The Borden’s Explosion
December 11, 1983
By Bob Parry
The year 1983 had not been one of my better years. On January 4th, I witnessed District Chief Lonnie Franklin, a “second father” to many of us at 7/B, getting killed while enroute to an arson house fire. Two months later, my own father died from complications from heart disease. We only had a couple of tours of duty to go before the end of the year and I was looking forward to the New Year.
It was a quiet Sunday morning at 7’s and a hearty breakfast was being finished when Stations 1,7, and 8 were being toned out for an ammonia leak at Borden’s, located at the corner of Milam and Calhoun. Borden’s was a two-story brick building (not counting the basement) known for their ice cream and other dairy products, occupying nearly the whole city block. Riding Acting Chief that day was Sr. Captain Ed Hauck and he was being driven by Fire Fighter Tim Jordan. Don Sims was the Acting Captain on Engine 7 and Ricky Dail was one of the pipemen. John Burleson had just left on a holiday just minutes before the box came in. The fourth man had to be a fill in. I was assigned to the right side of Ladder 7 that day along and our crew was Captain Royce Beck, E/O Delbert Burleson, and Fire Fighter Thomas Morant. In those days, we could stand up on the battery box because seat belts were an option and not a requirement. The death of fire Fighter Thomas Cooper in September 1981 removed us from the tailboard but it was not until Fire Fighter Robert Reyes, another good friend, fell off Engine 15 in December 1984 that the department finally required us to stop standing and be buckled up when the apparatus was moving.
While traveling north on Travis, we were a few blocks away from the Pierce Elevated when we caught our first strong smell of ammonia. The official name of the ammonia was anhydrous ammonia or as some called it, refrigerated ammonia. In fact, when we were crossing Pierce, I crawled in my seat to put on my mask. When we turned left on Calhoun and drove past the building, white clouds of ammonia were filling the sky and drifting to the southwest due to the northerly breeze. We staged at the corner of Louisiana and Calhoun with Engines 7 and 8 (The War Wagon), Snorkel 8, and District 7. Other companies, including Haz-Mat 17, were enroute as well. The Holiday Inn, located on the opposite corner on Calhoun, had several guests looking down from their balconies at the incident. While the plan was being developed, a maintenance engineer named Melvin Machart came up to the command post and stated he knew what valve was leaking and he could help us shut it down. Though there may have been a policy about putting the public in harm’s way, it was important he direct us to the area of the leak so we could tightened the valve and shut off the leak. There was virtually no traffic, vehicles or pedestrian, in the area that may have complicated or delayed any tactic. The crews of Ladder 7, Engine 8 (Acting Captain Mike Miller along with Fire Fighters Mark “Dirt” Evans and Greg “Silky” Collins), and Acting Chief Hauck suited up. A quick class on the air pack was given to Mr. Machart and we proceeded toward the building. We were in the cloud and just about to enter the building when Mr. Machart became a little restless in the SCBA about his face piece. We went back to the staging area and assured him how the air pack would protect him from the fumes.
While walking back to the building, we felt the ground rumble and a fireball shoot across Calhoun. The force of the explosion sent bricks flying and crashing down on us in the street. In fact, popsicle sticks were found a mile away. I was covering my head with my arms and looked around and heard Acting Chief Hauck request a second alarm due to a major explosion at our location. Greg Collins vividly remembers the how a manhole cover flew over him and into the windshield of a car parked at an auto repair shop across the street. He, like the rest of us, can testify, “You can’t run on moving ground”!! Larry Claxton, driving Engine 1 that day, recalls cleaning the Popsicle sticks off the pumper. After we regrouped, Engine 7 laid a line from ‘the War Wagon” and pulled up in front of the building and operated their deck gun. The extra-alarm companies were arriving under the command of Deputy Chief D.E. Crowder. We were there most of the day sifting through the rubble. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that relief crews began to arrive. Sid LaCombe, the officer on “the bucket”, still laughs on how many of the “old head” fire fighters had ‘large ice cream spoons” in their shirt pockets when getting off their rigs and reporting to the command post. Yea, nothing like listening to the Oilers with a gallon of your favorite ice cream! I did find an employee punch-in clock that had stopped at 9:04. I played that number for several months at a little corner bar “operation” in Youngstown but it never came up a winner- only that day though !!
After we returned to service later that night and returned to quarters, the ‘what ifs” were discussed at the station. The main one of course was ‘what if” Mr. Machart did not stop and continued to lead us in the basement where the leak was. It surely would have killed the crews of Engine 8, Ladder 7,the Chief, and Mr. Machart – 7 Fire Fighters and a civilian!! “What if” the wind was blowing from the south and we would have staged closer to the building on the Milam side of Calhoun? “What if” the leak would have happened on a regular workday with the area filled with spectators and employees – would the leak still would have occurred or prevented by the workers?? “Silky” Collins told me this little tid-bit that you can either laugh at or shake your head. Around 2 a.m. the next morning, he was detailed to relieve FF Dennis Ganns on fire watch at the site. In those days, a fire watch usually comprised of a couple of Fire Fighters with hose lines off the hydrant to hit the hot spots. When Greg pulled up, he saw Ganns from 17’s covered in blood. Silky ran up to him and asked him “Are you OK, what the *^$@(!^& happened to you”? Ganns replied he was hungry and he crawled into the basement looking for ice cream. Though he found some, the ammonia was so strong it made his nose bleed. Ganns, lucky to be alive, is a state patrolman in Oklahoma. Mark Evans (78/D) probably said it best when “working one of his many debit day at 78/B”. Someone said “that was close” referring to a close call at home plate during some downtime while watching an Astro’s game. “Dirt”, without blinking, calmly stated, “close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and ammonia leaks”!!
Anhydrous ammonia, as per the NFPA, was not supposed to ignite and explode. Though the cause of the leak was never determined, the agencies and investigators determined a single light bulb broke and that provided the ignition source. Everyone who made it on the “box” feels blessed they can talk about this event. Until I moved up to “Steeler Country”, every time I passed the location on the Pierce Elevated or on the street I made the Sign of the Cross! Ironically, this location is the new home of Station 8. I just thank the Good Lord is not a park with a memorial plaque to the Houston 7!
Bob Parry (Retired in Pittsburgh)
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