Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

     October 21, 1944
     Berth 233 Explosion
     Los Angeles Harbor


Explosion and Fire
Nearly Two Score Lives Snuffed in Harbor Holocaust:
Heroic Fireman Saves Many From Fiery Death in Water

Bill Goss

THE explosion and fire at Berth 233, Wilmington on October 21, 1944, brought into flaming reality one of the many potential hazards of Los Angles' 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 of October 20, the S.S. Fredricksburg, a tanker operating for the War Shipping Administration, was tied up to Berth 151. Shortly after they 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 such as a component part of high-test fuels and others the nature of which is restricted military information.

  As early as 8:00 a.m. on the 21st several people, among them a cafe owner, detected the odor of what they thought was gasoline in the area around Berth 223. An examination made by Coast Guard officers checking the source of the fumes disclosed that hold number two was leaking into hold number one containing the ballast water and was being pumped into the bay. The tidal current in the bay carries almost directly from Berth 151 on a southeasterly direction to Berth 223.

  At the outfitting dock, Berth 223, shortly before 2:00 p.m. naval and civilian crews were busy spray-painting, welding and doing other work on LSMs 211 and 212. About this time a welder, C.E. Truitt, struck an arc on the bow, in shore rail, of LSM 211. Instantaneously as he struck the arc a flash fire occurred that completely enveloped the LSMs and a large area of the surrounding bay and docks. On the docks were about 25 vehicles, trucks and passenger cars, all of which took fire.

  At Berth 227, quarters of 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 to the location were Fire Boats 2 and 3, Engine Companies 81 and 40, Rescue 36, Salvage 36 and Battalion Chief Dikeman of the Sixth Battalion.

  As Boat 2 made its way up the channel to the fire, a 4 1/2-in. tip was put on the ship's main battery, "Big Bertha," and the bow and tower monitor were readied for action. As they neared the burning LSMs, with their decks and sides well involved in fire, one sweep of the great 4 1/2-inch 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. By this time Boat 2 had completed a run by the fire and turning came back and with one more mighty swoop extinguished the fires on the dock involving the autos and trucks, while the land companies were still stretching their lines. To get an idea of the terrific impact of a 4 1/2-inch stream, it was noted that a medium sized truck, struck broadside, was pushed across the dock by the force of the water as though it were a toy. Coast Guard fire boats which had been patrolling the area closed in and aided in the task of finishing off the areas of the water that still were afire.

  Fire Boat 3, with Senior Boat Operator J.V. Roquemore, responded along with the rest of the assignment. As he neared the burning area he noticed that a considerable number of men were 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, he realized that it would be impossible to make any effort to fight the fire and handle the boat at the same time. His first duty appeared to be in the direction of saving all possible life. Leaving the fire fighting to Boat 2 he took up a position as near as possible to the struggling men in the water, throwing all the life preservers that he had aboard to them and pulling men out of the water as fast as he could reach them. A civilian, Pat Lee, an employee of Garbutt and Walsh, clambered aboard when Boat 3 drifted close to some tugs tied up to his firm's boat works adjacent to Berth 233, and helped "Rocky" with his life saving endeavors. These two men also got help from the nurse at the Industrial Hospital of the boat yard and brought her aboard to administer to the victims of the sudden explosion and fire aboard the Navy ships. By now "Rocky" 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. The question arose of where best and most expeditiously to dispose of these cases and get them expert care. It was decided to take 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 after taking them to a place of safety, made several trips bringing medical officers, civilian doctors to and from the scene of the fire, the Coast Guard boats, as well as Fire Boat 2. To date sixteen men, five civilians and eleven Navy personnel have died, with more than thirty-five being 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.

  As soon as the fire aboard the LSMs was knocked down the Navy removed them to another location, and although the fire on the water and docks had been extinguished, a tough and dangerous fire continued to burn amid the creosoted underpiling of the wharf. The dock, in ordinary times the property of the Hammond Lumber Company, had a fire stop underneath, just north of the fire area abutting Garbutt and Walsh, but to the south there were no stops and in this direction the fire continued to spread.

  At 2:45 p.m. Assistant Chief Harold Johnson, commander of Division No.1, arrived to take charge of operations. Calling for a second alarm assignment which brought Engines 38 and 49, Truck 48 and moved Engine Co.31 into 38's quarters, operations on the dock fire commenced. 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 1/2-in. 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 4x6 inch 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.

  Late in the afternoon, the fire out, the weary crews picked up and returned to their quarters, having completed a job well done. While the operations at the dock were going on, the fire boats cruised up and down the channel playing their batteries on the water to break up any oil slick that might tend to get under the wharf and further complicate matters. A point that is of interest to firemen in the Metropolitan area is that although Engine 81 laid its lines from a hydrant on Ferry street, Engines 38, 40 and 49 pumped at draft from the bay during the operations.

  Subsequent arson investigations developed two theories as to the cause of the fuel and vapors being in the bay around the LSMs. 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. The whole story will be unfolded when the Naval Board of Inquire reveals its findings some time in the future.

  In conclusion a word of "well done" to the men and officers of the boat and land companies of the harbor for a fine heads-up job.


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