We have all heard the 1974 pop song “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace but not many of us have heard about the night in 1959 when the town of Arkoma almost died.
If not for a response from the city of Fort Smith fire department to an incident that happened on Wednesday, May 29 of that year the border-hugging town of Arkoma might have “been blown off the map”.
A truck driver, later identified as Tom Ramsey of Pioneer Freight Lines, had just crossed the Arkansas-Oklahoma border via South Y Street where it passes under the railroad overpass that sits 100 yards off Wheeler Avenue. He had just entered the eastern edge of Arkoma on Highway 9A when something sparked a fire in the engine compartment of his truck.
The panicked driver, who had only been told he was hauling “ammunition” found a phone and called LeFlore County Commissioner Charles Mankin to report the situation.
Newspaper accounts of the incident tell the rest of the story.
Mankin called the Fort Smith Fire Department to report the fire. Company 4, consisting Raymond Wakefield, Laverne Sanders and Ed Ward under the direction of assistant chief Hubert Neff, was dispatched to deal with the fire.
“I was impressed by the sheer terror of the driver’s voice when he called my office for help,” Mankin told a local newspaper. “He told me his cab was ablaze just across the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line in Arkoma and that the trailer was loaded with 20,000 pounds of ammunition.”
Either the driver was mistaken about his load or Mankin misunderstood him. Turns out the trailer actually contained 20,000 pounds of jet fuel.
“Just before he hung up the driver said ‘please tell them to hurry’ and I immediately telephoned to the fire department and told them to send a truck over,” Mankin told the press.
While jet fuel is considered “combustible” instead of “flammable” the vapors can explode and touch off a volatile chain reaction. An explosion in Pakistan in June of this year under almost identical circumstances killed 152 and leveled the equivalent of six square city blocks.
Mankin continued his story: “On the first call I just told them to get a truck on the way in a hurry and in a few minutes I called them back to tell the dispatcher to radio them and tell hem the truck contained ammunition.”
Assistant chief Neff took over the narrative.
The cab of the truck was already gone and the flames were eating into the front part of the trailer when we arrived,” said Neff. “We knew there was the danger of an explosion and although we were scared and felt uneasy at approaching the trailer we knew we had a job to do.”
Mankin had called in the incident t 11 a.m. on May 29th but didn’t learn the trailer had contained rocket fuel until several days later. The four-man crew from the FSPD had no way of knowing the danger they faced at the time. They poured gallons of water onto the truck to extinguish the blaze and avert a disaster.
“Had the Fort Smith fireman not arrived in time to cool down the hot trailer I am told the potential explosion could have leveled Arkoma,” said Mankin. “So my hat is off to those brave men and the city of Fort Smith for their response.”
Today, fifty-eight years later, Inside Fort Smith also offers a tip of the hat to the brave firefighters of the FSFD.