PART 3: BURNING FLESH AND HOSPITAL MAYHEM - 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 guys and welcome back to the miniseries, “We Need Ice. Explosion on the railroad.”
If you’re here for the first time, trust me, you want to start from the beginning. If you’re returning to learn what happens next, and if this true story has captured your interest like it has mine, then please, take a minute, give us a shout out on social or a review. Let us know this content moves you and you want more.
Last time we covered both explosions on the Santa Fe railroad that will forever mark July 5th 1973 in Kingman Arizona history… Excuse me, in history across the globe.
In this episode, we’ll be addressing some details and imagery that don’t exactly soothe the mind and body - burn injuries, the wounds of the Kingman BLEVE victims, hospital mayhem, families in crisis and human suffering. It all ties into the “We Need Ice” message and I’ll explain today, exactly what that message meant and why it is so prevalent in telling this story.
Let's get into it.
Now, I did not think I would talk about this, but in 2019 I sustained a burn injury for the books - a 4th degree burn, which I didn’t even know was a category, that covered half my lower leg or calf. This story is not about me, but I just want to relay a few facts about burns to the human body. They don’t just singe the skin, if deep, like the burns of the Kingman victims, and mine. They take no prisoners and leave a wake of mush in their path. I’m talking skin, nerves, bones, and then there’s the shock and potential system shut down. It’s not expected one will survive a ravenous burn.
Burns are also “creep reapers” I like to say. It’s common for a deep burn to grow and creep over several days invading the body, tissue and organs, even when treated promptly and properly. My injury, at first , though it hurt like hell, looked like an abrasion. A few days later, it looked like my leg needed to be amputated.
So I want you to remember that when hearing about the Kingman victims lying in the hospital while physicians and volunteers rallied for ice to cool down their bodies. The victims closest to the blast, which did not perish instantly could only be kept comfortable while suffering. Ice and morphine. I cannot even fathom being in their place or the place of their families knowing what I know now about the creep reaper. Lying their waiting for a miracle but most likely and statistically speaking waiting to die.
July 13, 1973 is the date on this Mohave Miner issue which I can’t take my attention from. This newspaper is half a century old. It’s never been preserved except folded up in an old department store bag at the back of a closet. The caption, “A badly burned fireman lies on pavement seconds after explosion,” accompanies probably the most shocking image I’ve come across surrounding the Kingman Arizona BLEVE yet. At first glance, before reading the caption, and I suppose just not expecting such heavy imagery to be published in a modest small town newspaper, I can’t really tell what’s going on here. In my 20th century trained mind, I think, “It could be someone being detained by the police.” However, this piece of print has somehow retained every pixel of detail through its 50 years in storage. Now in context, what is seen in this photo is a man, alive, lying in the street, arms stretched out in front of his head which is slightly lifted revealing his badly burned face, totally black, only a thin mohawk of singed hair runs the center of his crown. His right leg hovers a foot of the ground while his left foot appears to be digging into it almost as if he were trying to army crawl, to safety perhaps. His pants have been mostly burned off of him. What remains is an ill fitting garment that now hangs by a thread in places – almost resembling a loin cloth. The skin on his exposed limbs can only be described as paper mache’-like, pieces of flesh dangling loosely.
I’d like to check back in with our guy Oscar, a current Kingman Arizona firefighter.
[KINGMAN FIRE FIGHTER OSCAR LOPEZ] "So when I first got on as a volunteer, there was still personnel on department at that time that were there when it happened. Wayne Davis, he ended up being a volunteer captain. It was his first big fire. He'd only been on the department for a couple of months, I believe. And, he was one of the firefighters that was between the BLEVE and the firetruck and when the BLEVE occurred, he hid behind the fire truck, but he still burned his hands… just because they were exposed and it was the radiant heat that actually burned him, not the actual BLEVE itself. It was the radiant heat. There were a couple hundred people that were looking, you know, pretty close to the approximate area, and a lot of them suffered burns from radiant heat.”
Radiant heat is kind of like if you have a pit fire in your backyard - if you touch the flame, you're getting burned from the flame. If you're kind of back away from it, that heat you feel, that’s radiant heat. I can honestly tell you radiate heat is probably worse. If we go third degree burn, that's, you know, pretty bad. You have no nerve endings. So it's not the pain you're feeling, it's the mental pain that your body's going, ‘Hey, this should hurt. You got burned pretty bad.’ But with radiant heat, that's a little bit different because it's a slow burn.”
Okay… here’s what I’ve gathered from speaking with Oscar and researching the injuries from the ’73 Kingman BLEVE... As if it’s not bad enough people getting literally knocked unconscious by the BLEVE blast and burned by the actual propane flames falling from the sky and shooting through the atmosphere, now imagine they’re lying there helplessly while this radiant heat ravages their shocked bodies, melting away their biggest defense, their skin.
I found a facebook post under the page of Red Bud Fire Department referencing the ’73 Kingman BLEVE, and Oscar’s account on fireman Wayne Davis checks out flawlessly, so I want to share a couple paragraphs from that post.
Wayne Davis, a Kingman volunteer firefighter who was also burned, had started as a volunteer just days before the incident. The explosion was only his second emergency call.
Davis was at his family's heating and air conditioning shop when the call came in. A radio station acted as a scanner whenever emergencies occurred. A fire department whistle also shrilled in the downtown area, he said.
Davis, 51, responded to the scene on the back of one of KFD's fire engines. The engine, with Davis standing on the tailboard, was at one point fairly close to the tanker but it left about a minute or two before the explosion.
Davis said his engine had just turned onto Hoover Street from Route 66 to set up hoses at a fire hydrant when the tanker exploded sending a fireball into the air.
"It scared the hell out of me," he said. "I bailed. I jumped off the truck and ran. It was so hot, I couldn't believe the heat."
Liquid propane rained down burning Davis on his hands, arms and face. Just 21, Davis suffered second-degree burns.
Another firefighter on the truck was just four feet away but he was protected from an overhang he was under. He was unhurt. But others were not so lucky. One firefighter, his clothes nearly burned off, ran past Davis saying, "Wayne, it got us." That firefighter was one of the 11 who died.
You know, you google “burn injury,” and in every article, forum, informational site, etc., you’ll always come upon this notion called: The Rule of Palm. The Rule of Palm is a way of estimating the percentage of total body surface area (TBSA) that has been burned, and the formula is as follows: For the burned patient, the size of the palm of their hand is to be considered 1% of the body surface area.
The men who were closest to the BLEVE blast sustained burn injuries with total body surface area percentages of the poorest prognosis for life expectancy.
On the website, WeNeedIce.com, I’ve included a table courtesy of the American Burn Association called, "American Burn Association Triage Decision Table of Benefit-to-Resource Ratio of Patient Age & Total Burn Size." Sounds pretty officially in physician’s speak right? The truth is, this colorful chart is merely a visual barometer for predicting a burn victim’s life expectancy based on their age and the size of their burns. It’s pretty clear where the Kingman BLEVE victims fell in this table and I quote from the table legend: "Survival less than 10% even with unlimited, aggressive treatment."
The facebook page of Red Bud Fire Department hosts a post on the Kingman BLEVE which I’ll quote from now.
Carroll Brown was the Kingman Police Department chief at the time. He was driving toward the scene along Route 66 from KPD's downtown headquarters when the tanker exploded. The nightmare he witnessed was that of bodies and burning destruction.
"I saw havoc everywhere," he said.
As acting city manager and with Kingman's mayor unavailable, Brown was forced to call National Guard troops to the scene. The sheriff also called every reserve deputy from throughout the county. Even Bullhead City firefighters arrived to help.
Brown said at one point he picked up the microphone in the squad car but no one answered. Only six police officers were on duty, most were injured.
Two of his police officers standing near their patrol cars less than 100 feet away from the tanker were badly burned. What saved them were their vehicles. The vehicles’ windshields and windows melted from the heat, Brown said.
My friend, K, recalls volunteering at the Mohave County Hospital in 1973. Her memory of this time is truly photographic. She recounts scenes, sounds and smells in a very sweet soft voice with glistening tear ducts, always a tissue box nearby. She tells me about walking the bright sterile hallways packed with patients, some with large draping bandages around their faces and bodies.
There’s a man with his back to her, standing off to the side and looking up towards the long fluorescent ceiling light above him. His shirt looks torn and he seems confused. “He must be looking for someone,” she thinks. But as she walks closer, his reason for being there hits her like a BLEVE all her own. This man’s injury is a sight she cannot unsee. Much of his clothing has been disintegrated by the blast. What cotton and canvas remain are embedded into his back, skin and cloth melted together, some sliding down his torso exposing muscles only seen in anatomy diagrams.
[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 was even bleeding. Just an open wound and it was probably that long down their back and flesh was hanging all over.”
Another man is lying on a stretcher nearby. He reaches out to a nurse and says, “Tell Betty to go to the bank.” It’s clear the nurse knows the man well. She knows his wife, Betty. And she knows exactly what he is saying. He’s preparing for the end… likely accepting his fate… and the thoughts on his mind are financially securing his family. The young nurse, gently takes his band, looks right into his eyes and nods her head in confirmation that she’s received his request.
Mohave County General Hospital was a newly constructed facility. Interestingly enough, Not long before the BLEVE, after their grand opening, the hospital hosted a seminar on handling mass trauma and crisis control. Still, the small town clinic is overloaded, overwhelmed, understaffed and undersupplied. The worst of the injured must get to a better-equipped facility with a dedicated burn unit. Hospitals in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles prepare to admit those suffering in Kingman. But there is so little time to coordinate organized efforts for transportation.
[WITNESS STATEMENT] "They called the airport and they loaded these guys in station wagons and they flew them to Vegas lost Los Angeles LA Phoenix, because they had burn units and they had a larger hospitals more equipped to handle the disasters.”
Some victims arrive to the airport by helicopter but most endure an uncomfortable ride via cab, police cruiser or civilian car. Every time I come to that sentence, I can’t help but take a moment to digest the information. To me, it’s a complex statement – on one hand a grim report of a torturous day, on another a shining testimonial of what a community should be.
[WITNESS STATEMENT] “100 injured and you think about a small town. They put it out on the radio that anybody who had ice, please bring it to the hospital.”
With the chaos and disorder ensuing in the small hospital, the “We Need Ice” message began to play and repeat over the radio throughout the day.
[WITNESS STATEMENT] "They had them on the patio. I worked with Butch Henry. They would keep a bucket full and I had a smaller bucket and I would pour ice water from top to bottom. He was solid black. There was no hair on any of them.”
At the newly built Mohave County Hospital, BLEVE burn victims on gurneys were lined up outside on concrete – sheets draped over their tender burned and still burning bodies. You would think these were the deceased. But they weren’t. Nurses and hospital volunteers were assigned to continuously pour ice water over them, head to toe, as no parts were spared by the fire. Of course they were medicated for their pain. But sedation and ice were little relief. Here laid these firefighting heroes and the irony must have been excruciatingly palpable. Moments ago they were dowsing the railcar with water in a race to cool it down. Now fellow first-responders drench the firefighters sizzling skin in a race to stabilize their condition. Neither mission was a success.
My friend, in a trans-like state self-effacingly admits, “I was so naïve then. I remember thinking, it will be better tomorrow. I remember thinking they would all recover and be okay. No one was better tomorrow. Even those medevacked to bigger hospitals did not come home.”
Over the next week the Kingman community received updates on the victims via newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts. "One day we’d learn that so-and-so had succumbed to their injuries. The next day the front page of the paper would read, '3 confirmed dead from Doxol explosion.'"
Every day in the week following the Kingman BLEVE of '73, the death toll rose until citizens knew for sure they’d lost 12 fine men, neighbors and friends... Fathers, sons, men taken too soon, and their loved ones left in an aftershock of grief and loss.