KINGMAN, Ariz. — A dozen people who lost their lives in a propane tanker explosion 35 years ago will be honored Saturday in a memorial. Honor Guard members from Henderson and other fire departments throughout the region will be among the more than 500 people who will gather in a remembrance of the blast.
Eleven Kingman firefighters and a Doxol company manager were fatally injured when a propane tanker valve leak ignited into a fireball that stretched 200 feet into the sky on July 5, 1973. The explosion occurred along a railroad line in an undeveloped part of Kingman.
Dave Cox, then 27 years old, said he was sleeping after working the night shift at the Ford Proving Ground when awakened by the explosion that rattled his windows at 1:58 p.m. “I had a bad gut feeling that something really bad was going on,” Cox said.
After learning of the tanker explosion, Cox’s search for his father, Jimmy, a volunteer firefighter, took him to the local hospital.
“The hospital was a complete madhouse,” Cox said. Cox remembers returning to his parents’ home where, within three hours of the explosion, a judge came by and delivered the worst news possible. The judge presented to his newly-widowed mother, Claudene, his father’s wedding ring.
“It was a dark, dark day,” Cox recalled.
The firefighters and the manager were responding to the valve leak and were about to train water on the tanker to cool it off when the big blast occurred.
The tragedy that wiped out a third of the town’s fire department drew national attention. It also drew compassion and volunteerism.
Fire Department Honor Guard Commander Keith Eaton said various Arizona communities dispatched personnel to Kingman to help staff fire stations after the deadly blast. He said local volunteers came out of the woodwork to help rebuild the department and that the event boosted interest in the firefighting profession.
Fire Chief Chuck Osterman said the disaster prompted research by the government and private sector. He said federal engineers and industry officials actually blew up propane tankers at the testing facility in White Sands, N.M.
Out of that, Osterman said, came a new double shell design for improved safety of pressurized gas tankers. He said the National Fire Protection Association published a case study of the Kingman incident.
“It became a big piece of their future training and it still is to this day,” Osterman said.
A local park is dedicated to those who died, and a memorial sculpture is erected at a Kingman fire station. A high school football stadium is named after one of the victims. But it’s taken all these years for members of victim’s families to be able to set aside their personal pain to embrace the notion of a public ceremonial salute.
“It’s time,” said fire Capt. Bob Casson, who lost his father, William, in the blast.
His younger brother Chuck is a department volunteer and his older brother Mike serves as fire chief in Cottonwood, Ariz.
“Our kids and grandkids are old enough that they’re curious and able to understand,” Casson said. He said the memorial should be informative and cathartic for many.
Kingman Mayor John Salem and state fire officials will speak at the ceremony and more than 200 uniformed firemen and law enforcement officers will be on hand. Each of the victims will be honored in fallen firefighter traditions involving bell ringing and the playing of bagpipes.