PART 1: BOOM ATOP THE TRAIN - 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.
Want to Listen to this True Story in the WE NEED ICE Podcast?
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[RADIO STATION BROADCAST]
“Attention citizens of Kingman… We need you now more than ever. The explosion, which you’ve all heard about, if not experienced first hand… ugh, the victims… it’s, it’s very bad. We need ice! Whatever you have in the freezer or at your business, please bring it to Mohave County General Hospital. I repeat, the hospital needs ice. My God, these poor people. May God lay his hands on them and their families and if anyone has…” [BROADCAST FADES]
On July 5th, 1973, the, “We Need Ice” message was broadcast across a dedicated Kingman, Arizona radio station. The local hospital requesting ice cubes from residents’ freezers? What on earth for?
It was for the bodies. The dozens of human bodies burned alive from a railcar propane explosion, also known as a BLEVE. If you know anything about burn injuries, you know they are the most devastating to the body and the most excruciating in pain. The ice was for the bodies. The bodies that were still alive, burning from the inside out.
The true story I’m about to tell you, will be painful to hear and hard to believe.
[WITNESS STATEMENT] “Have you ever seen World War II explosions? It was humongous. It hit children, it hit people. I think it was over 100 people injured."
That’s my friend K who lived in Kingman, Arizona during 1973 and during the BLEVE and topic of this BLOG. She’s real soft-spoken and at times a little emotional when retelling her version of these events.
You know, it's interesting. K is not alone in bringing up World War II alongside her accounts of the Kingman BLEVE. It's a recurring theme throughout my interviews with witnesses and historians.
The following is a quote from a ’73 BLEVE witness who wishes to remain anonymous.
“More significant events like world war two, there aren't many of those storytellers left and it's important for us as a community, as a society to have these stories available, to reference if for nothing else than just so somebody can know if they want to do. And it doesn't matter if it's a, an explosion in a small town in the seventies, or if it's the invasion of Normandy, it's valid and it's a human experience.”
We’ll hear more from BLEVE witnesses in later posts.
K has stacks of Mohave County Miner newspapers saved from the week of and those after the ’73 BLEVE explosions. For this project, she’s allowed me full access to her archive, along with her precious memories.
I was initially surprised that this event in American history does not show up in podcasts, ID or Dateline episodes. It wasn’t until I had fully committed to telling this story and was well into researching and structuring it for the public to receive that I began to uncover and understand why this tragedy manages to so often evade publication. This isn’t the tale of your great, great, grandfather’s ancestor’s 18th century shipwreck. There are living survivors, witnesses, an entire town that still flinches from flashbacks and are triggered by memories of the time. I dedicate this account to them and all the lost souls this event claimed or left in an aftershock wave of PTSD. And with a respectful warning, I want to encourage readers to proceed – allow yourself this experience to be consumed with empathy and crushed by the gravity of this event that forever changed so many lives and remains the most sensitive of topics.
So, if you’re ready for this journey, let’s get into it.
It was supposed to be a typical weekday for the small town of Kingman Arizona, a desert community along Route 66, only 80 miles southeast Las Vegas. The day after 4th of July, fireworks had run out and family gatherings dispersed.
It was one of those dry-heat summer days in the desert. Working men dabbed their weeping foreheads with greasy handkerchiefs. Wives and homemakers periodically stood in front of their open freezer doors tugging at their aprons fanning themselves. Children were exceptionally thirsty and smelly after playing outside. It was stifling hot and stuffy, yes. But this community could never have imagined how much worse it was going to get.
A railcar, #38214, sat on a spur of the Santa Fe Railroad which serviced and traveled through the town of Kingman. A spur is a sub-track that diverges from the main track which provides access to industrial or commercial areas. Inside car #38214 was 33,000 gallons of propane gas. The scene raised no red flags for civilians or workers of the Doxol Gas Plant where the propane would be stored. Actually, the tank car had been sitting there for about a month, since it was delivered, full of propane to the plant.
Amongst those with a distant view of the car were Double G Tire Co., the Country Kitchen Restaurant and the Phillips Truck Stop, all just a few hundred feet away from car #38214. Just part of the industrial town’s backdrop and most folks had no reason to consider it at all.
But on July 5th 1973 at about 1:30pm, with the summer heat topping 100 degrees, it was a few good men’s job to consider the tank car. So, they began the process of offloading the gas to be stored at the plant. Transferring propane gas, as you can imaging isn’t like stacking boxes on a dolly. Hoses are connected to valves on the railcar’s hatch and the gas is slowly siphoned out while workers monitor all angles of the procedure, checking for leaks or clogs. Incidentally, a small leak was detected in one of the fittings. But, this was not the men’s first rodeo and there was no need to panic. Although a seemingly abrasive technique, it was customary to tighten such fittings with the “whack of a wrench.” So, atop the giant railcar of flammable gas, the Doxol workers attempted to repair the leak by doing just that. A strike of a wrench and the sound of steel on steel rang out once, twice, BOOM.
A small spark from the wrenches connection with the hardware fitting ignited the leaking gas causing an explosion. The two men involved in the attempted leak repair were ejected from the perch on top the railcar by the nearly hundred foot blast and their bodies ablaze fell to the ground.
Now you’ll have to remember this incident occurred on a sidetrack of the railroad. No train station or ticket counter - These two men were relatively isolated in their duty that day.
Not far from the explosion on the railroad was a Highway Patrol Office. A man wearing minimal and tattered remnants of clothing was stumbling towards the station. There was smoke emitting from his charred body and every inch of hair had been burned off of him. He was suffering and in shock, but he managed to tell an officer that his coworker was still at the explosion site.
This was only the beginning of the devastation that July 5th 1973 brought to Kingman Arizona. There would be another explosion, even bigger, but not until firefighters and hundreds of onlookers were corralled around the flaming tank car, unknowingly standing in the direct path of devastation. The events that lead up to and followed the BLEVE, acronym for (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion), killed 12, 11 who were firefighters and injured approximately a hundred citizens. The explosions as well as the aftermath would be studied and introduced into the teachings of firefighter academies worldwide.
My name is Meg, and my interest in this story comes from a witness account of that very day.
I’ve had the distinguished pleasure of getting to know this witness, as we’ve built our friendship and she’s opened up her memories to me. As a hospital volunteer during the event, my friend recounts the details of July 5th 1973 and the days that followed. Watching some of her closest of friends in pain and agony and the heartbreaking reality that their small town medical facility, had to resort to begging the community for ice.
Stay with us through this emotional and amazing tale.