Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

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

Report of the Tankship Markay

Assistant Chief H. R. Boone
Fire Prevention Engineer 

    The Los Angeles Fire Department was faced with a conflagration in the Los Angeles Harbor area of greater proportions than any in its previous experience as a result of an explosion aboard the Tankship Markay at 2:06 Sunday morning, June 22, 1947.  The concussion from the explosion jarred buildings several miles away and hugh pieces of steel from the ship's deck were hurled through the air, damaging adjacent property.

    The vessel which was being loaded at the time with a cargo of petroleum products, instantly became a roaring inferno, releasing great quantities of petroleum products on the surface of the water, which in turn ignited piers and wharfs on both sides of Slip No. 1 where the vessel was berthed.

    The "Markay" was owned by the Keystone Tankship Corporation and the W. H. Wickersham Company were the Pacific Coast General Agents.  It was known as the T4 type, built in 1942 at a cost of $3,125.000.  The vessel has 9 tanks and these are divided into 3 tanks across, except No. 1 tanks which have only the port and starboard tank.  They consist of a large center tank and two wing tanks.  Cargo tanks have a capacity of 137,500 barrels, Bunker Oil tanks 10,100 barrels, and cofferdam space of 2,600 barrels. Total capacity of all tanks and cofferdam space, 150,200 barrels.
    As near as can be determined the cargo aboard or to be loaded was as follows:
No. 1--Starboard & Port tanks
    full Aviation Gas
5,000 barrels
No. 2 --Starboard - Center and
    Port Tanks full Aviation Gas
16,600 barrels
No. 3 --Tanks Empty, to be loaded
    with Butane
17,200 barrels
No. 4 --Tanks being topped off
    off Butane Blend
16,900 barrels
No. 5 --Tanks being filled
    Butane Blend
16,500 barrels
No. 6 --Tanks empty; to be filled
    Butane Blend
16,400 barrels
No 7 --Tanks empty; to be filled
    Butane Blend
16,400 barrels
No. 8 --Tanks full Diesel and
    Stove Oil
16,500 barrels
No. 9 --Tanks Ethyl Gasoline
    being loaded
16,000 barrels

It was estimated that the cargo capacity was about 60% complete at time of explosion.

    The Butane Blend being loaded was similar to Casinghead Gasoline and was said to have a vapor pressure of 21.6.

     In general, without specifying the various petroleum stocks being loaded, the explosive range can be considered as being 1 1/2% to 7 1/2% by volume of mixtures of vapors with air, with Butane having a maximum of 6% by volume.

    The "Markay" had tied up at Shell Oil Company Marine Oil Terminal, Berth 166, on Saturday, June 21, 1947, and started loading its cargo.  It was scheduled to be fully loaded and to sail for Martinez the following morning.  The ship's complement was 44 men but it is believed that not over half of this number was aboard at the time of the explosion.  The First Mate and three seamen were on deck watch and several of the crew members were on duty supervising loading operations.  Six members of the Shell Oil Company were on duty at the Marine Oil Terminal. 

    It is generally understood that the No. 4 tanks were being topped off with Butane Blend and No. 5 tanks were being filled with the same commodity.  Nos. 6 and 7 tanks were empty;  No. 8 tanks were loaded and No. 9 tanks were being loaded.  The explosion occurred in the area of No. 5 tanks.  Subsequent investigation revealed that cargo tanks Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 port, center and starboard were below the surface of the water, indicating that the contents of Nos. 3, 4 and 5 tanks were burned on the surface of the water.  The main deck which formed the tank top over 3 and 4 tanks was rolled forward from the forward end of the bridge section and was laid over the top of the No. 2 cargo tanks.  The main deck plating which formed the top of cargo tanks 6 and 7 port, center and starboard, was rolled aft from the bridge section over the top of the No. 8 tanks.  A starboard section of the tank top of Nos. 6 and 7 tanks was blown clear of the vessel and landed on the Shell Oil Company property, fully a hundred feet from the "Markay".  This section was approximately 20' x 30' in measurement.  It was noted that the metal in the bridge section was extremely fused and had collapsed, indicating excessive heat.  Large size malleable fittings, such as T's, ells, etc., in many sections of the deck were completely reduced to molten metal.

    The sudden release of gasoline and associated petroleum products spread very rapidly over the surface of the water, involving Berths Nos. 167 and 168, adjacent to where the "Markay" was berthed.  A large oil barge was endangered near Berth 167 as well as the possible spread to the Pacific Borax Plant, which was located adjacent to Berth 166 with entire structure being built on pilings.

    The burning oil also spread across Slip No. 1, involving Berths Nos. 153 and 154 and endangering Berths 150, 151, 152 and 155.  The width of Slip No. 1 was 600 feet;  Berths 153 and 154 were involved for a distance of 1,200 feet. The explosion damaged the roof and sprinkler system of warehouse shed located at Berth 153.  This was a one-story steel frame and corrugated iron building, 600 feet long.  Warehouse shed at Berth 154 was the same construction and about the same size.

    While these warehouses were practically empty, the intense heat developed from the burning gasoline and oil soaked wooden pilings underneath the warehouses, along with inoperative sprinklers, quickly resulted in the unprotected steel in the warehouse bucking.  Warehouses at Berths 153 and 154 were destroyed to the extent that it will be necessary to replace them.

    It was indeed fortunate that these warehouses were practically empty.  A liberty ship operated by the American President Lines had taken on a load of cargo and sailed a short time before the explosion.  Otherwise, there would have been no possible chance to have saved the ship or cargo.

    Immediately after the explosion, Acting Battalion Chief R. H. Biegel, in charge of the Harbor area, enroute to Berths 153 and 154, radioed for all Harbor companies to respond and requested Westlake to send as many companies to the fire as quickly as possible;  also to notify all responsible chief officers.

    The number of companies responding to the fire are as follows:  (This does not include companies moving to other quarters.)

October, 1947 Page Five
   19 Engine Companies, 3 Truck Companies, 1 Salvage Company, 3 Fire Boats, 2 Boat Tenders, 2 Foam Wagons (not used), 1 Rescue Company and 2 Utility Companies.  In addition, 1 Coast Guard and 1 Navy Fire Boat rendered valuable assistance.  Long Beach Fire Department and Navy had additional men and equipment available.  This was not needed.

    The Fire Department equipment and personnel were quickly deployed to cover vulnerable exposure points on both sides of the channel.  The Battalion Chief covering one side and the Division Commander the other side until the arrival of Chief Alderson, Deputy Chief and Platoon Commander.

    The exposure points were as follows:

    At pierhead of Berth 152 to prevent extension to Union Oil Terminal Berth 151.  The possible envolvement of Union Oil tanks across Pier A Street and the northerly end of Berth 154 to prevent extension to Berth 155.

    On the east side of the slip the exposure of fire extending from Berth 168 to 169.  The protection of Shell Oil Terminal facilities and tanks immediately adjacent to "Markay" and to the east.  The cutting off of fire and removal of oil barge at the head of Berth 157, and finally the cutting off of the fire before it reached the Pacific Borax Company and extension to Berth 166.

    The water supply on both sides of the ship in general was adequate with the addition of certain companies assigned to draft from the channel.  There were slight deficiencies noted on the Pier A street side until the ruptured sprinkler line was shut off.  The need for additional hydrants on the Mormon Island side are now under consideration.

    The use and value of the radio at a  fire of this magnitude surely demonstrated its value to the department in controlling the movement of companies and in directing of operations.

    The manner in which Fire Boats Nos. 1, 2, and 3 were used and operated clearly demonstrated their value, particularly at pierhead of Berth 152 and at bulkhead at Berth 155, to prevent the extension of fire, and subsequent work along entire length of Berths 153 and 154.  There is no doubt that they contributed much to prevent the extension of the fire together with the assistance of the Coast Guard and Navy fire boats which operated on the "Markay" and adjacent wharfs. The Boat Tender batteries and the portable monitors were also used to good advantage.

    The off duty members of the department residing in the Harbor area were of considerable assistance in manning additional hose lines and equipment.

    The cooperation of the Police Department in immediately blocking off of the area is deserving of commendation from the department.

    A number of tankers and cargo ships were moved by tugboat and ship's crews from adjacent berths which were endangered.  Captain of Port, Frank D. Higbee, rendered valuable service in supervising these operations.

    To date, ten bodies have been recovered with two persons still missing--nine from the ship's crew and three from Shell Oil Company.  There were ten persons injured to the extent of requiring hospital treatment.

    The Coroner's inquest was held July 2, 1947.

    Cause:  Result of a fire and explosion on board the "Markay".

    Verdict:  Accidental.

    Conclusion of the Jury:  "The cause of the explosion above mentioned was the ignition of an accumulation of vapors from the cargo tank on the deck of the vessel which became ignited from some unknown cause.

    "The cargo being loaded at the time of the explosion was a blend of motor gasoline and normal butane, used in the manufacture of motor fuel, having a vapor pressure of about 20 pounds.  Vapor from the cargo were discharged on deck through the ullage holes normally used for gauging and sampling.  Cargoes similar to this have been loaded and transported on previous occasions without accident, and there was no evidence presented negligence or failure to follow all normal safety precautions."

    This report has been delayed while awaiting transcript of the Coast Guard investigation.  To date we have been unable to obtain the transcript or the report of its findings.

    It was of interest to note in the transcript that the vapors from the Butane Blend were being released in considerable quantities with very little wind to assist in the dissipation of the vapors.  The Captain had ordered galleys locked and signs written on paper placed in crews' quarters to prohibit smoking.  One of the crew members testified he was making coffee in the pantry back aft, forward of the mess room, but he had not turned on the electricity for the electric plate.

    The actual cause of the ignition of the vapors and explosion probably will never be known.  It is most difficult to understand this explosion as it is generally understood where vapors are involved to the extent they were purported to be on the "Markay", that even though the empty or partially filled tanks were involved the mixture is said to be too rich, thus not within the explosion range.

    As a result of an inspection made by me on June 23, 1947, it was found that a number of tanks of the wrecked vessel contained explosive mixtures and that the vessel was creating a definite hazard in the area.  Orders were issued to prohibit unauthorized persons from boarding the vessel and to provide watchman service.  This was followed by complete inspection and tests for vapor concentrations on 6-24-47.  On that date, identical final notices were served on the W. H. Wickersham & Company, Agents, Keystone Tankship Corporation, and the Shell Oil Company, which read as follows:  "Provide continuous guard service on shore and off-shore side at "Markay".  Immediately make provisions to remove remaining cargo of inflammable liquids aboard "Markay" which at present is a definite fire hazard."  A supplemental notice was issued to the same firms on June 26, 1947, including the addition to make all cargo tanks and compartments gas-free.  The Harbor Department was notified on June 24, 1947 with reference to the notices that had been served on the above named firms.

    On June 26, 1947, we received a letter from Lillick, Geary & McHose, attorneys representing the Keystone Tankship Corporation and W. H. Wickersham & Company, notifying us that they had that date abandoned the ship to the United States Army Engineers in accordance with the provisions of 33 United States Code, sections 409, 414 and others.

    On June 26, 1947, after receipt of the letter of abandonment of the vessel, we notified the United States Engineers, 751 South Figueroa Street, of the condition of the vessel and recommended immediate provision be made to take care of this condition, as the Tankship Markay in its present condition was creating a definite hazard to the Los Angeles Harbor.  As a result of a conference in the office of the Corps of Engineers, War Department, 751 South Figueroa Street, June 27, 1947, arrangements were made to correct the conditions with respect to the hazards on the vessel and the eventual removal of the ship from the Harbor.

    On July 8, 1947, we approved the proposed manner of removal of inflammable liquids from the "Markay" by the Shell Oil Company.

    On August 5, 1947, we received a communication from the United States Engineers' office stating that the work covered in the contract by the Shell Oil Company of removing the cargo had been complied with.

    At the present time, the United States Engineers have not let the final contract for the removal of the damaged ship.

Page Six The Firemen's Grape Vine

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

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