At 2:09 a.m., June 22, 1947, horrendous explosions unexplainably erupted from the midship butane compartments. Great gobs of flame and ugly black smoke boiled hundreds of feet into the sky and cast a shimmering glow over the channel waters. Like hacks from a gigantic meat cleaver, the blast split the Markay down to her keel and released hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum products, which spread out across the slip toward the row of American President Lines one-store warehouses, each of them 600-feet-long and standing on a wooden wharf. The thunderclap explosions and concussions shattered windows and triggered burglar alarms throughout Wilmington, San Pedro, and Terminal Island. Hot chunks of the Markay’s deckwork plopped down in the backyard of a San Pedro house. Telephone calls and box alarms were coming in faster than the San Pedro signal office could handle them. First to hit was Box 15 at Berth 90. A mile of open water separated the box from the Markay. (Box 15 was the name adopted by the Los Angeles area fire buffs when they organized their club.)
Fireboat 2’s barn-like house and the fire station adjoining it rocked on its piling as if an earthquake had struck. The dormitory lit up with an orangish-glow. Acting Captain Jack Gordon grabbed the firephone and told the signal office that Boats 2 and 3 were casting off and heading toward Mormon Island. Brainard “Choppy” Gray started Fireboat 2’s gasoline-powered engines and the crew cast off while First Mate John Planagan followed in the smaller Fireboat 3. As the firefighters left the boathouse, they saw for the first time that they were in for the fight of their careers. Except for its bow, the Markay was engulfed in clouds of flame and smoke. Turning north for the short run up the channel to the Markay, they felt the intense heat while they were still hundreds of yards distant. Blazing petroleum products from the slashed Markay spread a blanket of flames completely across the 600-foot-wide Slip No. 1. The floating sea of fire fanned out under wood pilings and warehouses. The explosions had snapped the warehouses sprinkler piping. As the fireboat firefighters plowed closer, they saw wisps of smoke turn black and they knew that at least two of the warehouses were beyond saving as was the Markay.
With the flames completely blocking the channel and the Markay blazing furiously on their starboard side and the warehouses burning on their port side, the firefighters realized a worse threat. The offshore breeze and tide were pushing the flames upstream toward a congested area of oil storage tank farms, warehouses, a chemical plant, an oil refinery, and the huge complex of the “20 Mule Team” United States Borax & Chemical Corporation. Beyond those industries lay tens of thousands of Wilmington homes.
The San Pedro Signal Office dispatchers, meanwhile, sent Engines 36 and 53, Truck 48, Salvage 36, Rescue 36, and Boat Tender 36, a hose carrier. Acting Battalion Chief Russell Biegel quickly radioed, “Dispatch every piece of apparatus in the battalion.” Biegel also requested more companies from elsewhere in the city to the north. It was a long run for all of these companies and the small force of battalion 6 firefighters would have more than they could handle, even after help arrived. Alderson was notified and immediately left for Wilmington. Acting Division 1 Chief Floyd Adams, responding from his Fire Station 66 quarters, later recalled, “I was a good 18 miles away from the harbor. The panoramic glow of that fire reminded me of color photos I had seen of the London Blitz during World War II.”
While land companies on both sides of the channel were mounting a direct, heavy stream attack on the warehouses and protecting nearby petroleum storage tanks, Fireboat 2 was the key to stopping this fire from extending upstream and touching off a conflagration in Wilmington. Somehow, the fireboat firefighters had to battle their way through that smoke shrouded sea of flame, get to the other side of it, turn the boat around and batter the fire head-on with all guns and rail-mounted nozzles attacking the heavily-involved underwharf fire. Boat 2 churned to within 500 feet of the Markay and the warehouses. The roaring flames all but overwhelmed the deafening rumbling of the fireboat’s engines. The intensity of the heat and the likelihood of more explosions made further going an almost certain suicide run. Gray signaled the engine room to slow all engines. Boat 2 glided forward as firefighters opened valves which sent cooling jets of water spraying the wheelhouse. The heat nevertheless shattered three windows and the starboard lights. Gray held the wheel steady as Boat 2 edged closer. Huge heat blisters puffed up along the boat’s gray hull. Sensing the peril, Gray rang for full speed astern, while the firefighters looked for another way to plow into the fire. Alone aboard Fireboat 3, Planagan spotted four Markay crewmen dive off the stern. Throttling to full speed, Planagan swooped his launch into the inferno and pick up two of the crewmen, as heat melted the boat’s windshield. The other crewmen disappeared and Planagan sped to shore with the badly-burned men who would survive.
Boat 2 firefighters tried another tactic to penetrate the impenetrable. Nosing in close to the burning warehouses and staying as far distant as possible from the Markay, Boat 2 opened up with all its guns. Inch-by-inch, yard-by-yard, Boat 2 slowly moved closer to the 600,000 square-foot expanse of flames burning on top of the water. Dead ahead was a 1200 foot-long patch of floating flames completely blocking the channel. Much of it was shrouded in thick, choking, biting, stinging smoke. With visibility nearly zero, there were other risks to consider before entering that furnace. Stray vapors from the boat’s gasoline engines could ignite and blow the boat and all aboard to bits. Gray had the added problem of avoiding floating debris or becoming disoriented in the smoke, smashing into the wharf itself. As all these possibilities flashed through the fireboat firefighters’ thoughts, they knew there was no time to debate them. Fireboat 2 had to bull its way through that blazing, smoking hell, if a worse disaster and more loss of life than the crewmen of the Markay was to be averted.
The roaring flames and the churning engines made radio orders from shore all but impossible to understand. Gray turned the radio to full volume and heard Alderson’s order to plow in through and make a frontal attack, which was exactly what Boat 2 firefighters were planning to do. “That order was the most difficult one I had to give in all my years as chief,” Alderson later recalled. “I knew that I could be sending those men to their deaths.”
Gray rang for propulsion and Boat 2 churned into the maelstrom. No go. Smoke swallowed the boat and swept into the wheelhouse. Gray could not see the compass. He ordered all engines reversed. The first attempt had failed. Then the smoke momentarily lifted. Boat 2 firefighters seized their opportunity to attack. Gray rang for full speed ahead and the boat stabbed into that wilderness of smoke and flame.
Boat 2 firefighters – none of them wearing breathing apparatus, because they had none- took a vicious smoke and heat beating as they pointed their guns downward while sweeping aside the floating flames. They shot into the swirling smoke and fire, which closed in behind them and shrouded the boat. It seemed like an eternity as they held their breaths while gritting their way through that 1200-foot-long caldron. Boat 2 suddenly burst into clear water. The smoke and fire was behind them. Gray quickly brought the boat around. With all guns, rail nozzles and the Big Bertha pounding away, the fireboat firefighters attacked the advancing flames head-on and fought them to a standstill. The fire would extend no further. The land and water battle continued for days as the Markay and the wharves continued to smoke. Ten bodies were found. Two more never were. Losses came to $5,037,500. Boat 2 and 3 firefighters earned everlasting fame that night for an act of courage and firefighting unparalleled in the 100 year-history of the LAFD. But not one medal for bravery was ever awarded to any of them.
A great story written by the late Paul Ditzel