The day that SHOOK our foundations
Honoring the fallen
KINGMAN - For many, the memories of the railroad tanker explosion on Thursday, July 5, 1973, that killed 11 firefighters and one civilian began the day before.
"We saw them the day before," remembered Kingman Fire Captain Bob Casson. "Every one of them."
Bob, who was 11 years old at the time, is one of six children of William L. Casson, a volunteer captain with the department and district manager for the electric division of Citizens Utilities Company.
On the 4th in '73, the fire department orchestrated the fireworks show at the fairgrounds like they did every year, Sandy Hubka recalled. Hubka was married to Roger Allen Hubka, volunteer with the KFD and service manager at Double G Tire Co.
John Osterman joined the Kingman Fire Department in the late 1940s. His paid job was in Yucca at Ford Proving Grounds; he volunteered with the KFD.
"Back then, they only had two paid engineers, and they were glad to have us because it relieved the monotony," Osterman said. "Even when I first got on the department, if you got eight or 10 calls a month, that was a big month because you didn't have the medics."
Beyond keeping the engineers company, Osterman said they would keep each other entertained at the station with Saturday night card games.
Born and raised in Kingman, Osterman felt connected to his community by being a firefighter. "I always felt I had to give something back to the community, and that's what I did," Osterman said. "I enjoyed it."
John passed his passion for firefighting on to his children. "Of course it's in the blood," Osterman said. "Chuck, my son, is the chief now, and his older brother is still a volunteer. One time, my three sons and I all belonged to the fire department."
Richard Lee Williams inspired his son, Kingman Fire Battalion Chief Porter Williams, to join the KFD.
"To me, he was - when I was growing up, I never had heroes - he was all I needed," Porter said.
Lee began serving as a volunteer firefighter in the early 1950s while working as the principal at Kingman High School. As was the case with one-third of the force, his service ended that fateful afternoon of July 5, 1973.
"July Fourth was always a big celebration time for the city," KFD Volunteer Firefighter Chuck Casson said. "Every year, that was something to look forward to."
Like Porter and his brother, Bob, Chuck remembers the barbecue that followed as well as setting off unused fireworks in the alley behind the fire station when he was 10 years old.
"We would spend lots of time at Station 2," Chuck Casson said.
Kingman Volunteer Captain Wayne Davis, who was 21 at the time, remembers back a few days earlier. "That was my second fire call," Davis said. "I came to the department the night of the second of July."
Everyone remembers where they were when they heard of the fire. Some were at home, while others were at work in Kingman and throughout Mohave County.
The 33,500-gallon tanker was being off-loaded by employees into two propane storage tanks at the Doxol Propane Plant in the 2600 block of Andy Devine Avenue across from Hoover Street. The employees had hooked up liquid lines to fittings, and the valves were opened slowly to check the connections when a leak occurred.
"It was a series of errors," Porter said. "They weren't supposed to unload at that time, and they did. They were supposed to use non-sparking tools, and they didn't."
Marvin Eugene Mast, 42, was the manager of the Doxol plant. He suffered burns from the initial fire, which took his life after he was flown to the Maricopa County Hospital Burn Center.
The call goes out
When the call came in to the fire department at 1:58 p.m., Davis was in the back shop working at Davis Heating & Cooling in Kingman, while his brother was in Lake Havasu City working on a project.
"Back then, KAAA was, of course, the only radio station, an AM radio station, we had here," Davis said. "And they had one of the 10-10s - it was just a one-way receiver the firemen kept at home.
"He had one at the radio station," Davis said of the disc jockey. "When it would go off, he would break on the air and say 'Fire has broke out,' and tell the firemen where the fire was on the radio. So, I heard that here, and of course the whistle blew, and I responded up to the fire scene."
Flames were shooting out of the vent and an impingement on the top of the tanker when Davis drove up in his work truck.
"That was a big fire," Davis remembered thinking as he came up on the scene. "... I was a little leery, and having been only on the department for a few days, I hadn't much training at that point."
When Davis arrived on scene, the fire department was beginning to set up an unmanned monitor used to spray water on the fire. "When I got there, I checked in with the chief (Charlie Potter), and he sent me over to another engine, Engine 5, that was just picking up a hose that they'd been using to cool the tank down," Davis said.
"We just got that picked up, and we just pulled out of the scene to lay more hose into the truck that they were pumping the unmanned monitor with, when it blew up."
The boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE) occurred approximately 20 minutes after the call had first come in. "The thing blew, and I got burned, and it just scared the daylights out of me, so I jumped off the fire truck and ran," Davis said. "I don't know where I ran to.
"I do remember having one of the firemen we lost of the initial 11 come by me and just say, 'It got us Wayne, it got us.'"
Davis returned to the fire truck. The firefighters soon began fighting a fire across the street at a garage. That's when Davis realized he was burned on his hands and face. He was taken to the hospital. "I wasn't there very long, at all," Davis said. "You really remember a lot, but it seemed like you were there all day."
'You could feel it'
Bob and Chuck Casson watched the explosion with their mother, who was home from her job with the school district, from a neighbor's front yard with an elevated view on Arlington Street.
"I can still vividly remember the pressure relief valve activating on the tank car," Bob said. "You can watch the one flame shooting out 60, 70, 80, 100 foot - and the other flame coming off, basically, it was almost an angle type thing."
Witnesses described a fireball that shot up 200 feet into the air, while fragments were hurtled one-quarter mile away.
"I remember the sound," Chuck Casson said. "I remember we could see the fireball. We saw the actual explosion. You could feel it. You could feel the sound wave come, and then it felt like a little bit of heat change."
Sandy Hubka compared the sound of the explosion to the noise when a jet plane takes off.
"I think they said that fire was like two acres in size," Sandy said. "It spit off other balls. I've never seen anything move so fast, like Superman couldn't move that fast."
The explosion killed three men immediately - M.B. (Jimmy) Cox, Roger Hubka and William Casson.
With two other KFD volunteers, John Osterman arrived in Kingman from Yucca within 18 minutes after he heard the call.
"But the damage was already done then," John said. "They still hadn't picked up all the bodies yet."
While they worked on controlling the blazes, John said the biggest thing was keeping the people away from the area and the danger. The fire was under control by 5 p.m.
Mike and Tim Casson, who were 22 and 18, respectively, at the time, worked on a survey crew in Bullhead City at the time of the explosion. "As we came up to Union Pass, we could see the smoke cloud, and it was monstrous," Mike said.
The brothers didn't know what exactly had happened until they got to the hospital.
"Mom says, 'I don't know where your dad is, you need to go find him,'" Mike said. "So my brother and I went down to the scene and ran into J.D. Howell and said, 'Where's my dad?' He kind of collapsed when I asked that, and he said, 'I don't think he made it.'"
"I talked to a couple others there," Mike added. "So there was a suspicion that he probably hadn't made it."
Son stayed home
Porter knew his dad responded to the call after leaving the house during his lunch break.
"My dad would let me go on almost all the calls with him - brush fires and structure fires," Porter added. "Being a kid that age, I would always listen and then ask him if I could go. He didn't let me go on this one."
Clyde McCune was tasked with alerting the families of their losses.
"County Coroner Clyde McCune came to us and had part of dad's wallet and wedding ring and showed them to us and asked us to identify him," Mike Casson said. "That's when we knew for sure."
He visited Sandy Hubka's house, letting her know the fate of her husband, who was 27 at the time.
Like many family members, Porter and his mother went to the hospital rather than the scene. He even helped put out a brush fire on the way.
"And then we got to the hospital, and it was like chaos there," Porter said. "And they had my dad in the emergency room and there was a bunch of other people. They just got overwhelmed at the hospital."
While the new hospital was ill-equipped to handle the more than 100 firefighters, police officers and civilians burned in the fire, emergency personnel had performed disaster training with firefighters in the past, John Osterman said.
"We used to have these drills, and we'd have fake wrecks, and she'd (emergency coordinator) coordinate the hospital," Osterman said. "Well, people didn't think too much of it, but it really came through when the explosion occurred because the hospital handled it real well."
Calls had gone out for ice to soothe the burns, John said.
"That was one of things I remember most," Bob said. "Is the amount of ice we loaded, off-loaded from the trucks that were coming in."
Outside the hospital, the scene was even more chaotic.
"You had to just leave the car and run, because you couldn't drive down the streets, there were cars and it was like there had been an earthquake," Sandy said. "There were cars this way and that way, people out and running and seeing if their loved ones were at the hospital by chance."
Porter's father had suffered severe burns and was packed in ice at the hospital.
"He could talk to me, and the nurse said just talk to him and tell him you love him," Porter said. "And I would do that, and he would say, 'I love you too, son.' But he knew he was going to die 'cause all he would do is tell me, 'You need to be a good boy for your mom.'"
Along with Williams, firefighters John Campbell, Joseph Chambers III, Alan Hansen, Christopher Sanders, Art Stringer, Huey Stringer, Frank (Butch) Henry, Donald Webb and Steven Mitchell were transported from Mohave General Hospital to burn centers in Las Vegas and Phoenix with civilians Mast, Eric Wolsey and Scott McCoy.
"By the time we had got down there, they had knocked him out, and we never got to talk to him again," Porter said of his father.
Tucson Fire Battalion Chief Donnie Webb was 5 years old at the time of the explosion. He didn't accompany his mother to the hospital to check on his father, Donald, a volunteer firefighter who owned two Shell stations on Andy Devine Avenue.
With 90 percent of his body burned, Donnie's father was airlifted to Phoenix where he died 13 days later.
Beyond the initial deaths at the scene, during the following weeks Kingman was faced with nine other deaths: Chambers, 37; Mast, 42; Art Stringer, 25; Sanders, 38; Williams, 47; Campbell, 42; Henry, 28; Donald, 30; and Hansen, 34.
"In some ways, I was lucky," Bob said. "In some ways, I kind of felt a little cheated. I would have liked to have the opportunity to say bye, but then seeing the pain and suffering that occurred with the burns, I couldn't imagine."
Betty Grounds, who was on the City Council, was in Phoenix when the firefighters were being treated and visited them.
"I'm 90 years old, and probably that 10 days - two weeks in that period of the accident and the funerals that we attended - I shed more tears than I would have in a lifetime," Grounds said. "Almost everyone that was seriously hurt or killed, with the exception of maybe two, I had grown up with, and I had known them all my life. They were hometown guys."
Grounds returned to Kingman on July 7.
"At Memorial (Hospital), I was just there," Grounds said. "They weren't responsive, but their family was there. At least the family knew I had been there. I guess I was kind of representing the Council at the time, because the rest of them were taking care of business back here."
Wayne Davis said he was one of many from the community to attend the funeral services.
"It just seemed like it was one a day, day after day after day," Davis said. "It was tough to take. You wonder, why them?"
National media and people from throughout the country attended the services with the local citizens.
"I tried to make every one of these funerals," John Osterman said. "That was my objective.
"Somebody had to go from the department," he added. "I lost some good friends in that explosion."
While the families and community members were attending the funerals, firefighters from Lake Havasu City, Bullhead City and Scottsdale were assisting the KFD. John and Davis said they would often sit at the fire stations and direct the crews to the scenes of calls.
"There was a couple of times I'd go ahead and respond to a call, probably shouldn't," Davis said. "But you're young and aggressive then.
"Well, we had lost a majority of our fire department," he added. "You didn't have the personnel."
The explosion did have Davis questioning whether he wanted to be a firefighter. He said the main reason he stayed was he knew they needed firemen at that time.
"The chief had made the statement to my mom, saying, 'Our kids are pretty much our seasoned firemen now' or something like that right after this happened," Davis said. "And him making a statement like that, yeah, I'm staying. Mostly it was just realizing there was a need for firemen and it was no time to be a quitter."
While it took weeks to obtain replacement equipment, John said the city government and the people were behind their efforts. "Of course we had to replace those firefighters that were lost," he added. "We had to bring them in and training, training, training. That's one thing we did do is step up training."
Looking out for the new firefighters wasn't the only objective of the community.
"Besides the 11 firemen that died, I really feel there were other heroes in this community: the mothers, the wives, the kids of these deceased firemen," John Osterman said.
Caring for the survivors became the next focus, something Sandy Hubka appreciated.
"I don't know how I could have gotten through it," Sandy said. "I was so young and with two young children.
"There were some of us who didn't know how to write a check, didn't know how to drive," she said of the widows. "This was kind of like the old days."
With more than 500 visitors during the few days following the explosion, Sandy said she had more food than could fill 20 refrigerators.
"This was a very wonderful town," Sandy said. "I'm still here 35 years later because it's an absolutely wonderful town."
Sandy and her son now have real estate companies in Kingman. Her son and daughter are married with families, and she remarried in 1997.
Numerous visitors and help are what the Casson family experienced as well.
"It certainly was a devastating loss to all of our families, but it was a tremendous loss to the community, too," Mike Casson said. "The people felt it. They shared in our pain.
"They were just good people, good people" he added. "I can remember them coming out of the woodwork."
Porter remembered being a part of the firefighters' softball team as well as being taken to youth softball games from Texas to California.
"The community as a whole always paid attention, I honestly felt, now that I look back, what we were doing," Porter said. "There would be guys that would come to you, 'Your dad would want you to do this.' There was a lot of input from the community into my life because of what happened to them."
Chuck Casson said his family had a pretty rough time for a couple of years following the incident, being in a newer house without the major breadwinner.
"Mom ended up being a very strong person," he said.
Chuck said the community was there for his family whenever they needed it.
"Back then, everybody took care of you," he said. "They knew who you were. They just watched out after you."
"We were kind of a close-knit community," Grounds said.
Being so close, everyone was touched by the injuries and deaths, she added.
"It was just one of very sad times for Kingman," Grounds said. "It was the reason why Kingman and the Council wanted to honor those firemen.
"There was not much else you could do," she added. "They had been lost. But, something permanent was the Firemen's Memorial Park."
'In the blood'
Remembering their fathers by joining the department their fathers had loved was tough for some.
"It had a big impact," Donnie Webb said. "For a long time, I wasn't going to do it. My mom was against it. My sister was against it."
Donnie said he woke up one day and decided to do it. He started with Rural Metro in Tucson around 1990 before moving on to the Tucson Fire Department in 1999. Even now, the explosion lingers in his mind.
"If I ever encounter that situation, I'm sure that it's going to make me a little bit nervous, a little on edge because of the history that I have with it and what I've seen it do to my family," Donnie said.
The explosion was a driving force in Mike Casson's life. He began studying fire science in 1974.
"I said, 'Man, if I can learn enough about this, maybe someday I can keep this from every happening again,'" Mike said. "You got these visions that you can make a difference."
Mike began working part time with the Scottsdale Rural Metro Fire Department in 1974 before becoming full time in 1976. He moved to Cottonwood in 1995, where he currently is the fire chief.
Porter had a change of heart similar to Donnie's. He was going to college to be a teacher.
"I just finally came home and said, 'Look Mom, this is what I want, to be a fireman,'" Porter said.
Porter started as a volunteer with KFD in the late 1980s before becoming full time two years later.
"I love it," Porter added. "I have no regrets about it."
Competition with his brother Chuck is what got Bob Casson involved, he said.
"Next thing I know, he's a volunteer," Bob said. "Never said a word or nothing to anybody, I'm sure he talked to Mom."
Bob became a full-time firefighter with the KFD in 1992.
"I don't know that she liked it (with children in fire service), but she didn't have a choice," Bob said. "She was a lot like Porter's mom - always concerned, but also wanted to know what was going on. We'd have a fire, and she'd always be the first person to call the next day."
Getting past the 1 percent
Bob said he was once given a saying that has stuck with him throughout his career in the fire services that he passes along to firefighters after difficult calls.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time this is absolutely the best job in the world, you cannot beat it," Bob said. "There is nothing better out there to do, and then one percent of the time, it's absolutely the worst job in the world. If you can get past the one percent, you'll be a good firefighter."