Gone, But Not Forgotten
The devastating fire that ravaged the Richfield Oil Company on June 18, 1934, remains an indelible event in the history of Jamestown and its fire department. For those who survived that fateful day were indeed changed men, scarred – much like the community – with poignant reminders of bravery in the face of terror.
On Wednesday, the Jamestown Fire Department joined with the community at Station 5 – located at 195 Fairmount Ave. – to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Richfield Oil fire, honoring – in particular – the four Jamestown firefighters who lost their lives while at the scene.
“It’s the largest loss of life this fire department has ever had,” said retired Lt. Leo E. Duliba, the Jamestown Fire Department historian. “The impact on the fire department and the impact on the city of Jamestown at the time was devastating.”
The fire began after an employee of the Richfield Oil Company, located along Fluvanna Avenue, started to fill the gas tank on his tanker truck around 3:30 p.m.
When he climbed into the cab and tried to start the truck, an explosion occurred – most likely due to a spark from the ignition coil or a backfire from the truck’s exhaust.
The fire, feeding off the gasoline-soaked ground, quickly became a raging tank farm refinery inferno.
Firefighters Harold Anderson, Oscar Bloom and Walter H. Kastenhuber with Jamestown’s Engine Company 5 responded to the scene along with Chief’s Aide Raymond W. Allison from Station 1 at City Hall.
As they and others from the Jamestown and Fluvanna fire departments battled the blaze, hundreds of spectators gathered to watch despite warnings to stay back.
The sudden explosion of three large gas tanks at the refinery changed everything, throwing flames 250 feet in the air and rolling fire over the firefighters and crowd.
Scores of burn victims were given first aid at the scene, while others were taken to Jamestown General Hospital.
The rubber coats worn by firefighters in those days were unfortunately no match for the flaming gasoline and melted onto their skin.
Kastenhuber and Bloom, both horribly burned, died at the scene. Allison and Anderson died the following day of their injuries.
Also killed in the explosion – in what Duliba referred to as an “untold tragedy” – were three teenage spectators between the ages of 12 and 16.
The fire was out by nightfall, but fire personnel – mostly from Fluvanna – stayed on scene for two days. When it was finally extinguished, the ground was littered with burnt fire hose and twisted metal couplings.
Eighty years later, the scars of the fire run deep.
“It’s unfortunate that we never got to meet the man that fought fires,” said Cathy Faulk, one of the granddaughters of Harold Anderson, who attended the ceremony. “I just commend the firefighters who go out and do this everyday because you never know if your loved ones are going to come home. My hat’s off to those who serve the community this way.”