The 1987 Cairns BLEVE
Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapour Explosion
- Warning: This Blog contains graphic burns content -
On Monday 17th August 1987, a Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) railcar caught fire and subsequently created a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapour Explosion (BLEVE) at the Cairns gas terminal. The railcar was loaded with approx. 40000 litres of LPG when it failed. The immense heat caused the explosive loss of integrity of the steel pressure vessel, liberating liquified gas and creating a fireball that killed one person and injured 27, including three firefighters.
Above the EC letters of the ‘MECH. Repairs’ sign in the foreground you can see two objects silhouetted against the flames. One is the windscreen of my, (well not actually mine the Police Department owned it), Yamaha XJ900 callsign ‘903’ and the taller of the two is my good self, standing next to my bike, blocking traffic along Spence street. If you can picture a rocket taking off, with huge ground blast and leaving a massive fire trail behind it as it ascended to land 160 metres away, that was the view from my position.
1987 was an interesting year before the Gas Blast on the 17th of August. I had permanently transferred from general uniform Police duties to the Traffic Branch, (Highway Patrol) at the start of the year. You know how people say to keep trying for what you want? My 7th application to join “Traffic” was the successful one, (maybe they weren’t that keen to have me?). By the time of the explosion that year, I had qualified for TAIS - Traffic Accident Investigation Squad via a course in Brisbane in February and a ‘standard’ car course (skid pans, J turns, handbrake turns etc) at around the same time - such fun! I’d been riding Police bikes ‘part time’ for 18 months in the lead up to 1987.
1. LPG Tank 2. Tank middle section 100m away 3. End section 160m away 4. Main storage 5. Bulk fuel 250m away 6. CUB 7. National Hotel 8. Now Cairns Central
I had worked 7am – 3pm that day, at the “Traffic Branch”, which was housed in an area properly known as the “Portsmith Police Establishment”. It not only housed Traffic, but Mechanical, Radio section, Storage for Water Police etc. If you find Kenny street, running vertically up/down the right hand side of the current day map, and were to follow it off the map, you would have found the Portsmith Police Establishment back then. Portsmith being the suburb.
At around 3.20pm I left the Traffic Branch at Portsmith and rode ‘903’ up Kenny street towards the CBD with the intention of going to the main Police Station, back then, on a prime piece of real estate on the Esplanade. Long before the esplanade re-development.
I can remember being on Spence street near the northern end and seeing the black smoke from near the brewery and thinking that there shouldn’t be anything burning near there at all. I called the Cairns Radio room on the motorbikes built in radio, again and again, to no response. The radios on the Police bikes at the time were notoriously and I mean notoriously, unreliable. It wasn’t that the radio techs were bad at fixing them, they were brilliant, they just weren’t good radios in the first place. The rule of thumb was the radio would work inversely proportionally to the urgency you needed it to. EG: Getting punched by angry truck driver half a block from the Police Station – No; Broken down between Mareeba and the Kuranda range in the middle of a monsoon – No; Largest gas blast in Australian history 15 minutes from occurring – No!
What to do? I transmitted in the blind, “Thick black smoke issuing near the brewery, I’ll get back to you.” I pushed up the 3 toggle switches on the left side of the fairing, (front blue lights, back blue light and siren), did a U turn at the Abbott street Traffic Lights – yes I know it’s usually illegal, but I’m sure you understand, and twisted the throttle.
Crossing the railway lines at Mcleod street, I can still see in my head the picture presented to me then. A white, rather large railcar was parked near the gasworks, and had what looked like a massive gas BBQ underneath it. Unfortunately for me, I knew exactly what I was looking at. The Qld Police Academy at Oxley had an exceptional range of disaster videos. Myself and a few buddies worked our way through them over our 6 month course. They particularly had a good stash of BLEVE videos.
From this juncture onwards, until after the main blast, I was convinced I was living on borrowed time. I was the only emergency service person on scene. I transmitted ‘in the blind’ again on my dead as a doornail radio, and started evacuating people who were stopping to look, the object being to stop other people being on borrowed time, that didn’t realise they were.
People do funny things when they are curious and have no concept of the danger they are in. A classic example of this was that day. I started out by politely telling people to move away as there was probably going to be an explosion, then started noticing that people I had already directed to move away had circled around behind me to get another look again. Hmmmm.
For something to be lawful, it has to be authorised, justified or excused by law. I’m not sure that extends to me becoming absolutely desperate to get people away and starting to tell bystanders in no uncertain terms to “Fuck off!”. Somewhere around this time other Police arrived and it suddenly dawned on me, there was a school around the corner in Draper street and I should go there and tell them to keep their students in. Not sure how I was going to achieve that, or even what time school got out, but zoomed around the block anyway, to see the kids already out and the big red trucks of the cavalry arriving down Draper street.
Eventually, I found myself back on Spence street trying to insult / educate people into leaving. I remember at some stage having a conversation with the Newsagent owner on the corner of Bunda and Spence street, telling him to “get out now.” He said it would take him a while to “lock up,” I said something like, “The shop isn’t going to be here in 5 fucking minutes so it’s not going to matter!”
The stupid things you think of, I was glad I left my helmet, sunnies and gloves on… because that would have helped. Eventually, I found myself in the spot where I was when the railcar exploded. I wasn’t looking at the fire just before it exploded until… I felt a sudden movement of air towards the fire and everything seemed to go quiet. I don’t recall an explosion, but I do recall seeing the railcar looking like it had a rocket motor on it heading in a massive fiery arc towards the city.
It went suddenly dark as I was enveloped by the black smoke, then as it cleared I saw the man (Frank) who sadly was later to die from his burns, emerge from the direction of the brewery across the railway tracks. I had not seen anyone burnt that badly before then. I went to him and walked him to some steps and tried to radio for an Ambulance – No chance.
I subsequently managed to get the attention of a Main Roads Police colleague nearby, and we put Frank in his car to transport him to the CBH, (Cairns Base Hospital). The Main Roads car was new and didn’t have lights / siren fitted so I gave him a lights / siren escort to Accident and Emergency and high-tailed it back.
Post BLEVE with Cairns Fire Brigade still working to get control. The large steel structure is the town gas supply. If the railcar had gone in that direction, it would have hit the town gas supply and the main boilers in the brewery, and, me. You have to take your hat off to the Firefighters that day, without the benefit of modern protective gear, they fought hard to buy time, knowing, without doubt, what the end result was always going to be. Bravery in action.
The railcar that flew 160m like a rocket.
Inside the warehouse that part of the railcar landed in.
Outside the same warehouse, where parts of the railcar pressure vessel can be seen in the foreground.
From Cairns’ district perspective there was another disaster 6 months prior; the Cairns State High School bus crash. A bus loaded with students rolled off the side of the Gillies Highway near Gordonvale, south of Cairns, twenty metres down a mountainside, killing eight students and injuring 30 students, teachers and the bus driver. I’m grateful to have been in Brisbane on the TAIS course, as the bus crash was a horrible incident to have been involved in. Somewhat selfishly with a great deal of relief I say, that is a story someone else can tell you.