Filling Station Explosion Kills Three Firemen

Filling Station Explosion Kills Three Firemen

Shattered rubble remaining on morning after explosion is mute evidence of blast force. Tangled and twisted steel girders, wood roof joists, concrete floor slabs and heavy concrete blocks impeded efforts of firemen to recover victims buried under heavy debris—Tarby photoAssistant Chief William May wait directs recovery effort as fire department chaplains look on. Tangled mass of heavy rubble and flames from burst natural gas line slowed operations—Tarby photo

GASOLINE VAPOR in an Auburn, N. Y., service station lubritory exploded on March 30 while three members of Engine Co. 4, Auburn Fire Department, were employing a 2 1/2-inch hose line to wash down the basement in the one-story building. Lieutenant Alfred H. “Spuds” Murphy, Driver John F. Searing and Fireman Anthony T. Contrera died on the spot. The operator of the station was fatally injured and an employee of an oil distributing company also died in the blast.

The 32 by 40-foot concrete block station located one block south of the main business district center of the city was ripped apart and several pieces of concrete block and slab debris pierced the gypsum plank roof of an exposed theater to the north. Leaded glass windows comprising 35 to 40 per cent of the wall area of a church exposed to the south were completely sucked out toward the blast indicating the main force was upward. Windows of facing exposures to the east and west were broken and numerous plate glass show windows of stores within a one block radius were shattered. Practically no interior damage was caused to the exposed buildings.

Chief Luke J. Bergan told FIRE ENGINEERING that at 7:30 p.m. Assistant Chief William Maywalt dispatched Engine 4, commanded by Murphy, to investigate a report of gasoline fumes in a filling station at the corner of South and Lincoln Streets. About 20 minutes later an explosion was heard and a radio call for help was received at 7:52 p.m. by the Cayuga County Control Center fire alarm operator, located at Auburn Fire Headquarters. At about the same time a box alarm was received. Engines 1, 2 and 3 and Truck 2 responded and found the gasoline station leveled and flames spurting from a burst natural gas service which led into the basement to supply fuel for two overhead space heaters and a hot water heater in the building.

The only surviving member of the company at the scene, Fireman Sidney Burridge, told Chief Bergan that several inches of gasoline had been found in the basement of the station. A 2 1/2-inch line had been stretched from a nearby hydrant. The company entered the basement through a small floor hatch and employing a fog nozzle had begun washing down the area. Burridge was ordered to obtain a hose strap from the apparatus and was approximately 30 feet from the building when the explosion occurred. Although knocked down and in a state of shock which later required his hospitalization, Burridge regained his feet and reached the parked pumper where he radioed for help. He then attempted to reach the trapped men, but was burned about the face and driven back by flames, apparently from burning natural gas escaping from the ruptured service.

Members of the companies responding to the radio alarm quickly pulled the station operator from the rubble. He died later at a hospital. Water fog and foam were employed on the flames while the fire fighters labored to reach the remaining victims under the debris. All off-duty firemen reported to the scene within minutes after the blast to assist in recovering the bodies.

Hose streams were later used only for cooling purposes when it was determined that the fire still emanating from the debris was from the ruptured gas service. The curb shutoff for the gas main was buried under the debris and required several hours to locate.

Due to the destruction, Chief Bergan doubts that the actual cause of ignition of the fumes will ever be ascertained. He is inclined to believe that an air compressor motor located in the station started automatically and created an arc which triggered the explosion.

The gasoline in the building is believed to have come from a leaking underground tank. The filling station had occupied the site for many years and had a pit-type grease rack. It had been remodeled in recent years, but the basement area was retained.

Murphy was a veteran of 23 years service having been appointed to the department in 1937. For several years he was Chief Bergan’s driver and aide before his promotion to lieutenant in 1958. Searing and Contrera were appointed in 1957.

Auburn fire fighters use bare hands to reach body of John Searing. Kneeling in foam-covered debris is off-duty Captain Bernard Searing, cousin of the Victim—Citizen Advertiser photo by LaVerne G. Moe

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