Reading about the fire in Houston that engulfed 11 petrochemical storage tanks reminded me of an event that happened April 5, 1986, Osan AFB Korea. Assigned to the 6903Scty Squadron (USAFSS) our work area was atop the lesser of two hills that overlooked the flight line. “Our hill”, hill 170, had a perfect view of the end of the flight line, between hill 170 and hill 180 was the base fuel tanks. One chilly, dreary, Saturday morning as I left my barracks on my way to the NCO club for some breakfast, a tremendous explosion nearly knocked me down. A primary fuel tank, full of jet fuel, had literally blown its top sending a huge fireball and a black billowing cloud of smoke high into the air.
The NCO club was next to the fuel farm on the way to hill 170. I made it to the NCO club just in time to meet another senior NCO from the day shop. Our people worked 24/7 in three shifts and a day shift. We both knew our guys on the hill were in extreme danger. We headed down the road toward the hill and met our guys running down the hill towards us. There were so many things happening all a once. A 747 Freedom aircraft that was parked on the ramp in front of the fuel dump was making an emergency takeoff, fire equipment, emergency vehicles, security forces were all arriving. As all this chaos was happening around us firefighters were releasing a river of highly flammable fuel into the ditch that runs along the road. Needless to say the river of fuel put us all in a dead run to get as far away from the scene as possible. We were young and could run.
All the guys made it off the hill and only the direction of the wind prevented flames and smoke from engulfing our operations building. We watched from across the base as the fire raged. Five times the fires reignited. Much like Houston, the fire would be controlled and then reignited from the hot metal top of the fuel tank lying on top of the unburned fuel.
We couldn’t go back to our barracks until the next day, spending the night in the base gym. One fuels person lost his life and a heroic firefighter was burned when he drove his foam truck right onto the brim of the moat surrounding the fuel tank. Over 30 South Korean Nationals that were planting grass next to the tank died in the explosion and fire. If the fire had happened on a weekday more casualties could have been expected. There would have been triple the people on hill 170, and military and civilians would have been working through out the fuel farm. The only thing that prevented the fuel tank a couple of hundred feet from our operations building from exploding was the wind blowing the flames in another direction. I will never forget going back up on the hill and looking down at the devastation from that fire, including burnt plastic sheeting on the top of the unexploded tank!
(It was) one of those days you never forget.
This photo was taken several hours after the initial explosion. You can see our operations buildings above the unburned fuel tank in the left of the picture.