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?
Welcome back to We Need Ice – Explosion on the Railroad. You didn’t think the story was over did you? In some ways, it’s just beginning, and I have you guys, the listeners/readers, to thank for that. Not only was the podcast WE NEED ICE featured in the Kingman, Arizona newspaper shortly after its release, but I’ve been contacted by more witnesses, and today, you’ll hear from one witness, Kingman resident, and retiree of the Kingman Police Department. Don Martin was on duty on July 5th.
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "I had been employed by the city of Kingman for just a year and a half when this incident happened. Prior to being hired as a police officer for Kingman, I was in the US Army where I worked as a military policeman, a military police supervisor, and finally, as a military police investigator. I had been stationed in Germany and seen all kinds of terrible things from deadly truck accidents, homicides, even helicopter crashes with multiple fatalities were the victim suffered horrific injuries. But even with all those experiences, I wasn't prepared for what I would see and experience on July 5th, 1973."
Before we dive into Don’s full interview, I want to warn you, he holds nothing back. His testimonial of the events of July 5th, 1973 in Kingman, Arizona is vivid to say the least. Prior to his interview with me, Don composed his memories in writing, and you’ll be transported back in time, to the small town that experienced such a horrendous event, through his reading of this first-hand narrative.
You know after I went back and listened to Don and I’s conversation, it became apparent to me that this is a 2-parter. So this episode will focus on Don’s written testimonial, as read by himself, and then I’ll follow up, in another episode with our discussion and Don expanding on his narrative and diving into details he did NOT include at first.
I want to give a warm and personal thank you to Don Martin for his bravery, not only on the scene of the ’73 BLEVE, but in speaking about it today. And to other witnesses out there, when you’re ready, I’m here for you. Don and I, along with the rest of the guests featured in the We Need Ice podcast, feel strongly that we don’t want this story to die or fizzle out as time goes by. Already, it’s been nearly 50 years, and I don’t think I have to say it, but, we’re not promised tomorrow, and no one lives forever. What kind of legacy do you want to leave? Anyone who wants to contribute to this podcast can reach out via the website, WENEEDICE.COM.
And with that said, let’s get into it.
[KINGMAN POLICE OFFICER, DON MARTIN] "The title of my testimony here is called 'DOXOL Explosion - July 5th, 1973 - A day I'll never forget.' My name is Don Martin. I was a police officer for the city of Kingman. My badge number was Adam 12.
I was working day shift on July 5th and it was a hot July day when a call came in about an explosion at the DOXOL plant that was located on Andy Devine Avenue. I immediately headed to the area. When I arrived on scene, I saw a single tank car with red hot flames emitting from the top of it.
The tank car seemed to be parked on a spur and not on the nearby Santa Fe railroad tracks. I parked within a hundred yards of the tank car, and I could feel the heat. I spoke with several other Kingman police department personnel that were there. I watched as a number of Kingman fire department volunteers sprayed water on the tank car, obviously trying to cool it down. But it didn't seem to have any affect. I heard a loud sound that sounded like a jet engine followed by a hissing sound and the sound of what I can only describe as a banshee screaming - a sound that I can still here today, and one that sends chills down my spine. It was the sound of super-heated metal that was bright red and was being twisted. At that time, the top of the tank car was bright red for about six feet from where the valve was located and where the fire was coming from. I noticed that there was a lot of traffic on Andy Devine Avenue, which was a couple of hundred yards away from the DOXOL plant.
I noticed that there were also a lot of onlookers, lookie-loos is what I call them, across the street at a nearby gas station, Whiting Brothers, and other businesses close by including the Double G Tire and a cafe.
I'm not sure who told me to go down to the intersection of Fairgrounds and Andy Divine to divert traffic off of Andy divine. This is probably about a thousand yards from the DOXOL plant and the burning tank. I started directing traffic off of Andy Divine, but I could see and hear the tank car in the distance. Suddenly a highway patrol officer drove up next to me and shouted, 'It's going to blow! Get the hell out of here!' I stepped around the open door of my patrol car when suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. I was knocked to the ground and a wave of super-heated air permeated the entire area. I felt the tar and the asphalt getting soft, and as I looked up, I saw a mushroom cloud that looked like in slow motion it rolled west towards Andy Devine. I saw a man who I think was Alan Hanson, a highway patrol officer and volunteer fireman on the ground on fire.
As the mushroom cloud rose up, I saw a number of slaughtering piles that I knew were the firemen who just minutes before I saw spraying the tank car. Then I saw part of the tank car hurling down the railroad tracks in my direction. It seemed to be spewing out flames as it came towards me, but stopped and came to rest near the Feldspar plant.
As I stood up, I noticed my hands felt burned and I distinctly saw the impression of my badge in the soft tar. Suddenly I saw chief of police, Carol Brown, in a Cadillac drive past the highway patrol office, where I had seen the last man on fire running. I was in shock at what I was seeing and the next thing I recalled was our dispatcher, trying to locate the officers who had been there at the time of the explosion. Chief Brown thought there were six of us there, but actually there were seven. Officer Steve Radford was there along with Lieutenant Jennings, Sergeant Berg, Detective McBride, Officer Heathington, Officer Ben Lamb and myself. I found myself looking at what could be described as a scene out of a war movie - fire everywhere, people running and death and destruction all over. Buildings were in shambles, on fire and debris was scattered everywhere.
I'm not sure how I got there, but I found myself driving on Ashfork Avenue, when I saw the figure of a man walking in the road. His back was smoldering, shirt burned off his back and his hair was still smoking. It was my friend and fellow officer, Steve Radford. I stopped next to him and jumped out of my patrol car. He looked at me with his eyes that were sunken into his head and obviously in shock, and he said, 'Don, there are people hurt. We've got to help them.' I was sickened at what I was seeing, and I told Steve that HE was hurt and needed to go to the hospital. I opened my passenger door and set him down. He still had smoke emitting from his body.
I notified dispatch I had found Radford and that he was hurt bad, and then I drove code three to Mojave General. There was chaos there - gurneys everywhere, ice everywhere, and people running around. As I pulled up, a nurse came out as I helped Steve out of the car. 'Please take care of him,' I said, and I ran back to the driver's side of the car and pulled away to look for more victims.
I hadn't got far when it hit me. I looked over and there on the seat, which were leatherette seats were pieces of Steve's back. There were a mixture of his melted uniform shirt and his flesh, and they were stuck on that seat. The stench of burning flesh permeated the car even with the air conditioning on. I stopped, got out, took my night stick and scraped off the flesh and the melted shirt. I then got back into the car and started back towards the explosion site.
The next portion is called 'The Air Attack by Fillian's Wrecking Yard.
It was like being in a war zone. Somehow I ended up on the east side of the railroad tracks and headed towards Fillian's Wrecking Yard, which was located several hundred yards north and east of the DOXOL plant.
There was fire and smoke everywhere, and I could see Oxy Seine bottles exploding and shooting up into the smoke-field sky. There was a wall of fire and it was moving south across the desert landscape. It was then I saw them, two kids, maybe eight to ten years old, about 50 yards from the fast approaching flames. They started running when they saw me and I drove off across the desert to try and catch them before the flames caught up to them. As I was bouncing across the desert, suddenly something hit my patrol car and it shuttered to a stop. A reddish pink liquid was running down the windshield, and when I turned the windshield wiper blades on, I couldn't believe what I saw. A slurry bomber had somehow, some way seen the kids and made a perfect drop of slurry in front of those flames. Of course, the weight of the slurry collapsed the roof of my patrol car and bent the light bar on top. It turned my white patrol car into a pink color. I didn't see the kids anymore and I drove out of the desert. This had been a miracle.
The next thing I remember about that day was seeing a guy sitting in a fancy '55 or '56 Chevrolet on what is now Eastern Avenue. He was just sitting there watching, as the flames were headed towards him. I drove alongside him and told him to leave. He refused! I threatened to arrest him if he didn't leave and when he tried to start his custom hot rod, it wouldn't start. The flames were getting closer and closer. I ordered him to get in my car as his car wasn't starting. Initially he refused saying he wasn't gonna leave his car. But as the planes got closer, I literally pushed him into the front seat of my patrol car and hurriedly drove away. I don't remember where I ended up dropping him off, but after all the fires were out, I went back to look at his car. It had been totally destroyed by the fire.
The next portion of my testimony is called 'An Act of Kindness.'
At one point I was told to evacuate the area east of the Feldspar plant, as the flames were moving into that area and there were homes there. Remember, only Ben Lamb and I were not injured, and we were handling things as they came up.
I went to the first street, got out of my damaged and now pink patrol car, and ran up to every house, screaming for people to leave. As you can imagine, being by myself made things tough to get a lot of people notified to leave. As I moved down the street, I saw an old four by four pickup heading towards me. I flagged him down. Inside were two young guys, probably in their early twenties. They had long stringy, dirty hair, and we would probably characterize them as Hippies. I told them they needed to go door-to-door and tell people to leave. They never questioned what I asked. They got out of their truck and headed to the nearest house.
As I finished notifying the residence on the other side of the street, I saw a sight I'll never forget. The two guys had a lady that reminded me of my grandmother -hair in a bun, long dress, black shoes and wearing granny glasses. These guys had her on each arm and walked her to their truck and helped her inside their truck and they drove off. I never saw any of them again.
I know that the KFD has lost a lot of brave men, but I also knew that the Kingman Police Department had suffered a huge loss. Lieutenant Jennings, Sergeant Berg, Patrolman Heathington and Patrolman Radford had suffered severe injuries. Our department was decimated. Detective McBride was not burned, but claimed his eyes had been damaged by the flash of the explosion. I did not seek treatment for the explosion for the minor injuries I had sustained and Officer Lamb had not been injured. The Chief of Police, Carol Brown, called in the National Guard and every law enforcement agency in the area helped with the aftermath of this terrible and deadly explosion.
Our community pulled together and we mourned the loss of our brave firefighters who had unknowingly fought a fire that would forever be known as the worst propane tank fire in America. Firefighters and police today know how to handle these kinds of incidents, but that information has come at a high cost. The tremendous loss of life, the horrific injuries and the destruction to property was the price that the Kingman community paid to learn a lesson about how to handle these kind of incidents."
That concludes Part 1 of retired Kingman Police Officer, Don Martin’s experience of the 1973 Kingman BLEVE. But hold onto to your seats because there’s much more to come in Part 2. In the mean time, you can head over to WENEEDICE.COM for more info on the ’73 Kingman Arizona BLEVE, witnesses, resources and more. You can support this story further with the purchase of one of our premium t-shirts – 4 designs, each highlighting the firefighting community, so wear them proudly.