A look back to August 18, 1959. 50th anniversary of the fire & explosion that killed 5 Kansas City firefighters and brought us the term BLEVE.

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Watch 1959 film and KMBC-TV news story about the fire, along with the coverage of the memorial dedication in 1999 (a must see)

Photos from KansasCity.com (another must see)

Read initial AP and UPI accounts of the fire

Aerial and ground views of the same area during a 1951 flood and tank farm fire and here

Details of Tuesday’s event from IAFF Local 42

Interview with family of Capt. Pete Sirna, including his grandson Firefighter John Sirna

Tomorrow morning at 10:00, firefighters and others will gather at a small memorial adjacent to the Missouri – Kansas state line in Kansas City. They will remember five firefighters and a civilian killed during a fire and explosions on a Tuesday morning exactly 50-years earlier.

The Southwest Boulevard fire has often been cited as the first time the term boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion or BLEVE was used to describe the rupture and rocketing of a flammable liquid container during a fire.

The BLEVE was caught on film by KMBC-TV cameraman Joe Adams.

Killed in the fire and explosions were Captain George Bartels, Captain Pete Sirna, Firefighter Neal Owen, Firefighter Virgil Sams and Firefighter Delbert Stone of the Kansas City, Missouri Fire Department. Also killed was a civilian, Francis Toomes, described as a friend of “men in one of the engine companies”.

Above, a look back at the fire from WDAF-TV that includes some of the station’s live coverage mixed with film.

The fire broke out around 8:20 AM as two men fueled a gasoline tank truck. The fire spread to four horizontal tanks capable of holding 21,000 gallons. They were filled to various levels with kerosene and gasoline.

During the earlier stages of the fire a number of firefighters were felled by the heat from the fire and the hot summer day. Others were taken from the scene by ambulance because of smoke inhalation.

As the fire progressed the first three tanks failed adding considerable fuel to the fire. But an NFPA report said these tanks did not move very far when their welds tore loose. It was at about the two-hour point into the fire that the rupture of tank number four containing 15,655 gallons of gasoline occurred. It “rocketed a distance of 94 ft. and landed 15 ft. into the street”.

The tank also went through one brick wall and knocked down another. The resulting fireball is what engulfed the firefighters.

Firefighter Lester Cecil told a reporter, “The tanks were ruptured and were hissing like jets. I saw a sheet of flame coming at me and started to run up Thirty-First (street). I caught on fire and started to roll. There was a sheet of flame over me. It was about five feet off the ground and completely over me.”

Below are excerpts from a November, 1959 account of the tragedy by Miles E. Woodworth, NFPA Flammable Liquid Engineer. You can find more excerpts here. The document was presented as part of testimony before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials of the Committee on Energy and Commerce on September 14, 1994. The original can be found here (scroll down about halfway), but it didn’t translate well digitally into the Congressional Record and is difficult to read:

The Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department alarm response was as follows: at 820 A.M. the alarm was received; three pumpers, two ladder trucks, and two district chiefs responded. At 835 two more pumpers were called; at 8:45 other equipment requested included a specially built deluge truck and foam; and at 920 two more pumpers and the off shift were called.

Chief Grass of the Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department noticed the fire from his office window. After checking with his operator, and knowing that the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department was already there, he sent the closest district chief to investigate, because it appeared that the fire was close to the state border. The district chief upon arrival immediately requested a first alarm assignment of companies. The deputy chief of the Kansas City, Missouri, Department was sent to the fire and he reported burning gasoline flowing down the street about one-half to two-thirds of a block into Missouri. He, therefore, called for additional help.

The site today from Google Maps Street view with the memorial to the right of the traffic signal. Click here to tour the area.

Although the exact times of the tank failures are unknown, it was thought that the overpressure failure of the tanks was progressive from Tanks No. 1 through No. 4. Tank No. 1, holding 6,628 gallons of kerosene, and Tank No. 2, containing 15,857 gallons of gasoline, both failed at their ends facing the railroad tracks. The he
ads of these tanks tore loose at the weld with some violence, but the tanks moved only about one foot on the concrete saddles. Tank No. 3, containing approximately 3,000 gallons of gasoline, tore loose at the weld only for a short distance near the top of the tank. Tank No. 4 was the last to fail, approximately two hours after the fire originated. All tanks failed from overpressure, the under-sized vents were unable to relieve adequately the vapors generated from the boiling liquid.

Table No. 3 of the Flammable Liquids Code, NFPA No. 30, requires a vent for this capacity tank to have a relief capacity of 166,000 cu. ft. of free air per hour. For a tank capable of withstanding five pounds per square inch internal pressure a four-inch free circular opening would be required. Tank No. 4 rocketed a distance of 94 ft. and landed 15 ft. into the street. Enroute it went through the 13-in. brick wall separating the loading rack from the tanks and also knocked down one wall of the brick service station building. A large ball of fire from the remaining liquid in the tank covered the remaining 85 ft. of the 100 ft. wide street. It was this ball of fire which caught the firemen in its path.

Following the failure of Tank No. 4 at least one of the vertical tanks located at the Pyramid Oil Company was known to have been burning at the vents. Although all the tanks at the Pyramid Oil Company showed signs of fire exposure, they did not appear to be severely damaged.

Eleven fire companies from Kansas City, Missouri were at the fire before Tank No. 4 failed. Following this failure, six companies from the reserve were requested and one of the two off shifts was called back.

The district chief of the first alarm from the Kansas City, Kansas, Department attempted to have the tank valves shut off under the protection of water spray from “fog” nozzles. Due to the intense heat from the fire this was not possible. An attempt was also made to use foam to extinguish or control the fire which was, of course, unsuccessful due to the nature of the fire with its many obstructions and the limited amount of foam which could be applied from any available equipment.

The high temperatures and high humidity made the fire fighting extremely exhausting work. As reported by a chief officer of the Kansas City, Kansas, Department following the failure of Tank No. 4, those firemen who were uninjured picked themselves up and “fought as if they were mad” going in even closer to the fire than before to fight it.

Five firemen from the Kansas City, Missouri, Department and one civilian spectator, a friend of the men in one of the engine companies, were killed by the skyrocketing of Tank No. 4. Thirty-four firemen from Kansas City, Kansas and 30 firemen from the Kansas City, Missouri Department, and the chiefs of both departments were among those injured.

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