Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM)

Courage under Fire.

Byline: Fritz Thompson Journal Staff Writer

TorC volunteers put fear aside as they battled a potentially catastrophic inferno

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES It was the first time rookie volunteer firefighter Jason Bartoo had been called to something more than a trash fire and, as the Truth or Consequences pumper truck he was riding in headed down the street, "It looked like we were driving into a wall of flames."

Indeed, they were.

A bizarre accident caused by a driverless pizza delivery truck the night of Jan. 7 had unleashed a cloud of flammable vapor from a damaged propane tank near downtown TorC. More than a dozen volunteer firemen were racing to the scene. Responding to pagers, everybody knew where the propane tank compound was and that this would be no ordinary fire.

Momentarily stunned by what he encountered, Mike Tooley, fire chief and local newspaper publisher, sized up the situation and sensed immediate danger for the volunteers who were by now perilously close to the blazing tank yard.

He told them to back off.

Just in time.

A deafening explosion sent roiling flames 300 feet skyward in a mushroom cloud. Nearby windows shattered. Spectators a block away were knocked over. Heat and fire consumed more than a dozen mobile homes. A huge metal disk, blown from an exploding tank, flew a block and a half and embedded itself in a house. Shrapnel rained down a quarter of a mile away.

"In 30 years as a fireman, I've never seen a fireball like the one from that explosion," Tooley said. "It was like an atom bomb had gone off."

The echo of the blast had scarcely died away when an ominous realization dawned on the TorC firefighters: Propane gas was still spewing unchecked from a huge, 18,000-gallon stationary tank in the center of the burning compound. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.