Fighting the 1972 tank fire
photo by CFD
Fifty years ago (Sept. 25, 1972) Chattanooga was rocked by one of its biggest explosion fires in the city’s history. The Jersey Pike Fuel Terminal, in a sparsely populated area of Hamilton County, exploded creating a huge inferno that left three people dead and several injured.
Mayor Robert Kirk Walker closed the airport and passenger planes were diverted to Knoxville and Atlanta. Sheriff H.Q. Evatt and Fire and Police Commissioner Gene Roberts ordered police to begin evacuating nearby businesses and residents.
At that time, Tri Community Fire Department was responsible for the Jersey Pike area.
TCFD Chief Duane Pitts was the first to arrive at the scene and he immediately radioed for help. All available firefighting units in the Hamilton County area responded to battle the raging fire. Chief Pitts said special foam had to be shipped in to contain the inferno that burned for over 28 hours.
WDEF TV’s Mort Lloyd owned a plane and got the mayor’s permission to fly over the inferno while photographer Tommy Eason did the filming.
CBS, NBC and ABC all led with the disaster on their evening newscasts. Radio networks did hourly reports on the Southeast Tennessee disaster.
The Associated Press said four huge tanks containing gasoline, diesel and kerosene were on fire and special substance chemical foam had to be flown in from Georgia and Pennsylvania. The AP reported the fire was believed to have started from an electric pump. The wire service said it became uncontrollable so Civil Defense advised officials to evacuate nearby structures.
Several who lived in the area remembered that fall morning. Jeff Gibbs resided in the Bonny Oaks community and said it knocked him out of his bed. “I remember looking out my window and the sky was red,"' he said.
David Jones said the shockwave threw him out of his top bunk. He said he thought at first the Volunteer Ammunition Plant had blown up.
Resident Richard Lee Cox said the heat was so intense you could hardly touch the bricks on his Holiday Hills home.
I was stationed at the American Forces Network in Frankfurt, West Germany when news anchor Jan Wood called me to the newsroom to read Associated Press and United Press International wire reports.
Wood said, “You are from Chattanooga, look at these stories.” Wood proceeded to ask me about what was around the tanks and background of the area. The AP had transmitted several pictures of the petroleum tanks in flames.
A few days later we received Chattanooga Times and News Free Press newspaper accounts.
Firefighters had their work cut out for them because of the type of fire they were battling. Retired Chattanooga Fire Chief Joe Knowles remembers that day well. He said, “We were very fortunate there wasn’t more loss of life.”
John Odom remembers being called to the scene and of his harrowing role there.
He said, "My partner and I were employed by Conoco to swim in gasoline below the fire, locating and turning off valves so the fire could be controlled by injection of sub-surface foam. It was one of the toughest and most dangerous jobs of my life. When this took place, we normally charged $50/ hour for our time. For this job, because of the danger, they agreed to $1,000/ hour.
"The tanks were owned by Southern Facilities, a subsidiary of
Colonial Pipeline. The fuel was owned by Conoco. I don't remember the total amount of fuel at risk, but 3.5 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel were lost.
"This was one of the most dangerous jobs of my career."
Lt. Charlie Thomason made pictures that are posted on the Chattanooga Fire Department Facebook Page.