Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

     June 22, 1947
     The S.S. Markay Explosion
     L.A. Harbor

An Oil Tanker Explodes
By Harold M. Inlow

At 2:05 A.M., Sunday morning, June 22, 1947, the entire Wilmington-San Pedro area was rocked by a series of blasts when the oil tanker “S.S. MARKAY” exploded while loading a cargo of fuel oil for Northern California. The ship was moored at Berth 167, Shell Oil Company, Mormon Island (Wilmington). At the time of the explosion, the Markay had loaded nearly 70,000 barrels of fuel, consisting mainly of gasoline, stove oil and diesel oil.

    The force of the blast spread flaming gasoline across a 600 foot channel to Berths 153 and 154, starting fires in the warehouses of the American President Lines Ltd., and poured an undetermined amount of blazing fuel on the waters between Berths 167, 168 and 153, 154, causing the pilings and wharves of these berths to catch on fire.

    The first alarm to be received by the signal office and fire stations in the Harbor area, was a box which was pulled at Berth 90 in San Pedro. This box is over one-half mile across the channel from the scene of the original explosion, and calls for a response of the Battalion Chief., Battalion 6, Engine Companies 36 and 53, Salvage 36 (1 man), Rescue 36, and Tender 36. The force of the blast had aroused all companies in the Harbor area and these companies were alerted before receiving the actual location of the fire. After the first box came in, many more in the vicinity of the fire were pulled and all companies in the Harbor area responded to the scene of the disaster on the first alarm, with the exception of Engine 40, on Terminal Island, and Fire Boat 1, in Fish Harbor.

    Acting Battalion Chief Russel H. Biegel, Engine Companies 49, 38, 53, 36, Truck Company 48, Salvage 36, and Rescue 36 responded to the area surrounding the American President Lines pier and sheds. Acting Battalion Chief Biegel, enroute to the fire, radioed for “as many companies as Westlake could send and as fast as they could send them and to notify all chief officers on duty, including Deputy Chief Rothermel and Chief Engineer Alderson.” Truck Company 49 and Engine Company 48 responded to the Shell Oil Company and Fire Boats 2 and 3 responded to the channel separating the two burning piers. 

    On the arrival of Acting Division Commander, Floyd J. Adams, the regular Battalion Chief of Battalion 6, at Berth 153, it was decided to split commands-- Chief Adams taking charge of the firefighting forces responding to Berths 153 and 154 and Acting Battalion Chief Biegel directing the forces on Mormon Island where the Shell Oil Company and the burning tanker were located.

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At the Shell Oil Company Dock, where the doomed tanker was burning furiously, there were many tanks of various sizes and contents directly exposed to the heat from the fire devastated ship.

    The first company, Engine 48, responding to Berths 167 and 168 laid 1000 feet of 2 1/2” hose from the hydrant outside of the Shell Oil Company premises and took a position on top of Tank No. 10, which normally holds 80,000 barrels of gasoline, but at the time of the explosion contained approximately 35,000 barrels of gasoline. Tank No. 16 of 5800 barrels capacity, but nearly empty at the time, was adjacent to Tank No. 10. These two tanks were a scant 250 feet from the blazing ship and were subjected to the radiated heat of the fire. From this position, this company proceeded to cool down both oil storage tanks. Engine Company 64 laid another 1000 feet of 2 1/2” hose into the fire and took their position towards the bow of the Markay and adjacent to Tank No. 14, which contained 20,500 barrels of diesel oil and was not more than 150 feet from the blazing ship.

    Tender 36, which was manned by three off-duty firemen, responded to Berths 167-168 and laid 20 sections of 3 1/2” hose to the center of the Shell Oil docks. This position allowed Tender 36 to cover all exposures not covered and to assist in the wetting down of tanks covered by Engines 48 and 64. Tender 36 was also able to reach the dock and burning ship with the 1 3/4” tip being used. Engine 57 took the upper outlet of the hydrant used by Engine 48 and pumped at 240 pounds pressure into Tender 36. Truck Company 49, the first truck company in, Engine 79 and Engine Company 5, took a position to the north and up-channel from Shell Oil and directly in front of the Pacific Coast Borax Company where a stop was made. Acting Battalion Chief Biegel called for an additional Engine Company to extinguish the dock fire astern of the burning tanker and Engine Company 18, who had moved to Engine 49’s quarters, responded to the fire, pumped at draft, and extinguished the remaining dock fires.

    All companies held their positions through the duration of the fire, although lesser explosions occurred from time to time.

July 1947 Page Seven 


Of the Fire
Fought on Mormon Island

    Within an area of 1000 feet square, nearly a million barrels of various fuels are stored. If Tank No. 10 and ruptured (it was struck by a piece of flying steel) what then?

* * * * *

    Firemen working on the Shell Oil Company premises had worked nearly three hours before a portion of the flaming tanker could be seen, the fire was that intense.

* * * * *

    A portion of the deck from the Markay was blown over 800 feet into the office of Mr. Dobler of the Texaco Oil Company. Another piece, 25 x 40 feet was blown about 150 feet into the parking lot of the Shell Oil Company missing a parked car by inches.

* * * * *

    Sheared rivets, one inch in diameter, were scattered over a wide area and were reported to have fallen in a yard in San Pedro, five miles away.

* * * * *

    The third explosion occurred about 2:30 A.M. and the fourth about 5:00 A. M.

* * * * *

    The Navy Tug, the YTB 703, won the admiration of all firemen with whom they came in contact, for the fine job they were doing with the two turrets they had in operation. In the vernacular to the Navy, all we can say is “Well Done.”

* * * * *

    The burning tanker will present a tough salvage problem. She is broken amidships and should be fairly difficult to salvage.

* * * * *

    The wind, at the time of the fire, and what little breeze did spring up, was favorable to the protection of the burning vessel.

* * * * *

    Truck 49, while proceeding down the narrow alley-way between Shell Oil and Texas Oil, encountered singed, bruised and shocked seamen who had escaped from the burning ship. 49’s stopped them and gave directions for receiving first aid treatment, but the dazed seamen only inquired as to how far it was to Los Angeles and they “weren’t stopping until they reached there.” We wondered if they did, in their “skivvies?”

* * * * *

    Moving Engine Company 28 to Engine 38, and Engine Company 21 to Engine 49, gave a duplex pumper, a hose wagon with 3 1/2” hose (28’s) and two additional pumps and hose (21’s two triples) in case additional pumps and hose were needed quickly in the event one of the storage tanks exploded.

* * * * *

    Approximately 8000 feet of dock alongside the burning tanker caught fire and was totally destroyed.

* * * * *

    The entire Wilmington-San Pedro area was without immediate fire protection for approximately 30 minutes or until Engine Company 33 moved into Engine 36 and Truck 10 moved to Truck 48.

* * * * *

    All the vessels moored at the eastern portion of Mormon Island, Berths 172 to 190 inclusive, made a general exodus from the narrow channel, where they were tied up, to the Outer Harbor. Maybe they thought this was going to be another Texas City.

* * * * *

    Captain Torrance, Master of the tanker Markay, appearing before a Coast Guard board of inquiry, revealed that the vessel was loading 49,000 barrels of butane blended gasoline, and stated that he understood that blended butane was butane mixed with lover gravity gasoline to permit handling with pumps.

* * * * *

    As we go to press, eight bodies have been recovered

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This article appeared in the July 1947 issue of the Firemen's Grape Vine.

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