Gas-filled ship exploded in Bay City 30 years ago: “You could be a quarter mile away and feel the heat”


BAY CITY, MI – Three decades ago, “Hell visited the Saginaw River.”

This is how a Bay City Times article characterized the explosion and hell of the cargo ship MV Jupiter in the last days of the summer of 1990. A firefighter later called it a “one-of-a-kind” fire. life “.

The tanker was moored on the Saginaw River, not far from where the USS Edson is docked today, when it exploded. The smoke was visible for miles.

Don Morin, vice-president of the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society, was on his way home from work at Saginaw Steering Gear when he saw the fire.

“You could be in Standish and see the smoke,” he said. “You could be a quarter of a mile away and feel the heat. “

Morin knew people who lived nearby at the time.

“They said that when the initial blast of the blast (happened) it shook their homes,” he recalled.

This happened on September 16, 1990. The tanker was unloading 2.3 million gallons of unleaded gasoline at Total Petroleum when a cargo ship passed and came loose from its lines. What followed was nothing short of a disaster.

“The flames were 20 to 30 feet in the air and the horrible smoke … it was incredible,” Charles Prescott, the ship’s chief engineer, told a Times reporter after the explosion. He later described the sound of the explosion as a “sonic boom”.

Morin said the ship’s artifacts were in the permanent collection of the Antique Toy & Firehouse Museum, 3456 Patterson Road. Items in the exhibit include a damaged American flag that fluttered over the ship, a cracked window in the pilot’s house, life jackets, lifebuoys, steel chimney, fire alarm bell , a piece of steel with the name of the ship, and more.

“When the ship was scrapped there were all these parts that we were able to get,” Morin said. “There are quite a few artifacts.”

Don Comtois, president of the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society, was not in town when the initial explosion occurred. He remembers seeing darkness rise in the sky as he walked home.

“We were still north of West Branch and we could see the plumes of smoke this far,” he said.

Comtois said the exhibit at the Antique Toy & Firehouse Museum serves to preserve this part of Bay City’s history.

“That’s the only way to keep history alive, is with these objects, and to educate people, you know, the younger generation, about history,” he said.

Although the explosion of Jupiter took place 30 years ago, it is still part of the collective memory of Bay City.

“These types of disasters, unfortunately, are some of the memorable things that happen in a community,” Morin said. “It’s not the thing you want to happen.”

Here are five other things you may not know about the explosion of Jupiter 30 years ago today:

1. The explosion injured a dozen people and killed one

There was a crew of 17 on board the ship when the initial explosion occurred. The crew members were evacuated, some jumped into the river, and a US Coast Guard rescue team arrived 10 minutes later. More than a dozen crew members were injured, suffering from mild cases of hypothermia, burns and minor abrasions, and one person, Thomas Sexton, a crew member from Iowa, was drowned trying to swim to safety.

2. A radiologist witnessed the explosion aboard his sailboat and intervened to help

Dr George Ascherl Jr., a radiologist in the area, was taking his sailboat, the Wild Irish, to Marina Pier 7 for the winter when the Jupiter blew up. He saw the disaster about 100 to 300 feet away.

“It was one of the scariest scenes I have ever witnessed,” Ascherl told The Times in 2015. “The intensity of it all was something I only imagined seeing in a war zone. . “

Ascherl moved his sailboat towards the stern of the burning Jupiter in an effort to help the men jumping into the river.

3. Several other explosions followed the initial explosion.

Jupiter burned day and night, according to media reports. Because there was gasoline on board, officials initially thought the best solution was to let it burn. But there were several more explosions, and the heat from the blaze set the Jupiter’s hull ablaze, so they called for reinforcements.

4. Officials called for more help from Texas

Officials at Total Petroleum called Texas-based Boots & Coots to help fight the blaze. The crews arrived early Monday morning and started fighting that afternoon. They fired thousands of gallons of special foam into the flames, which had been burning for 29 hours. It took Boots & Coots and the US Coast Guard less than an hour to put out the blaze, but it reignited that evening. The saga ended on Tuesday morning.

5. The total cost of the fire was $ 6.1 million

An investigation into the explosion closed the shipping channel for more than three weeks. Federal investigators ultimately found Total Petroleum Co. responsible for the blaze due to faulty mooring lines. The total cost of the fire, including the value of the Jupiter and overtime for local agencies, was more than $ 6.1 million.

If you’re interested in learning more about the explosion of Jupiter, full coverage of the explosion and the subsequent Bay City Times investigation can be found in the library of the Bay County Historical Museum, 321 Washington Ave. Click here to learn more about the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society and click here to learn more about the Antique Toy & Firehouse Museum.

Learn more about MLive:

The Jupiter Explosion: 25 Years After “Hell Visited the Saginaw River” in Bay City

Where were you when the Jupiter exploded over the Saginaw River in Bay City?

Explore 150 years of Bay City history in photos and read its history

Times photographer transforms Bay City’s rich history with the present

Can you help identify these historic photos of Bay County?

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