Downey had a major disaster on April 21, 1992 when a worn drag chain meant to dissipate static electricity didn’t work and a static spark set off a gasoline tanker and trailer that was refueling Downey’s main gas station at Downey Avenue and New Street.
Nine people were killed and 20 received disfiguring burns in the desperate fight to control the flames.
The fire burned 2,400 gallons of gas, 1,700 of which came from the truck and the rest from within the tanks of the razed station which belonged to Newbold and Speaker.
The small, volunteer fire department was headed by shoe store owner Carl Krueger and was equipped with a 42-gallon hand-drawn chemical tank, funded through public contributions. The equipment was no match for the inferno.
One survivor of the blaze, Attorney Haygood Ardis, told the story of people rushing to fight the spreading blaze while others stood on nearby rooftops to watch.
“I was carrying a tubful of water with Freddie Robinson when suddenly the truck blew up. The blast showered us with gasoline and set off the big tank trailer.”
Many people who ran from the first blast were caught by the flames from the exploding trailer. Ardis said he ran nearly to Fifth Street before collapsing. He had enough presence to roll, trying to put out his burning clothing. His ear was nearly burned off, his hands badly burned and he was temporarily blinded. He lived due to holding his breath so that he did not breathe the flames.
The disaster caused the town to form the Downey Fire Protection District to replace the volunteer brigade with a new engine and some professional firefighters.
Bobbi Bruce is a member of the Downey Historical Society.