LAFD HISTORY – Harbor Holocaust: Heroic Fireman Saves Many From Fiery Death in Water

December 31, 20170 Comments

The explosion and fire at Berth 233, Wilmington on October 21, 1944, brought into flaming reality one of the many potential hazards of Los Angeles’ busy wartime harbor. Involved in the fire were two hundred feet of outfitting dock which was severely damaged to a depth of about thirty feet.

At midnight on October 20, the S.S. Fredricksburg, a tanker operating for the War Shipping Administration, began loading toluene into hold number two, while at the same time pumping water ballast out of hold number one. Toluene is a highly inflammable, very volatile petroleum substance that has many military uses.

As early as 8:00 a.m. on the 21st several people detected the odor of what they thought was gasoline around Berth 223. The Coast Guard discovered that toluene was leaking into hold number one and was being pumped into the bay. The tidal current carries directly from Berth 151 to Berth 223.

At the outfitting dock, Berth 223, shortly before 2:00 p.m. naval and civilian crews were busy spray-painting and welding on LSM’s 211 and 212. (LSM – Landing Ship Medium). A welder struck an arc and a flash fire completely enveloped the LSM’s and the docks. On the docks were about 25 vehicles, all of which took fire.

At Boat 2, a short way down the bay, the man on floor watch saw the flash of fire and called to Captain Jack Allen. Captain Allen turned in a still alarm and ordered immediate response of the big 99-footer. Responding on a first alarm were Boats 2 and 3, Engines 81 and 40, Rescue 36, Salvage 36 and Batt 6. Frank’s Note: Engine 81 was located at Berth 227 on Terminal Island on 7-1-41. Engine 81 moved to Van Nuys in 1950.

As Boat 2 made its way up the channel, a 4 1/2” tip was put on the ship’s main battery, “Big Bertha,” and the bow and tower monitors were readied for action. As they neared the burning LSM’s, one sweep of the great 4 ½” stream of water was all that was needed to completely snuff out the fire on them. The smaller batteries were at work breaking up the fire floating on the water. Boat 2 turned and came back and with one more mighty swoop, extinguished the fires on the dock involving the autos and trucks. To get an idea of the terrific impact of a 4 ½” stream, it was noted that a medium sized truck was pushed across the dock by the force of the water as though it were a toy. Frank’s note: The Historical Society has the Big Bertha 6 inch nozzle that would produce up to 10,000 gallons per minute. Now on display in the Harbor Fire Museum.

Boat 3

Fire Boat 3, with Senior Boat Operator J.V. Roquemore, responded along with the rest of the assignment. He noticed that a considerable number of men in the water around the burning vessels and clinging to the nearby wharves. As Roquemore was alone, due to the depletion of manpower in the fire department, his first duty appeared to be in the direction of saving all possible life. Leaving the fire fighting to Boat 2, he threw all the life preservers he had to the men in the water and pulled them as fast as he could reach them.

“Rocky” now had his boat full of injured and suffering naval and civilian men. At first they didn’t seem too badly injured, but soon some showed the effects of severe shock and many of them were seriously and dangerously burned. He took them to the Coast Guard base at the old California Yacht Club across the channel. Arriving there at 2:15 p.m. he delivered the seventeen cases he had aboard. In the interval many of the injured had become unconscious and had to be removed on stretchers.

Boat 3 returned to the scene of the fire and pulled in several more victims found in the water and then made several trips bringing medical officers, civilian doctors to the scene. Sixteen men died and more than 35 hospitalized. Undoubtedly this toll would have been much higher had it not been for the courageous and efficient work of Mate Roquemore, who has spent his 20 years on the fire department in the bay area.

Although the fire on the LSM’s, water and docks had been extinguished, a tough and dangerous fire continued to burn amid the creosoted underpiling of the wharf. The dock had a fire stop underneath, just north of the fire area, but to the south there were no stops and in this direction the fire continued to spread.
At 2:45 p.m., a second alarm brought Engines 38 and 49, and Truck 48. From the water side the fire boats closed in and rail standee streams were directed into the burning piles. Skiffs from the Coast Guard boats and Boat 2 with 1 ½” lines were sent under the dock, although the acrid smoke and fumes made the going plenty rough. Along with the second alarm assignment, the crews of Engine and Truck 24 were sent to the scene to provide additional manpower. Starting at a point just south of the blaze, axes and jumbo bars were used to cut holes through the three inches of asphalt and heavy 4×6 timbers that formed the dock. At first cellar nozzles were tried, but it was found that the barrels were too short to provide any effective reach. Changing to Bresnan distributors, the desired results were achieved as they could be lowered to any point necessary. From this starting point other holes were successfully cut along the pier until the complete area had been extinguished. In some cases it was necessary to lower men and lines into the openings to get at stubborn pockets of fire in remote places of the dock construction.

Subsequent arson investigations developed two theories as to the cause of the fuel and vapors being in the bay around the LSM’s. First it is known that toluene was escaping into the bay from the Fredericksburg, and that the tidal drift would carry it across the channel to Berth 223. If such was the case then the question arises, why was there no flash back to Berth 151? It is believed that incoming and out-going sea traffic would break up the continuity of any such flow on the surface of the water and this coupled with the ebbing of the tide, would confine the polluted area to around the ships at the pier and under the pier itself. The fumes from the material and from fuel carried in some instances in open containers aboard the ships covered the site with a blanket of highly inflammable vapors that took just one spark to start an inferno of death and destruction.

A second theory is that fuel leakage from another ship that had been tied up to the same docks a short time before, had polluted the area along with some possible pollution from the tanker at Berth 151, and the fumes from these being ignited, caused the fire.

By Deputy Chief Bill Goss, 1944 Incident Report

Frank’s note: Another great story of our firefighters, fireboats and land companies. These large incidents in the harbor are rare, but when they happen it takes an all response from the LAFD and other agencies to gain control.

My connection with Chief Bill Goss goes way back because my Dad and Mother both went to Manual Arts High School with Bill, and my Dad joined the LAFD in 1942 just after Bill. I remember meeting him many years ago and hearing that he was a Deputy Chief appointed by Chief Engineer Miller on May 5, 1956 as one of seven new Deputies affectionately known by the firemen as the “Seven Dwarfs”.

My last visit with Chief Goss was at his house in Westchester when he asked me to come over and get some books he wanted to donate to our Museum.
He passed away in 2009 and his memory and legacy will live on at our LAFD Museum because we have preserved some of his history and contributions to the LAFD and the fire service.


Leave a Reply

Back to Top