A violent explosion rocked Minot on this day in 1947. People were thrown to the ground as far as two blocks away, and windows were shattered throughout a four-block radius.
The explosion occurred shortly before noon at the Westland Oil Company service station and bulk plant. It started with an undetermined detonation of gasoline holding tanks, which set off several more blasts nearby. Burning gasoline was hurled into the air, setting fire to nearby buildings. Ultimately, fire consumed four city blocks.
The Minot Daily News reported, “Gasoline from the exploding tanks poured in a fiery stream into the streets and down the bank into the Mouse River… People living along the Mouse River east of the 3rd St NE viaduct were evacuating household belongings as the debris-filled river boiled under the heat of the burning oil. Huge black columns of smoke rose from the river.”
Lester Dahlen, manager of the Bridgeman Creamery next door to the Oil Company, “described the explosion as literally lifting the building into the air.” Another witness claimed the explosion “resembled [his] idea of an atomic bomb.” Owners of the Dakota Hide and Fur Company “thought a truck hit the front of [their] building.” A Mandan Creamery employee “said she saw the flame bursting like a volcano from the burning tank.” A farmer 18 miles south of town said he saw the flames from his farmyard. Smoke from the disaster was visible up to 100 miles away.
Onlookers ran to the scene in hopes of aiding victims, while business owners scrambled to account for their employees. Dozens of vehicles were either driven or pushed away from the area to prevent further detonations. While two large tanks burned out of control, the fire department poured a steady stream of water onto other nearby fuel tanks.
Firemen were working with a low water supply due to a breakdown in one of the city’s wells, and “city officials pleaded with residents of the city to be extremely careful in their consumption of water.” Luckily, there was very little wind that day, and the defense strategy worked.
Hospitals readied themselves for patients at the first sounds of the explosion. Several people were rushed into the emergency rooms and treated for burns, many very serious. Those who were mortally wounded included employees of the surrounding businesses and one fireman – all suffering burns over 90-100% of their bodies.
In the following days, newspapers released eyewitness accounts citing a visible fuel leak as the cause of the disaster, but all reports were later retracted. Several hypotheses were set forward to explain the explosion, including crowded storage tanks and pumping negligence. But, R. J. Coughlin, president of Westland Oil Company, claimed the “pumps were ‘dead’ at the time of the explosion.” He provided records of the week’s transactions showing the storage tanks could each hold an additional 500 gallons of fuel. After finishing his own investigation, the president cited ‘no explanation’ for the explosion.
Government officials also launched an investigation, but after interviewing 13 witnesses, Assistant State’s Attorney B. A. Dickinson found “no cause established and no grounds for criminal prosecution.”
The explosion killed five people, destroyed nine businesses and caused nearly a million dollars in damages. With no cause to point to, Deputy Fire Marshal H. R. Handtmann hoped it would at least increase public awareness concerning the need for caution at gas stations and bulk plants.
Sources: The Minot Daily News. July 21, 1947: 1, 8. July 22, 1947: 1, 8. July 30, 1947
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm