PART 6: FIREFIGHTING REVAMPED - 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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Hey there and welcome back to the miniseries, “We Need Ice, Explosion on the Railroad.”
In the last episode, we explored the “Doxol Situation,” and their responsibility to the deceased, the families of and the injured. I concluded, while in 1973, BLEVE protocol was definitely in need of some revamping, the Doxol company seemed to follow proper procedure for offloading propane gas, and the propane leak and subsequent explosions were simply accidents.
Today, we’ll explore how the 1973 Kingman BLEVE influenced protocols for transporting liquid gas, firefighting and handling explosions worldwide. Fire departments began using footage of the disaster in more extensive training for how to handle Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosions, or BLEVEs. remember the railroad conductor turned BLEVE photographer on July 5th 1973? His photos were used in firefighter academies for propane fire training for many years.
If anything positive was going to come out of this disaster, it was going to be improving procedures for managing such events in order to save lives.
So, let’s get into it.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then mass casualties are the catalyst of reinvention. 9-11 for example, do you remember air travel prior to the twin tower attack of September 11, 2001? I do. An hour before takeoff was sufficient for airport arrival. Security lines flowed efficiently, shoes were kept on, full-size shampoo and perfume bottles were carried on board, and if you accidentally left your belt on or forgot to take Chapstick out of your pocket before walking through a standard metal detector, you often got the go ahead anyway. Now, you’re lucky if you get through DFW or other big hubs without a cavity search and a sniff from a Belgium Malinois.
We complain about procedural changes especially when they are an inconvenience. But, I’d rather show up 2 hours pre-flight to wait in line and be body-scanned than board a plane in risk of hijacking.
The modifications implemented because of the Kingman BLEVE were necessary alterations put in place to save lives.
The Kingman BLEVE of ‘73 changed the way propane and all flammable liquid tankers were built and also changed the way the fire service operates on these types of incidents.
Kingman Firefighter, Oscar Lopez adds his understanding of the adjustments the industry underwent after the ’73 BLEVE.
[KINGMAN FIREFIGHTER OSCAR LOPEZ] "After the BLEVE, the whole understanding of how to fight any type of pressurized flammable liquid developed. The tank cars, the trucks that carry the product - everything went back to get redesigned. The way we approach these types of fires - that training started getting enhanced. One of my first out of town classes that I took at the state fire school, they were talking about the BLEVE. One of the instructions mentioned that he thought there was someone there from Kingman, so I raised my hand. I kind of talked about what I knew at the time, which was a lot less than I know know because, it's been a huge thing, not only getting into the administration portion of the fire department, but knowing that history. That training drove me to know more about the BLEVE. There are a lot of people who want to know about it and I don't want to give misinformation. So, I dove into it and that's one of my biggest things is knowing a lot about this. This has been put a
s part of the teachings in every firefighter academy around the word, because of this incident."
And it wasn’t just firetrucks and explosion control that were looked at for renovation. Because of the ’73 Kingman explosion, the Department of Transportation changed the design of propane railroad tankers that carry explosive liquids. No longer thin, single-wall sheets of steel, rail tankers carrying flammable gasses are now double-walled and protected with insulation that increases the amount of time before a BLEVE occurs. If only the town of Kingman, Arizona had a little more time, on that July day, 1973.
In my web research for anything Kingman BLEVE related, I come across a publication entitled, "What Firefighters Need to Know about BLEVEs," by Shelbie Watts. Under the header: FIREFIGHTER SAFETY IN BLEVE-POSSIBLE SITUATIONS is a summary of NIOSH’S recommendations for fighting BLEVEs. NIOH = National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health
I'll quote from this article. "When battling a propane tank fire or another type of incident where a BLEVE is possible, NIOSH recommends firefighters do the following:
Keep as much distance from the fire as possible by using unmanned hose holders or monitor nozzles.
Flood containers with large quantities of water to cool them until well after the fire is out.
Avoid icing by not directing water at the source of a leak.
Be aware of sections of the vessel flying in all directions.
NIOSH also urges fire departments to continue to educate its firefighters on the dangers of BLEVEs so they can be aware and stay safe at high-risk scenes."
Let’s talk about that first bullet point recommendation and I’ll repeat: “Keep as much distance from the fire as possible by using unmanned hose holders or monitor nozzles.”
So what is an unmanned hose holder or monitor nozzles. Kingman Firefighter, Oscar Lopez, explains,
[KINGMAN FIREFIGHTER OSCAR LOPEZ]
WOW. The small town Kingman fire department was not necessarily undertrained, but they were inexperienced in BLEVE control and running out of time. Doesn’t Oscar’s account makes you realize how much was going on in such a short period of time on that July 5th day. I keep coming back to the word, “chaos.” It must have been utter chaos. When the BLEVE occurred, The Kingman firefighters were actually in the process of setting up an unmanned monitor, a tactic that would be applied immediately today for explosion control. Unfortunately, every second counted on that day in 1973. We can speculate that if the firemen had more time, maybe their valiant efforts cooling down the propane tank with their standard industry firetrucks hoses would have paid off. We can say for sure, with just a little more time to setup the unmanned monitor the men would have had a much better of chance of preventing the explosion and, even if they could not, they would have been able to monitor the tanker from a safe distance.
I’m reading through a PDF located on the web called, "Fire Safety Analysis Manual for LP-Gas Storage Facilities."
It does not surprise me anymore to find Kingman BLEVE references in manuals and training materials for fire fighting, explosion control and gas storage and transportation
I quote from this manual. "A direct result of this incident was the addition of a new fire protection requirement in the 1976 edition of NFPA 58. The requirement stated that planning “for the effective measures for control of inadvertent LPGas release or fire” shall be done and coordinated with local emergency responders. In addition, the primary consideration of a fire safety analysis at that time was the use of water as a suppressing agent to control fires. The requirements today are very similar to those original requirements except in two areas.
· As of the 2001 edition, fire safety analyses are required to be written;
· The primary consideration in performing such an analysis has changed from the emphasis of using water for fire control to the emphasis of avoiding product release altogether using technology and training.
This modern approach takes advantage of the inherent safety present in a controlled environment such as a bulk plant, as well as the safety features of the most current product control hardware.
The 1980’s enjoyed a reduced number of propane incidents in the U. S."
[KINGMAN FIREFIGHTER OSCAR LOPEZ] "The biggest thing is what we learned in fire trading. How we treat it and what we do now, it's now in every fire academy, pretty much anywhere, across the world.
We lost 11 firefighters. Did we lose them in vain? No. There are probably hundreds and hundreds of firefighters out there, from this tragic event, that learn how to deal with potential BLEVEs. We, as a community, lost 11 firefighters, but, I can honestly tell you hundreds of lives have been saved from their lives being lost."
Hundreds of saved lives are owed to the men who lost theirs along the Santa Fe railroad in Kingman, Arizona, 1973. Isn’t it kind of astounding how influential the Kingman BLEVE was/is, even now, yet how low-key the event seems to remain in history to the average person’s knowledge? I mean, don’t you think people want to hear about this? Despite the time that has passed since 12 men, 11 firefighters died in the line of duty, fighting the ferocious BLEVE, the story is still so relevant. Personally, I feel a deep responsibility to the public, to the survivors, to Kingman, to firefighters and to children with a dream of becoming one of their larger than life heroes up there on those shiny red trucks gallantly racing into the flames, trusting in their training and God they’ll return safely. I’m truly humbled and feel unworthy, but privileged, to be a voice in this narrative.
I assure you the men of Kingman who sacrificed their lives to save countless others will be further credited in the next episode episodes of "We Need Ice, Explosion on the Railroad," so please stay with us. Don’t forget to subscribe to this mini-series to be the first to know when new episodes are dropped and pay a visit to weneedice.com for even more information on the ’73 BLEVE of Kingman, Arizona.