PART 2: THE BIG BLEVE - 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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Welcome back to the miniseries, “We Need Ice. Explosion on the railroad.”
Last time we introduced the details of one explosion that occurred on July 5th, 1973 in the small town of Kingman, Arizona. Two workers of the Doxol Gas Plant were caught in a rail car explosion while offloading propane gas from the car to be stored at the plant. We now know, the Doxol workers attempt to repair the propane leak atop tank car #38214 caused an explosion, which killed one of the men instantly. The other worker, though badly burned and in shock, stumbled into a highway patrol office for help.
That explosion, was only the beginning. The precursor to the cataclysmic and deadly BLEVE of 1973. In this episode, YOU’LL hear about the BLEVE heard round the world - an epic propane explosion that erupted in a train car while Kingman townspeople stood unknowingly and directly in the eye of a raging storm of molten metal, fire and smoke.
It’s a tale not often told… it’s a tale not often occurring to be told. You’ve got to have just the right simultaneously occurring incidents, coming to a peak at just the right time, to react in unison and produce such consequences like those of the July 5th 1973 BLEVE.
Today you’ll also meet Kingman, Arizona firefighter, Oscar Lopez, and I’m really excited about this guest. I mean THIS is the guy you want to speak with when it comes to anything regarding the BLEVE of ’73.
I’m so glad you’re with me today. Let’s get into it.
The Kingman Fire department consisted mostly of volunteer firefighters and no special equipment to deal with such an event and tragedy.
I want to read a quote from an article on firehouse.com by Robert Burke. His words will aid in understanding why the ’73 Kingman BLEVE yielded so many casualties amongst an extensively trained force of firefighters.
“Protective equipment typical for firefighters at the time was cotton duck with wool linings and helmets made of polycarbonate plastic. This was the type of protection worn by the Kingman firefighters. It is reported that at the time of the explosion some firefighters had full protective gear, while others wore only coats and helmets or just coats. Those firefighters killed had the coats and their street clothes burned off of their bodies by the fire and radiant created from the explosion.”
Appended to this article, and so I cite the source accurately, reads: Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland and has served on state and county hazmat response teams.
I believe that article expert on the clothing and gear worn by the Kingman firefighters, is a significant notation to make as we’re leading up to the big BLEVE explosion.
The emergency call came in shortly before 2pm, and while a dozen or so volunteer firefighters were on the scene likity split, the fire had been spreading, intensifying, surrounding the propane time-bomb rail car, in the hundred degree desert, for nearly 10 minutes.
By now, townspeople were gathering around the site in a bottleneck of curiosity. You know the drill, it’s simply human nature. You can’t look away from something you don’t see everyday. Cars screeched to a hault on the side of the road. Kingman citizens, dropped their schedules and appointments to stare in awe at the events happening on the railroad. Toddlers sat on the shoulders of their fathers pointing, their eyes wide as saucers.
Firefighters climbed down from their truck and aimed their hoses at rail car #38214 in attempts to cool down the steel which entrapped 33,000 gallons of propane gas. They knew the pressure in the tank car was mounting. They needed to prevent another explosion.
A Santa Fe Railroad conductor aboard another train servicing the Kingman industries along the railroad saw smoke ahead, pluming above the very tracks he was on. He got out his camera and his shutter clicked rapidly, capturing frame-by-frame his journey towards the fiery scene. When his train stopped, the conductor deboarded and joined a police officer blocking traffic along Route 66. He wanted to know how long the rail line would be blocked. But, with an up close, unrestricted view of the flaming tank car, the conductor continued photographing what he was unbelievably observing. He thought he was collecting interesting photos of a rare sight. Something to share with his coworkers over cold beers possibly. He would say, “See, I was right there!” He did not realize he was standing on the brink of almost certain death, photographing the inferno that would claim so many lives. He did not know his photography skills, or more so, just owning a camera and having it handy during those moments, would record him in history forever.
While a few firemen were hosing down the tank car, others began laying a second line of hose to attach to a hydrant. It takes A LOT of water to, even slightly, decrease the temperature of a massive steel container sizzling near 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
13 firefighters within 150 feet of rail car #38214 were diligently working with what they had in order to control an extremely aggravated fire atop flammable propane gas. They moved swiftly, almost robotically, like when you drive to work or home not even conscious of the route you take or turns you make or the stoplights you obey. They had a job to do. God bless them, they did their best.
As the additional hose was nearly prepped and ready, At about 10 minutes after 2pm, and about 1000 feet from the rail car, a perceptive policeman shouted an order to the crowd of spectators to move further back from the scene. But not a single step was taken, and not a single drop of water left that second hose before the pressurized propane railcar exploded entirely.
Just 19 minutes after the initial gas ignited spark explosion, critically injured one Doxol worker and killed another, the second, BLEVE, that’s Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion, put the first one to shame. Burning metal by the ton, and sprays of flaming propane rocket launched through the air at all angles, covering a 2000 foot distance. Can you imagine standing in the rain… no, standing in a storm... no, standing in a cat 5 hurricane of flesh-mutilating debris?
I’d like to quote again the firehouse.com article by Robert Burke:
“The tank broke into pieces from the force of the blast and one half of the tank bounced end over end westward down the tracks, landing 1,200 feet from its original location on the siding. The other portion of the tank tore along the welds and flattened out on the ground. A ground-level fireball ensued and extended 150 to 200 feet in all directions from the center of the blast. This was followed by a large mushroom cloud of flame extending several hundred feet into the air, measuring 800 to 1,000 feet in diameter.”
[WITNESS STATEMENT] “Do you remember, have you ever seen, WWII, the big explosions where the mushroom clouds came down? That’s what it did. It was humongous. And people had gone over to watch it. It was raining burning fuel.”
That’s my friend, K who lived in Kingman in ’73, and lived through the BLEVE of ’73.
Witness testimonies, from survivors, not even within view of car #38214 describe a thunderous roar like that of a jet airliner taking off, a mushroom cloud like that of an atomic bomb, and a shockwave like that of a world-ending earthquake. The BLEVE on July 5th 1973 was heard, seen and felt for miles. Accounts from Kingman citizens who were driving, even several miles from the scene at the railroad, report feeling the blast and the heat like a tidal wave washing over their vehicles, melting their car’s frames.
A quote from one of my interviews with a ’73 Kingman, Arizona resident and witness to the events of July 5th who wishes to remain anonymous:
“The call came out over the radio and we could see it from our house. The tanker would periodically shoot flames way high into the air. It was the day after the 4th of July, in the summer, on route 66. And route 66 at that time, everybody was on route 66. If you were going to California, you were on route 66. So you had a lot of bystanders, who weren’t necessarily from Kingman, that were stopped and either in or out of their cars and able to witness this event. It’s interesting to think about, it really was witnessed by people and probably a memory of a lot of people who weren’t just in Kingman as residents, but were there by happenstance.”
This witness explains the expansive reach and impact the BLEVE had on, not just Kingman residents, but travelers along route 66. In our talks, he reminds me that there are even more lives affected by this disaster than we can even imagine. They weren’t even living in Kingman in ’73 and probably never did. But they’re out there, even now. And I want to extend my deepest sympathies to you all.
I want to respect this witness’s request for anonymity, so I won’t go into all the details collected from my conversations with him. I was lucky enough to chat with him for nearly 2 hours – a connection I’ll never forget or take for granted. I do want to point out that, his line in the sand, so to speak, that being, not wanting any exposure for his testimony, should be respected and his resistance was not a one-off hurdle I encountered when scouting first-hand accounts for this podcast. It’s been quite the challenge to reach and disarm observers of and those affected by the 1973 Kingman BLEVE. My humble opinion is the pain still runs deep for these folks. Whether they were burned in the explosion, watched from a distance, or felt the ground shake from the next town over, the healing process has been and continues to be, well... rough.
[KINGMAN FIREFIGHTER, OSCAR LOPEZ] "My name is Oscar Lopez. I am a community risk reduction specialist for the city of Kingman fire department. I have been affiliated with the city of Kingman fire department for 33 years. Started here as a volunteer firefighter in 1988, 1 year after I graduated high school. I've been basically in the fire service ever since whether it's been through Kingman, or a couple of fire districts, and to the point of being a fire chief out for the wallet by nation Indian reservation."
If you’re doing the math you probably thinking Oscar isn’t advanced enough in age to have a real connection to this event. Boy would you be wrong…
[KINGMAN FIREFIGHTER, OSCAR LOPEZ] "I was born and raised in Kingman. I did reside in Kingman during the 1973 BLEVE. Actually, we lived down the street from where the BLEVE occurred, probably within a half mile to three quarters of a mile from where the BLEVE actually occurred."
Oscar was only around 4 years of age in ’73, but he recalls The BOOM. The Kingman BLEVE is, without a doubt, one of those catastrophic happenings that lives in the memories of those young an old.
[KINGMAN FIREFIGHTER, OSCAR LOPEZ] "I was kind of young, but I do remember one thing is the roar of the propane gas that was being released. And when I actually took my first flight to go back east on a jet, it all came back to me when I heard that jet land, and they hit the after burners to slow down the plane. That's exactly what that rumble sounded like to me. And literally, I was kind of like in shock when I heard that noise. Cause I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, that's the noise from the BLEVE.' So yeah, I remember that. I remember my mom babysat kids and I remember when all this started happening, the first thing she did is she threw the couch upside down. All the kids kind of climbed inside the couch, cause it was kind of like a teepee at that point. We all climbed underneath there and then, all of a sudden you hear the explosion and then it was complete quiet. Like you could hear a pin drop.
I remember my brothers talking about this and my one brother, he was at the park, him and his buddies looking at this whole thing, and they actually got thrown off of their bikes when the concussion from the BLEVE occurred. My other brother was on top of our garage.
We have a detached garage and it kind of had like an A-frame type roof. He was up there with his friends looking at it and they actually got tossed off of the garage, like rolling down with the concussion of the BLEVE. So I remember them telling me about those stories growing up.
So basically when the. Employees of the Doxol plant we're offloading, one of the biggest things that we learned through the fire service, is the tool that they use was a normal tool.
It wasn't like a brass tool that would not create sparks. They actually used a tool that would create sparks. Right? So as they're trying to tighten this valve, they strike it and the spark ignites the vented fumes. And that's where you get your initial many explosion. That's when everything starts venting."
Ah, my new friend Oscar. See, I knew something fantastic would come out of reviving this event.
Another witness testimony lies in an article from the Mohave Miner newspapers I’ve inherited. “Ambulance is reporters tool during the fire,” is the title, and the account is by Don Cole.
[WITNESS STATEMENT PUBLISHED IN MOHAVE MINER NEWSPAPER] "This afternoon, I heard the fire whistle blow and I called the police station. They said there was a fire on Hilltop near the Whiting Brother's station, but they weren't sure what type it was. The dispatcher came back and said it was big though.
As I was leaving the minor office, I heard that it was a tanker on fire and that it was really big.
As I topped Hilltop, I could see the smoke and fire. I was allowed through the roadblocks, and as I approached, I could see two large tongues of flames reaching as high as 200 feet in the air. I rushed on and the flames kept getting bigger. As I neared the flames, I stopped to take a picture, but as I got out of the car, I dropped my fountain pen. As I bent over to pick it up, it felt like the whole world was on fire. There was not really an explosion, but just a large ROAR. Everything was orange and hot and I stayed behind the car for what seemed like forever. I remember covering my arms and face and head from the heat. I dropped my camera. It was extremely hot.
Then the heat died down and I looked up from behind the car. I had been just on the edge of the fireball that extended for maybe two or three square blocks, maybe more. There were men screaming and yelling everywhere. I pulled the car up and there was one man lying on the pavement, screaming, 'Help me, God, help me please.'
He was charred something terrible.
I looked around and there was only one other man standing, everyone else was on the ground and was screaming. The first truck was on fire and was burning badly. I ran over to the ambulance. The rubber around the outside mirror was on fire. There were four men around the ambulance and all were burned badly.
Chris Sanders, I could only recognize him by his voice, and he called me by name, 'Oh God, someone help us.' He was burned all over, but still walking. I don't know how.
There was no one around, so I said, I would take the ambulance and take some men to the hospital. Chris helped me and we loaded them in, into the ambulance.
The other man I had seen standing was a fireman and he was also burned. He and Chris and I loaded the men into the ambulance and I took off to the hospital. The ride was a nightmare. The men were screaming and were in bad pain. Chris Sanders stayed and helped me find the siren and other buttons on the ambulance and we took off.
The smell in the truck was unbearable. I remember getting sick and feeling like wanting to cry all the way. Chris stayed cool and comforted the other men in the ambulance. I don't know how he could even stay sane the way he was burned
At the hospital, someone met the ambulance and we unloaded the men. Chris wanted the other men helped first. He was probably burned the worst. One, man had his hand on the back of my seat, and when he got out, part of his hand was stuck to the back of the seat. As soon as I unloaded them, I went back and got two others.
I can't remember how many trips I made, but there were endless streams of men who were burned in various degrees. I found out that I had the fire department's new rescue vehicle and called on the radio. I just told the dispatcher who I was and that I was driving the ambulance. I said, I didn't know the number of the vehicle or anything, but to just call me by name.
Back at the scene, we covered up one man who was dead. I couldn't tell who he was because they all looked alike. They were burned so bad.
They called and said they needed help transporting men to the airport, so I went out to the hospital. We took out the stretcher because it was so messed up - the inside smelled terrible.
They loaded a man into the back who was covered with ice and wet towels. He was burned all over. We took the man out to the airport and they loaded him in an airplane to take to Phoenix. On the way back, we were in a hurry and kept the siren going. There were nine men who needed transportation and three ambulances could only carry one or two. The one I was driving could only carry one at a time. So we were in a hurry to get back.
When we got back to the hospital, they had another man ready to load. There was so much happening so fast. There is much, I can't remember. Mostly. I just remember seeing those men and hearing them scream and pray. Maybe it was not right sticking to my job, but I couldn't ignore those screams.
It was an afternoon I'll never forget."
Let me transition and talk about another special person and piece of this story. Remember my friend who I mentioned told her first-hand account of the event to me? She is a wealth of information on the Kingman Bleve, with one heck of a memory.
[WITNESS STATEMENT] "Burn victims are doctored with ice and they were all on gurneys and all put outside on the patio, which was probably 110 degrees that day. Kingman is HOT. They put them all outside so the water could just run. They told me to wet them down from top to bottom until I was told differently."
K is the sweetest sparkplug of a lady, now in her early 80’s. She resided in Kingman, Arizona for 13 years with her late husband, raising their 4 children. Not just a Kingman resident and witness of July 5, 1973, K was a hospital volunteer who tended to the burn victims in the early stages of their extreme agony. She spares no details recollecting the incident on the railroad which really allows us a vulnerable and accurate look at what it must have been like to experience. Not wanting to expose painful memories or bring her back to a time she may not wish to revisit, I always reassure her with a little disclaimer that goes something like, “You can discuss as much or little… or nothing at all.” But she has reassured me too as this podcast has progressed. She’s expressed that opening up about it to me, and to you, is therapeutic. Maybe she doesn’t want to forget. Maybe she feels it would be a great disservice to all those souls who perished along the railroad in 1973. While discussing her memories with me is one thing, being the resident podcast historian of the 73 BLEVE is quite another. So, I will say this: she has NOT always been keen on the idea of being involved in this project knowing it would be available to the public. She’s been downright fearful of rattling the cages of those who may feel they are better off trying to forget. Thankfully, there was a shift in her hesitancy when I offered her my notes and a few audio clips I’d started. That’s the reaction I’m hoping to summons should you be listening and have a connection to this event. Please know, every phase developing this story, was forged with total awareness and sensitivity for you and your loved ones. So, I thank you for joining me throughout this true tale of tragedy, courage, pain and community.
Till next time.