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 WE NEED ICE, Explosion on the Railroad. I know why you’re here today, so I don’t want to delay in delivering part 2 of Don Martin’s first hand testimonial of that tragic day in Kingman, Arizona 1973.
Last time, Don Martin, retired Kingman Police Officer, who was on duty the day of the BLEVE, took us on a detailed and graphic journey through his experiences on July 5th, 1973.
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "There was a tremendous explosion. Immediately I was knocked to the ground and a wave of super-heated air permeated the entire area. As the mushroom cloud rose up, I saw a number of smoldering piles that I knew were the firemen who just minutes before I saw spraying the tank car."
In this episode, Don engages me in a discussion about his written testimonial, and as we start piecing together parts of his story and the story I tell in episodes 1-7, we uncover some astonishing revelations you don’t want to miss. It’s more proof that bringing this event to light is worth every, sometimes painstaking, minute.
We begin where we left off – at the end of Don’s written narrative of July 5, 1973 in Kingman, Arizona.
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "So this is just from your recollection and notes."
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "Yeah. Well, it's from my recollection. I remember it like it was today. I mean, it's something you'll never forget. It's such a terrifying situation that I'll remember all those details till the day I die because that's what happened. And, for me and the other people in our community, I think it's a story that needs to be told, and I'm glad that I can share the experiences of one of the few police officers that was still walking after that explosion."
At this point in the conversation, I ask Don to review the names mentioned so far in his testimonial and provide accurate spellings and ranks for the men. He rattles them off confidently and so quickly I have to interrupt a few times to confirm.
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "Alan Hanson was a highway patrol officer, and he was the last one to pass away. I actually visited him in Phoenix before he passed away. And what's ironic, I have no idea who that officer was that pulled up next to me and said, 'It's gonna blow, get the hell outta here.' It's funny how you remember such great detail of some things, but then other things are, you know, just not there."
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "Well, or the puzzle piece never got put together, but you know, it still could.
What do you remember from visiting Alan Hanson?"
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "It was sad. So very sad. You know, obviously, he was completely bandaged. We couldn't physically SEE him. But I know, what I did is, I let him know I was there. I mean, he was a brother. He was a police officer and a fireman and we're all brothers and sisters.
It truly looked like a war zone. If you look at a World War II war movies, and you see them going through those French towns and those German towns... That's exactly what Hilltop looked like. The buildings were gutted, there was debris everywhere and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. And I had seen a lot in my military experience."
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "Like 'Saving Private Ryan' is what comes to mind."
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "Yep. You know what? That's a perfect example. Wow. That's exactly the way it looked."
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "Just demolished. A town demolished to rubble."
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "Then, the whole town, it's what we referred to as 'Hilltop,' because Kingman's spread out, but that area right there, from DOXOL, east and west, it was truly like a war zone. It was just horrible.
I never got to ask Steve Radford how or where he was when he got burned. But if you look at his injuries, he was burned on his back. And I heard in one of the podcast episodes that there was a Police Officer telling people to move back. I would bet you that was Steve Radford"
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "Well, when you were telling your story, I was wondering if it was you."
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "No, it wasn't me. My hands, it was like a sunburn on my hands. What was weird is when I'm laying face down on the road, the tar is like bubbling and I stand up and I see the impression of my shield in the tar. I will never EVER forget that. That's how hot it got and I'm a long ways away. Those guys that were up close, Oh my God, I'll tell you, Meg, I looked up and I saw the smoldering, it was like a pile and some of those guys, it literally incinerated them. The guys that were up really close, I mean, it was 3,400 degrees, and that's cremation stuff."
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "You're probably onto something with Steve Radford. If his back was possibly towards the explosion because he was telling people to get the heck back..."
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "Yep. But I never asked. And the thing was, if you look on a map, Ashfork is right behind the Whiting Brothers Service Station which was completely destroyed. I saw Steve walking down the road right there. I never did see his patrol car. I couldn't tell you where his patrol car was. But, when I heard the podcast, I thought, 'My God, that was Radford. That's how he got burned,' because he was not facing the explosion. He was walking away from it, telling people to get back. I think you're probably right.
What's really sad about that is Steve, after he left KPD, was involved with a police agency back east and got in an accident chasing a car on a icy road, and he hit a tree and died."
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "Well, we remember him for the role he played here and the good that he tried to do, or did do for Kingman no doubt. I'm sure that his efforts saved people. So God Bless and Rest in Peace. And I'm sorry for that Don."
What a trip right? Here’s Don, just a few weeks ago, listening intently to my podcast, and I’m sure it was difficult for him to do. He’s on episode 2 and I’m leading up to the big BLEVE. I’m reporting on the crowd of spectators that had gathered near the tank car, and the single policeman who had no sooner shouted an order to the onlookers to move further back from the scene, when the pressurized tanker exploded.
Don’s memories come flooding to the forefront of his mind as the podcast track plays on. “Radford,” he says aloud, to himself. “That had to have been my buddy Radford!”
It’s funny because, when Don was reciting his first-hand account to me, I was thinking the same thing. We were on a zoom call, and I had respectfully put myself on mute to allow him the floor without interruption. And as he’s reminiscing on the moment when he came across fellow police deputy Steve Radford on the side of the road with smoke emitting from his hair and clothing, shirt burned off and back on fire, I remember slapping my countertop in a “Eureka” moment. “Oh my gosh,” I said aloud, to myself. Then I scribbled on nearby piece of mail so I’d remember to circle back to the topic with Don, 'Policeman in my episode warning crowd. Steve?'
This project is so darn fulfilling. I’ll resume now my conversation with Don.
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "These are a lot of close people to you that if they didn't die, they lived with it."
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "And, it's a tough thing. Steve was my best friend on the department. When I saw him and he was still smoldering and his ears were burnt... they were almost burnt off and he came back to work. He was a Marine veteran. He had served in Vietnam and I know he had PTSD because he had told me about an incident where his best friend in Vietnam, they were in a firefight and they were in some foxhole. His friend raised up to shoot and he got shot between the eyes and killed. Steve talked about that. That was so traumatic to him as this whole thing was to me.
Back in the day, there was no such thing as PTSD. People in 1973, we didn't talk about that. None of us who were there were ever contacted by any kind of medical or offered any kind of counseling or anything about this. And I think that's why it is so heavy with me today.
People say, 'How can you remember that much detail,' names and places and, 'How can you do that?' But it's because that explosion burned that into my brain."
From the beginning, developing this story, I had an awareness of the PTSD aspect that would undoubtedly arise throughout this true-story. I believe 50 years of untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorders have been the main barricade, holding some witnesses back from contributing to the WE NEED ICE podcast with their memories. Back then, as Don confirms, no one talked about this stuff. You just tried to forget it. But there’s a major catch-22 in doing so, because as stated by Kingman Firefighter, Oscar Lopez, in previous episodes, “We don’t want to forget those that died protecting their community in 1973.”
So, I’m grateful to Don for touching on the subject of PTSD and the BLEVE survivors. They deserve their respect and anonymity. There’s no pressure, but, as I’ve said before, when you’re ready, I’m here for you.
Back to the episode.
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "I was in Phoenix, visiting with my girlfriend, and it's super hot down there. One day, we got out of the car and the smell of the tar, it hit me and immediately I went right back to the BLEVE. My lady friend said, 'Don, just let that go. Don't don't do this.' But, the smell - I'll never forget that smell when I was laying on the road. The tar is like bubbling and it's triggering. I'll never forget that. You just don't forget that. But I never talked to anybody about it. I've just lived with it my whole life."
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "Maybe it's a little therapeutic, at least now, to talk about it. You're able to, so eloquently and emotionally, and beautifully, put your experience into story. People will be able to listen and take that in and educate themselves and understand. People ask me all the time, 'Why are you doing this?' And something good can, and something good did come, out of this incident, with the adjustments to procedures and the town had to band together in a moment of crisis. If society, if people, can kind of recall what it's like to not fear an act of kindness, that's kind of a side goal, that I have in telling this story."
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "I was so overwhelmed by what was going on. We were so shorthanded after that, we were working like 12 hour shifts. After you do that for days after days, your body and your mind, it's taxing. But then you realize that everybody's doing this right? You can't call in sick and say, 'I'm not coming in today because I'm tired.' We were all tired. The whole community was tired, but yet everybody was doing anything and everything they could. Here we got National Guard guys driving around in Jeeps and we got every law enforcement agency in the county up here helping.
I am so glad that you're doing this. I've tried to tell my sons about this and I don't think they really understand what happened. They were more worried about me getting killed in the army than they were about this deal, but yet, this was the worst thing I've ever seen."
[WE NEED ICE HOST, MEG MARAN] "What else do you want people to remember or take away?"
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "Through all the stuff that I've heard and read, you very rarely hear anything about the police in this thing. And we lost a lot of people. So, that's why I think it's so important that it's documented that this community suffered severely and the police department was part of it and they suffered too. So, don't forget the Kingman Police Department was there that day.
Surely we didn't sacrifice like the fire department did. I mean, there's no way you can compare that, but it was a community thing. This explosion affected the entire Kingman community. It should be noted about the efforts of the Kingman Police Department and the price they paid for for being a public servant that day. The Kingman police department was an integral part of our community back in 1973, just like it is today."
Let’s all take a moment, and at Don’s honorable request, let’s remember the Kingman Police Department and their heroism which was on display on July 5th, 1973, but often takes a backseat to the efforts of the firefighters.
As always, I thank you for joining me today and throughout this story. Please recommend this true-story to friends, loved ones and colleagues. Share it on social. Shoot, shout it from the mountaintops. The more people we reach, the less chance Kingman’s fallen heroes are forgotten.
And don’t forget to visit WENEEDICE.COM where you’ll find more info, photos, 50 year old news articles you cannot find on the web, a forum for discussing the podcast with other listeners and with me, your host, and additional resources on the ’73 Kingman BLEVE along with its witnesses and survivors.
Until next time, and there’s already a next time in cue – another bonus episode with another BLEVE witness.