WE'VE HAD A HELL OF AN EXPLOSION
Wagon 48 of the Los Angeles City Fire Department was out on a rubbish fire on Friday evening, December 17th, the third run of the day. They were about nine blocks from "home," Fire Station 48 at 16th and Grand, in San Pedro.
A low rumble, not unlike an earthquake, was quickly followed by a bright orange flash, and an explosion that sent a smoke cloud mushrooming into the sky, and splintered windows all around them.
Acting Captain James W. Frances picked up the mike and radioed to OCD--the City's dispatch center at Fire Department headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
"We had a hell of an explosion in the harbor."
Already the boards at OCD were alive with calls, Dispatchers doubled the normal first alarm assignment. At 48's quarters, Captain Leo F. Christensen was serving as acting battalion commander, in the absence of Battalion Commander John Moore, who with other chiefs, was "at Division," 25 miles away in south central Los Angeles.
Christensen and Moore's aide, Fireman Wayne Tanner, also felt the rumble. As they stood up to investigate, the explosion hit, ripping out six windows in the second floor of the fire station.
They rolled out the door, with Truck and Pump 48 following.
"We thought it was a permanent installation in the outer harbor area," said Tanner. "You overlook the possibility that a tanker had gone off." Immediately Christensen called for three additional task forces and three more engines. As the red sedan rounded 22nd street and headed into the harbor, Christensen ordered more help.
Fire Boat 5 is located across West Channel from Berth 46, and slightly up-channel, at Fort MacArthur "lower reservation." Their immediate radio report was the first indication the responding crews received that a ship - and a super-tanker - had exploded
PEOPLE IN THE WATER
Boat 5 arrived to find two major portions of the tanker Sansinena engulfed in fire. Men were in the water shouting for help. They pulled out those they could see and moved into the stern and got off trapped crew members. In all, they took 18 men to safety.
Task Force 48 arrived at the entrance to Berth 46, and was confronted by flame, running across a huge parking lot into the San Pedro Boat Yard. Debris from the tanker - including pieces of 10-inch steel pipe 12 to 15 feet long, were scattered in their path.
Captain Christensen set up a command post at the gate entrance to Berth 46. The crew from Task Force 48 took a hydrant near the entrance, pulled an inch-and-a-half and a foam eductor, and started working with Light Water up the boat yard fence.
The yard was filled with sail boats and private motor craft, all in dry dock. The explosion had littered the boat works with pipe and rubble, but none of the small boats had been knocked off their stands. They successfully cut off the flames into the boat yard - with about 20 feet to spare. Oil continued to run into the yard, and filled a small turn-table 200 feet inside.
FOAM UNIT ARRIVES
Light Water Tender 85 from Harbor City was sent on the initial alarm, and Christensen sent them into the main fire. Firefighters walked in front of the rig to clear and pick a pathway through the debris.
It wasn't until minutes after first arrival that fire-fighters learned that they had more than a ship on fire--that the entire center portion of the 810-foot super-tanker had been blown onto the wharf and was ablaze in the parking lot. They had three separate parts, all within a massive fire area.
Boats 2,4,3 and 1 also arrived and started to work to halt the spread of fire into the channel, which hoses thousands of small pleasure boats. Boat 2 used its large turret to blanket the cabin area with spray. They knew this was the area which houses the crew.
Boat 4 worked its way between the hull, which had been shoved 70 feet out into the channel, and the wharf, and took hose lines onto the wharf. They applied foam under the wharf and onto the burning sections in the water and dockside.
Boat 3 moved between the bow and stern portions searching for victims. A fire-fighter used a pike pole to feel the depth as they moved over the wreckage. They pulled one man to safety. The boats laid a foam "belt" in the water to prevent oil and fie from moving into West Channel.
Battalion Commander John Moore, of Battalion 6, with headquarters at 48's, and Battalion Commander Eugene Schmitz, of Battalion 16, in Wilmington, were "up town" with Division Commander W. R. Nelson, at his quarters in 33's. They, with Battalion Commanders Pete Lucaralli and W. A. Collins, responded to the harbor on the first report.
They arrived in the harbor to find that Deputy Chief C. E. Giordano, operations commander for the department, had arrived from his nearby home and taken over as incident commander from Captain Christensen.
MEDICAL TRIAGE STARTED
Rescue Ambulance 38 had been ordered by Christensen to set up as a medical triage team at nearby Berth 55. The force of the blast led firefighters to believe that they probably would find numerous casualties.
There were only a few at the blast site; others, with cuts and lacerations, were reported throughout the harbor area.
The County's Medical Alert Center swung into action, and Dr. Richard S. Scott, sent three doctor-nurse triage teams, to the scene, and formed a resource pool of 12 ambulances, city and private.
Men pulled out of the water were taken to Berth 55 by the fire boats and Coast Guard units. Major fear at the main fire site was that sections of cherry red steel which had been a portion of the deck would twist and fall onto the main manifold valving system at dockside. Here were the valves and exposed 30 and 36-inch mains which carry crude oil form the ship during off-loading to storage tanks a mile away. A rupture could bring thousands of gallons of high-grade crude pouring onto the fire ground.
What was not immediately known was that the pipes had been ruptured underground by the bridge and deck portions of the ship which landed on the paved wharf parking area. The fire was knocked down once, then flashed over, nearly trapping a number of firefighters. It was this, the discovery that a great quantity of fuel was coming up under the mass of twisted steel, that led commanders to realize they had a constant flow of fuel into the fire.
They already had used AFFF, high-expansion and protein foam in knocking down the main fire, but it flashed back each time they thought they had full extinguishment. The decision was made to let the bridge area burn - and it did until four days later when valves were placed in position in the line near the fire. More than a half million gallons of crude was captured in the large mains when they were severed.
Chief Engineer Kenneth R. Long arrived by helicopter early in the evening and took command. The fire was officially knocked down at 10:20 p.m. The fire never extended beyond its original perimeter upon arrival of the fire department.
The Sansinena had unloaded her cargo of Indonesian crude and was taking on ballast and bunker fuel. She had 16,000 bbls. of bunker oil aboard at the time of the explosion. She was due to sail at 11 p.m.
Some of the 32-member crew had gone ashore. Most others were eating dinner in the stern cabin portion. Some were blown into the water; others jumped or fell after the blast and fire. Five men were known dead. They were on the dock.
The Coast Guard is attempting to determine the cause of the explosion.