KINGMAN - One of Kingman's most devastating tragedies rocked the community on a summer afternoon immediately after Independence Day when the public was treated to the city's annual fireworks display without incident.
On July 5, 1973, a Santa Fe Railroad tank car filled with propane was parked on a siding along the Hilltop area of Route 66 at the Doxol Gas distributing plant. What later was determined to be a faulty valve allowed propane to escape.
A spark triggered a fire about 1:30 p.m., which was called in to the Kingman Fire Department. At 1:58 p.m., emergency responders and workers were caught up in an explosion heard and felt miles away.
Residents, spectators and motorists who were blocks away were burned as a fireball estimated at 200 feet engulfed the site.
Fire department volunteers killed outright in the blast were: William F. (Bill) Casson, former fire chief and manager of Citizens Utilities Electric division; Double G Tire and Service Center mechanic Roger Hubka; and M.B. (Jimmy) Cox, assistant fire chief and employee of the Kingman Bake Shop.
Critically injured and flown out to burn treatment centers in Las Vegas and Phoenix were John Campbell, Joe Chambers, Alan Hansen, Frank (Butch) Henry, Marvin Mast, Scott McCoy, Steven Mitchell, Chris Sanders, Art Stringer, Huey Stringer, Don Webb, Lee Williams and Eric Wolsey.
Mohave General Hospital (now Kingman Regional Medical Center) treated 107 burn victims in all, with the 26 most critical cases transferred to other facilities, back issues of the Mohave Daily Miner reported.
Kingman and Hualapai Valley firefighters were joined by others from Bullhead City, Mohave Valley and Lake Havasu City. It was reported the fire was under control by 5:30 p.m.
Air evacuations of the most critically injured were completed by 6:30 p.m. The waiting room of the hospital's emergency room was packed with anxious relatives of victims.
Mayor Shannon Shaw expressed how many felt when he stated, "Ours will be an empty community with the loss of the brave firemen who gave their lives in this tragic fire. We are grateful for the fine effort of all the firemen and we are indebted to the fire-fighting units of neighboring communities in helping to control the fire."
Chambers, Sanders, Art Stringer, Williams, Mast and Henry all died within a week. Campbell, Webb and Hansen died within two weeks.
Doug Bradley, city fire marshal for Kingman, was working with a Kingman High School student who was working a summer job at the time. He was delivering parts for Kingman Auto Supply and was on Kingman Avenue, which parallels Route 66, at the time of the explosion.
Bradley's father was a volunteer with the KFD and was at the Ford Proving Grounds in Yucca that day.
"I pretty much grew up in the fire department and it was a tight-knit organization," he said. "I knew all the firemen, so it was devastating when it went off."
The Web site of Kingman Regional Medical Center adds other details of the disaster.
Tank car No. 38214 arrived at the site a month earlier and sat on the siding in the sun. Its 33,000-gallon cargo of propane waited to be unloaded and moved to storage tanks 75 yards away.
Mast and Donald Formantini, employees of Williams Energy Co., began opening the tanker's valves on a day when the temperature was reported to be 105 degrees, some 20 degrees higher than a safe-handling temperature. A leak was soon detected and efforts to stop it failed, with gas first igniting and sending V-shaped flames shooting outward from the car some 70-80 feet.
The first alarm was received at 1:51 p.m. at the Kingman Fire Department, which dispatched a 10-man squad. About 300 spectators gathered nearby to watch along Highway 66 with less than 200 yards of open desert between them and the impending explosion.
Five doctors from Lake Havasu City and a dozen nurses arrived at Kingman Airport in response to calls for more medical help. They were flown by helicopter from the airport to the hospital, bringing with them Lake Havasu Community Hospital's entire supply of whole blood for burn victims.
A hospital spokesman, who was not identified, said, "Things went pretty well. The biggest delay was in air evacuation helicopters getting here. They had about an hour wait and everybody was out at the airport with their patients waiting for the helicopters."
Damage estimates exceeded $1 million. Union 76 service station, Double G Tire and Kountry Kitchen were businesses totally destroyed.
Gov. Jack Williams declared the city of Kingman and Mohave County a disaster area on July 19. That made $50,000 available to repair or replace police and fire equipment damaged or destroyed.
Bradley said firefighters did everything they were trained to do on that fateful day.
"They tried to get water on the tanker to cool it down," he said. "The problem was the water supply was so far away, and it took so much time to get it to the scene.
"In retrospect, firefighters probably would not get as close today (to an identical situation) and would look at it from all sides."
Fire Chief Charles Potter suffered burns to his arms and hands but remained at the scene until the situation was under control before seeking medical treatment, Bradley said.
"The biggest thing that needed to be done was cool down the tank shell so it didn't heat up the liquid inside," he said. "Fire heated up the shell which got the liquid boiling and built up pressure, plus further weakened the tank. Pressure blew apart the tank and ignited the propane outside."