, please don’t move on without visiting previous episodes in order. And if you haven’t yet, make sure to follow and subscribe to the "We Need Ice" podcast. Rate and review it as well. You won’t regret, not only being the first to know of “We Need Ice” updates and new episodes, but being a part of this project through your commentary. I’m expecting survivors of the BLEVE and Kingman residents to be listening. Let them know you’re enjoying this story, THEIR STORY.
In this episode we’ll get into the fallout from the BLEVE: the heroes who gave their lives, the firefighting community and the residents of Kingman and what their recovery looked like.
Here we go.
I’m sitting here looking at a Mohave County News Magazine from August 2, 1973. On that date, this paper was delivered by a little boy on a bike, probably wearing a newsboy cap, possibly suspenders. He might have had one of those wagons that secured to the back of his bicycle and rolled on behind him, or a big basket in front of his handlebars causing him to really use those arm muscles to keep his transportation from toppling. I’m sure we can all agree that life in a small town during 1973 was of a simpler time. But for the small town of Kingman, Arizona, 1973 introduced complexities the community was not prepared for.
I’ve never held such a delicate piece of print news before. Not just delicate in content, the pages are yellow, the folds are deeply creased and with the turn of each page, I risk ripping either the curled edges or the soft spot where the folds meet in the center.
"25 cents," is printed on the top left corner and there’s a large photo of woman wearing a crown and cradling a dozen roses. The heading reads “Mohave Salutes Miss Arizona of 1973, Suzie May of Kingman”
But on pages 30 and 31, the section commonly known as “the centerfold”, I find a two-page spread dedicated to the lives lost from the ’73 BLEVE. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a while and certainly pertaining to this topic. “We Promise We Will Never Forget YOU Or YOURS!” ending with an exclamation point is plastered across the space. Encircling the article are twelve portrait illustrations – faces of the men who gave the ultimate sacrifice… Every one of them resembling a “Noah from The Notebook” or a “Hubbel from The Way We Were.” Handsome strapping young men who, if we didn’t know better, had long lives ahead of them.
Knowing how tight-knit a community Kingman was, is, it’s no wonder they showed up in support of one another while recovering from the BLEVE disaster. My friend K tells me about Kingman comradery and how families who could take the children of other families which had lost their heads of household stepped up to do so. Kay herself recalls living in 1100 sqft with 8 people when she took on the children of one of the firefighters and burn victims for a while. She reminisces on a particularly tough conversation she had during that time with a 5 year old in her care.
[WITNESS STATEMENT] “When Charlotte came home from the swimming pool, crawled up my arms and said, so and so told me today my daddy’s a dead man and she just hugged me and just, she said “Kay my daddy’s not a dead man” and how do you tell a kid? You don’t wanna lie to them and you don’t know so you just sit there and hold them.”
In the midst of Kingman’s recovery from the BLEVE, and with a full house, K tried her best to keep the children’s lives as normal as possible. That went for her children and those in her care. So, she allowed them trips to the community pool. Afterall, nothing makes kiddos happier in the summertime than pool play. Unfortunately, the BLEVE and its victims were on the mind of everyone in Kingman, and this little girl got wind that her father’s prognosis for pulling through was not looking good. It turned out, so and so was right. Her daddy did not come home.
I'm back into the stack of Mohave Miner newspapers from 1973. “THREE DEAD IN DISASTER HERE,” in big black block letters takes up nearly the whole top third of the page.
Allow me to read the beginning portion of this article, by Don Cole and Jim Hudson, as it’s going to really drive some things home.
This is an interesting perspective on an event we now know, spared so few. At the time of this publication, 3 were officially gone from the BLEVE. 13 had been flown or evacuated to remote hospitals for life-saving treatment from dedicated burn units.
I can’t help but think about the people who read this for the first time all those years ago and the rollercoaster of emotions they were forced to ride out. This article makes up a small fraction of the BLEVE news this stack of old papers holds. On this day, while readers were delivered the dreadful update that 3 of their own were confirmed dead, they must have also felt they could hold out hope for the critically injured receiving the best care available. But you remember what I said about most who were transported for treatment right? I suppose it’s better to have hope. Maybe part of God’s plan was staggering the times of death of those the BLEVE took to their final resting places. Hmmm… isn’t that something to consider?
“Heart Broken Community Burys its Dead, Local Fireman Lauded,” is the headline of this July 12, 1973 issue.
It reads, “Sadden and stunned residents of Kingman and friends from afar joined grieved members of the families this week and burying the dead from the tragic explosion and fire last Thursday. Funeral services and ceremonies of last rights proceeded on an almost continuing schedule with the Elks lodge and churches filled to capacity and overflow.
Messages of eulogy for the nine men, eight of them members of the Kingman volunteer fire department rang true as the community paid tribute to brave men who died in protecting the life and property of all its citizens.”
Did you catch that? 9 men? This publication, 9 days after the BLEVE, memorializes 9 men. We know there are more to come, and I’m reminded of one of the conversations I had with K where she said something to the effect of, “It felt like every day for 2 weeks, we would get the news that another had passed.”
It’s clear to me now, as it was not long into my first interviews with K, that her memories are as sharp as a tack. She is the lynchpin to this project.
A few turned pages of the same Miner issue and life
after the BLEVE is here in print again. “Flags Fly At Halfmast Throughout The Community In Tribute To Those Men Who Gave Their Lives,” hovers over 6 black and white photos of the towns flags paying homage: at the city’s Monument Park, at the Mohave County Courthouse, at the US Post Office, at the Elks Lodge, at the Mohave General Hospital, and at residences and business firms.
Another turn of the page and I see a photograph of what looks like a parade route or a traffic back-up. Cars, bumper to bumper fill every lane of the street. I can make out a storefront sign along the road, “Mohave Savings & Loan.” On closer inspection, the image’s caption brings it all into focus: and it says, “Cars filled the streets. And every vacant lot as Kingman turned out to honor the dead at funeral services this week."
On the same page is a picture of a door and I can’t tell if it’s a shop, office or a private home, but it matters not. There’s a big bow and ribbon displayed right in the middle of the structure’s entrance and the caption reads, “Wreath's ribbons, bows, and bands of black were dominant throughout Kingman this week as the city paused to mourn the dead from last week's blast. Throughout the week, the list of dead from the fire continued to grow and local residents waited ply for each condition report list issued by the hospital. Throughout town, law enforcement officers wore black bands on their badges while black wreaths and ribbons decorated the doors and windows of businesses and public buildings as a symbol of mourn for the fallen neighbors and friends.”
Sure there are some squares of the Miner newspaper still dedicated to ads for fishing and camping gear and coupons for small businesses. But the majority of the space is reserved for news around the BLEVE victims and a grieving town.
Kingman, Arizona Firefighter, Oscar Lopez also summarizes the Kingman community’s recovery post ’73 BLEVE.
[KINGMAN FIREFIGHTER OSCAR LOPEZ] "Every funeral was pretty much held on separate days and each funeral had long precessions. You know, you're talking about the 11 people that were respected citizens, not only for what they did, but for what they did for the community also, being a volunteer firefighter. They were outstanding members of the community. Not like, Otis off of Andy Griffith. These guys WERE Andy Griffith... Like Floyd, the barber, these guys were those type of people. Everybody knew them. Everybody knew what they did. Everybody knew that they were volunteer firefighters. Everybody knew that they were the principal of the school or they were the general manager of Citizens Utility. They were all highly respected community members and, for each funeral the city pretty much completely closed down so people could go and, either participate in the procession or be standing on the side of the road paying their respects."
Oscar does a great job of creating this parallel with the town of Kingman and the wholesome sitcoms we all know and love like Andy Griffith. It really sinks in how close-knit Kingman residents were. These were your average, hardworking Joes, the wives that loved them and the children they were trying to raise in a family-centric community.
But in another issue of the Miner dated August 30, 1973, almost 2 months after the catastrophic BLEVE, I find a small write-up in the bottom corner of the front page. The article draws the eye only with a solid outline around the content and a heading containing a name my eyes are now trained to take focus on, "Doxol,"oh my gosh, DOXOL! It’s the name of the company the deadly propane actually belonged to. The full title of the tiny article is, “Doxol Answers Questions.”
This ought to be good.