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Remembering the 1984 fire in building 3001

  • Published
  • By Howard E. Halvorsen
  • Air Force Sustainment Center History Office

Some of you will remember what it was like in 1984. The détente enjoyed between the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1970s had collapsed. Nuclear weapons delivery systems continued to be stockpiled, radically increasing both sides’ capacity to end our civilizations. Tensions were already heightened after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan was elected and, according to Henry Kissinger, Reagan was “the first postwar President to take the offensive both ideologically and strategically.” Crises occurred elsewhere e.g., Central America, Poland, the Middle East and the Iran-Iraq War, civil wars in Africa and Soviet leadership kept turning over due to the choosing of elder statesmen who kept passing away. Events like the shooting down of KAL-007 and even President Reagan poorly joking, while warming up for a speech, about bombing Russian the previous August in 1984. Indeed, the Cold War was heating up.

So too, was a building on Tinker AFB that winter. November 12, 1984, fell on a Monday. Since November 11th is Veterans Day, a federal holiday, the following day was a day off for nearly everyone. Most of the base’s 17,500 civilian employees were assigned to building 3001. On that day, it was estimated that a mere 100 employees were at work that Monday in a building that was originally the Douglas Aircraft Plant, who manufactured the airplanes that won World War II.

During the mid-morning hours, a contract welder tried to cut through a drainpipe with a cutting torch on the north end roof of building 3001 and then took a break from his unauthorized welding. When he returned, smoke was coming out of the pipe. Tinker firefighters were called at 1146L hours to fight a fire that would eventually completely destroy 15 acres of the building with severe damage to another 5 acres. Not just the roof was lost but also shop equipment, parts and engines in the shop, and maintenance and storage facilities and more. The disaster not only could potentially impact the mission locally, but Air Force weapons systems worldwide.

All firefighters from the three Tinker AFB fire stations were joined by two dozen military and city fire departments from all over the region, bringing all manner of engines, trucks, crash units and more. In the end, roughly 500 firefighters fought the conflagration 24 hours a day until the very early morning hours on Wednesday. Also providing aid was personnel from the 2854th Air Base Group, the precursor to the 72 Air Base Wing, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross serving in various ways, to include providing 5,000 meals to firefighters and Airmen.

The fire was so difficult to contain and conquer because of the structure of the roof and the location of the fire, which at first was between 8 inches of space between the roof deck and a layer of insulation below it. Fire sprinklers were below the fire. Firefighters shot water towards the 35-foot-high ceiling but could not break through the insulation and burning tar. Eventually, trenches were cut into the roof to contain the spread and, after a few failed attempts were successful in slowing the damage.

Your intrepid historian recently interviewed a local retiree who was a Tinker AFB firefighter who participated in this event. I was curious to find out what scared him the most during that time. Was it the think smoke that turned visibility to zero? Perhaps the burning tar falling from the ceiling or the equipment falling from above along with all of the wiring. His answer: fish. Why?

In addition to fire trucks and the like, helicopters were also fighting the massive fire. One was from Weyerhauser Corporation and two were CH-47 Chinooks from Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma each 1,000-gallon loads in a massive bucket beneath. It would fly south to Lake Stanley Draper, fill its bucket, and dump its contents onto the roof. The retired firefighter told me, shaking his head, “a few buddies of mine got their fire helmets knocked off of their heads by lake fish.” For instance, an example of how hard the firefighters fought: five million gallons of water was poured onto the building during the initial 18 hours. Their courage and devotion to duty should be forever remembered.

If you come into work through the Lancer Gate, you are greeted daily with a sign reminding us “We perform our war mission every day.” During the fire in the north side of the building, all operations in the south side continued. The thick black smoke was seen streaming 80 miles away, while all flight operations on the adjacent flightline also continued. Other units stepped up to assist. Since the base payroll computers were destroyed in the fire, payroll had to be processed at other installations. Holloman AFB agreed to provide 10 hangarettes to the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center. Despite the winter weather which soon included rain and snow in addition to the cold, all work continued; not a single deadline was missed.

In the end, the building was repaired at a cost of $150 million – closer to $400 million in today’s dollars. Full restoration of building 3001 was announced on September 1, 1985, less than a year after the disaster. The warfighters for the USAF never lacked what they needed to deter or, if necessary, defeat any foe as a result of this disaster.