The Darkest Day

The darkest day in the history of the Jamestown Fire Department occurred on June 18, 1934. The Richfield Oil Company fire claimed three civilians and four firefighters, and scarred many others for life, with both physical and mental scars. To this day, members of the department regard the event with deepest reverence for the men and their sacrifice.

What began as a normal late-Spring day, with some rain, would soon change. About 3:30 PM, a small fire started at the gasoline tank farm located just over the City line, in Fluvanna. It’s not known whether the fire resulted from an engine backfire or a spark from a truck’s ignition coil, but it grew rapidly. Firefighters were summoned from Fluvanna and from Jamestown.

As is the case with all fires, the column of smoke and the screaming of sirens attracted a large crowd of curiosity seekers, pressing forward for a better look. A large storage tank erupted in a mighty blast, sending burning gasoline across the ground. Chief Clifton Beatty ordered his men to move to a more distant position, but before they could move, a second tank erupted, in a towering flame that rained burning gasoline upon the people below.

Engulfed in gasoline, the firefighters struggled to regain their footing, but two of them died where they fell: Walter H. Kastenhuber of Engine 5 and Oscar H. Bloom of Engine 1. Two more were severely burned and died the next day in the hospital: Chief’s Aide Raymond W. Allison and Harold Anderson of Engine 5. The Chief was soaked in gasoline and caught fire. He managed to put himself out, but was run into by a burning firefighter, and caught fire a second time! He survived, and served until 1936.

Not all of the victims died at the fire. Like Chief Beatty, some carried scars for the rest of their lives. One such victim was Captain Leonard C. O. Hendrickson of Engine 2. His injuries were so severe that he was hospitalized locally for a few weeks. When his condition worsened, he was moved to the Gowanda State Hospital, for long-term care. He was hospitalized for the remainder of his life, which ended eleven years later.

Other victims of the horrific fire were never at the scene. The wives and children of the fallen men had to deal with the loss of their loved ones, and must have coped in many different ways. One found his own way to deal. Burton L. Anderson, son of Harold Anderson, joined the fire department and became one of the department’s most respected and admired fire fighters. He vowed to never buy gasoline from Richfield or its successors.

Each year, the members of the fire department remember the men we lost, with a memorial service, on the date of this tragedy.

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