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Gas Storage Tank Explodes & Burns in Alexandria, MN – Sep. 12, 1978

Sep. 12, 1978 – Gas Storage Tank Explodes & Burns in Alexandria, MN


Do you remember Tuesday, September 12th, 1978, when a Williams Brothers Pipeline gas storage tank exploded and burned on the western edge of Alexandria, MN?

Just before noon, lightning struck the partially filled gas storage tank, igniting an explosion and massive fire. The Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department, already working a roof fire, was quickly called to the scene.

Help quickly arrived from Glenwood, Osakis, Garfield, and Forada. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, the Douglas County Posse, the Alexandria Police Department, and the Minnesota State Patrol were also quick to the scene to manage traffic and public safety.

Due to the wind, nature, and heat of the fire, firefighters were forced to let the blaze burn itself out over the following seven hours, while preventing it from spreading to other tanks. They successfully prevented the fire from causing further explosions or fires, although there were tense moments. Heat from the blaze caused paint to blister on a neighboring tank, which prompted a quarter-mile evacuation while firefighters worked to cool the tank.

The smoke from the fire could be seen as far away as Evansville – but despite the Hollywood-like scale and drama of the fire, no injuries or fatalities were reported. Out of a potential capacity of 40,000 barrels (or 1,680,000 gallons) the tank was only filled about an 1/8 of the way. An estimated 5,000 barrels or 210,000 gallons of gas were burned.

The steel storage tank literally melted under the heat of the fire. The metal varied from 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, but was no match for the intense flames. During the hottest part of the fire, witnesses reported seeing the melting steel glowing cherry red.

As the fire burned lower, special chemicals were used in the water on the fire trucks to cause the water to float on top of the gasoline, rather than the gasoline floating on top of the water.

The cost of the damage was estimated around $500,000. When adjusted for inflation in the present day, the damage would cost at least $2,000,000.

However, despite the extremely challenging nature, heat, and size of the fire, no injuries or fatalities were reported.

Information for this historic story came from articles published in the following days in the Lake Region Press. Slide film photographs of the event were donated to the Douglas County Historical Society and recently digitized.

Thank you, Doug Landgren & Rick Rosenfield, for researching & digitizing the materials used in this story!