Kansas City, Mo. The fire was like a living being, “taunting” firefighters who struggled to overcome it.
Flames had jumped from a single truck to an entire system of tanks, recalled on-scene television reporter Charles Gray. Blistering heat, billowing smoke and the hissing of boiling gasoline filled the air.
In moments, Aug. 18, 1959, would become what Gray described as “one of the darkest days in modern history of Kansas City firefighting.”
Five Kansas City firefighters and one civilian died after being engulfed by a fireball from a huge explosion at the former Continental Oil Co. operation at 31st Street and Southwest Boulevard. Scores more firefighters were injured.
In its aftermath, the fire, the second-deadliest for firefighters in the history of the Kansas City Fire Department, rallied caring residents from the metropolitan area. It also spurred nationwide changes in the way such fires would be fought and in the way hazardous materials would be stored.
On Tuesday, Gray joined fire officials and survivors of the fallen at a ceremony to rededicate the memorial at the site, where new U.S., Kansas and Missouri flags now frame a discreet stone marker.
Temperatures were already nearing 90 degrees that day in 1959 when two workers called for help about 8:30 a.m.
They had been filling their rig when a blaze shot up from inside the tank, spraying one with burning gasoline when he tried to shut off the valve.
The fire spread to the service station and began to envelop large tanks, and firefighters from both Kansas Citys poured in. Crews from several suburbs joined them.
More than 9 miles of hose were strung along the boulevard at the peak of the blaze.
Firefighters were using 12 streams of water on the blaze when the biggest tank — more than 20,000 gallons — exploded, rocketing off its base and toward the firefighters.
Firefighters and civilians rushed to help the burning men, smothering flames with blankets or coats.
It took more than 200 firefighters until after 11 a.m. to extinguish the fire.
Meanwhile, a Catholic priest administered last rites to the most critically injured men, some with burns over 90 percent of their bodies.
Though tragic, the fire was a “watershed” event for U.S. firefighters, Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer told those gathered at Tuesday’s ceremony. Fire departments researched and established safer, more effective methods for fighting fires involving flammable liquids.
The incident also prompted new safety controls over hazardous material storage and handling. Some advancements were outlined in a national fire industry magazine within months of the blast.
Dyer said the fire also was an early example of the importance of mutual aid among departments.
Gray said the memorial, on the edge of a gravelly railroad right of way, attracted little public attention.
“But to those who wear the boots, coats and helmets of the fire service,” he said. “This is hallowed ground.”