(an aerial view of McKee refinery after spheroid Tank 199 BLEVEd)
It isn’t news to anyone that Texans are all about remembering—after all, Texans are quick to remind us all they still “Remember the Alamo”. However, for a little girl growing up in the Texas panhandle in the 1950s, there was more to remember than just that standoff between a few brave men and the Mexican army. We also remember McKee.
The McKee Refinery owned by Shamrock Oil was located just north of Dumas, Texas, 7 miles from Sunray which is located 34 miles from Stinnett, - my hometown. However, on July 29, 1956, I was living in the Mayfield camp belonging to the J.M. Huber oil company roughly mid-way between Stinnett and Sunray. I had just completed my first year of elementary school at Pringle, Texas and all that concerned me were the seemingly endless days of summer just being a kid.
A few minutes before 7:00 am an explosion rocked the world as I knew it. To date, this explosion is considered to have caused the 4th most casualties of fire fighters in the United States for a single fire event. 9-11 is the first.
The McKee was a “tank farm” which housed several well spaced tanks. However, one of those tanks containing 500,000 gallons of pentane & hexane gas ignited and the result was a combination ground and vent fire which ultimately took the lives of 19 people—15 volunteer fire fighters and 4 refinery workers. 33 more people were injured. Of those 19 deaths, 16 of them happened that day and the remaining 3 died later from burns. The 33 injured included volunteer fire fighters, refinery workers and sight seers.
This tragedy happened in an area which had a population of only 1,240 people.
The fire and subsequent BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion) of the McKee affected virtually everyone I knew and loved. I think there was a loss of innocence on that day.
Being Oilfield people, we were well aware of the dangers associated with drilling. But, we were production people. I don't think a lot of us had ever before considered what MIGHT happen to our husbands and fathers when we sent them out the door with their lunch box and thermos every day. Now....we knew.
The town of Sunray, Texas has a memorial for the McKee honoring those who perished that day. The plaque there reads:
“But whether on the plains on high or in the battle’s van—the fittest place where man can lie, is where he dies for man.”
There is risk every day, everywhere. We cannot live in fear of risk, we must live in spite of it. We must also do everything WE can to ensure the safety of ourselves and others & truly hope we will never be tested to see what our response will be.