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The Disaster Story

On July 5, 1973, Kingman was the site of a catastrophic BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion) which killed 11 firefighters. The explosion occurred following a fire that broke out as propane was being transferred from a railroad car to a storage tank. This explosion has become a classic incident studied in fire department training programs worldwide.

Tank car #38214 was setting on a spur in the hot sun that the Williams Energy Company leased from the Santa Fe Railroad. The car carried 33,000 gallons of propane gas which was to be transferred to storage tanks 75 yards away.

This was at the Doxol Gas Western Energy Co. bulk plant (2512 East Highway 66), in the Hilltop business district on Kingman's southeast side. Eemployees of the Williams Energy Company, began opening the tank car's valves to transfer its load into smaller storage tanks in the company yard.

A leak was detected in one of the fittings and an attempt was made to correct it by striking the fitting with a large wrench. The gas ignited and turned the tank car into a huge blowtorch enveloping the two men. Flames shot 70 to 80 feet in the air in a V-shape.

The two men jumped or fell off the car. One of them stumbled across the street ,a quarter mile to the Highway Patrol office and stated his co-worker was still at the burning car.

A ten-man squad of the 75-man Kingman Volunteer Fire Department responded to the alarm and began spraying the car with water, hoping to keep the tank car cool and to prevent a pressure buildup inside it. Water won't extinguish burning propane, but the Kingman FD had no equipment which would, so all it could do was try to prevent an explosion.

It sounded like the thunderous roar of a jet airliner taking off, the tank car quieted for a second, sucked the huge column of flames down into it, swelled up and popped like a giant champagne cork. Two more times the flames vanished into the car and popped out. By this time one of the large transfer hoses was sending burning propane against the side of the tank car.

A large crowed of spectators congregated along Route 66 which separated them from the burning tank car by nothing but less than two hundred yards of open desert. Kingman police and Arizona Highway patrolmen were establishing roadblocks 1,000 feet from the fire. Two minutes before two o'clock, just as an order to move people farther back was given, the tank car exploded.

The Kingman explosion sent debris and flames up to 2,000 feet away with the three-ton end of the half-inch-thick metal tanker landing a quarter mile down the tracks. There was a crater 10 feet deep left where the tank car had been sitting.

Flaming propane sprayed by the explosion along with falling debris from this cloud, ignited several buildings in the vicinity. The victims jammed the Mohave County General Hospital. Planes and helicopters flew the most seriously burned victims to hospitals at Phoenix, 175 miles to the southeast, and Las Vegas, Nev., 100 miles to the northwest.

Slurry bombers, stationed here by the Bureau of Land Management to fight range fires, dumped fire retardent mixtures on the flames which spread across the highway. Helicopters were sent by the highway patrol and two Air Force bases.

The scene of the fire was highly visible to most of the town's residents. A radio station's news flash and the fire department's siren probably drew more spectators to the scene than would have otherwise come out of mer curiosity. Mohave County Sheriff's Office, Department of Public Safety, and Arizona Game and Fish personnel were joined by private citizens in sealing off the fire area and rerouting the massive traffic.

Mohave General Hospital received 107 casualties from the explosion by way of the one ambulance, private cars, police cars, and anything else available. Security at the hospital was to have been provided by outside personnel as well -- but many of these were themselves, being treated for injuries or worse.

Spectators and visitors gathered both outside the emergency department and inside the treatment area. Due to the severe injuries there was an executive decision made to let the loved ones be allowed inside with the patients. The hospital was an unbelievable sight. The corridors were full of burn victims, families, doctors, and nurses.

Total material damage exceeded one million dollars. Everything for three to four hundred feet from the tank car's location was black and charred. After the explosion, the fire code became an instant issue. Essentially, all the new ordinance did was require all bulk storage tanks to be diked and to have some kind of foam fire extinguisher system.

The ones in town that were moved, were provided an area out by the airport. Spur tracks like the one the explosion happened on, were to be sunk so that those cars would be in a pit. If they exploded, the pit would force the blast upward so it wouldn't cause as much damage.

As a result of the Kingman disaster, standard procedures for handling a BLEVE now became well-known in fire departments throughout the country. Films and pictures taken at the disaster are part of the training course.

As a result of the Kingman disaster, standard procedures for handling a BLEVE now became well-known in fire departments throughout the country. Films and pictures taken at the disaster are part of the training course. Ironically, a seminar had been scheduled for Kingman on July 11 (6 days after the fire), to discuss "dangerous cargo spillage."


In 2010 the area of the explosion was still vacant.
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