Mansfield Commemorates 50th Anniversary of Deadly Gas Station Explosion

Mansfield is taking time today to honor the sacrifices of first responders during one of the darkest days in the city's history. Exactly 50 years ago Tuesday, a massive explosion at a gas station killed two of their firefighters and injured many more.

(Published Tuesday, July 31, 2018)

July 31, 1968 started like any other summer day in Mansfield.

A tiny community of only 3,000 people back then -- all was relatively calm.

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The sun was out. Kids, in the waning weeks of their summer break, played outside.

A Mansfield volunteer firefighter (the Mansfield Fire Department was all-volunteer at that time) named Shirley Copeland was sitting at home, reading the newspaper with his daughter, whose name also happens to be Shirley.

His son Barry was in the front yard.

Though they didn't think much of it in that moment, both of his kids said they could still hear the sound of his fire radio going off that afternoon.

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"He loved the fire department," Shirley Copeland Leist said. "He always looked forward to those calls. Because other than work and his family, that was his life. He loved it."

"He came out and said he had to go to work," Barry Copeland said. "And that he'd back after awhile."

But it would be the last time they ever spoke to their father.

Copeland and other members of the Mansfield Fire Department had been called out to the Red Ball gas station in neighboring Kennedale, where a small fire was burning. It was sparked by a tanker truck that was filling up an above-ground gas tank.

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Just when first responders thought they were getting the fire under control, the 10,000 gallon gas tank exploded.

The smoke could be seen from miles away. According to witness accounts, it looked as though fire was falling from the sky like rain.

Dozens of people were badly burned, the bulk of them firefighters.

Among the most severely injured -- Copeland, Mansfield Fire Chief Harry Blissard and a KRLD reporter named Steve Pieringer, who was covering the fire for his station. All three men would later die at the hospital from their injuries.

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Chief Blissard's daughter Lezlie was at her aunt's house when they got the call.

"My aunt came out and she told us that my dad had been in an accident," said Leslie Blissard Lewis. "I thought at the time it was a car accident. And then the hours rolled on -- and it was quite a different story."

Only 13 years old when her father passed away, Blissard Lewis said she was shielded from a lot of the details of what happened.

"Even now, the stories I'm hearing -- I'm surprised," Blissard Lewis said. "I didn't know the magnitude of that explosion. I knew it took my dad. But it's pretty amazing to hear the stories."

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Tuesday morning, she, the Copelands, community members, and a handful of the firefighters who responded to that call 50 years ago listened to the story once again -- as the Mansfield Fire Department and city leaders took time to honor the bravery and sacrifices made that day.

During the ceremony, Blissard Lewis and the Copelands each received a special proclamation from the Mansfield City Council.

The Mansfield Fire Department honor guard then rang the bell that sits outside Fire Station 1 in tribute to them -- a bell that had been dedicated to their memory shortly after the explosion.

"I'm pretty blown away," Blissard Lewis said. "I remember when they did the one-year celebration back in 1969, that that was a big deal. And to think that 50 years later, they're still making a big deal out of it, it's very touching. And it means a lot to me and my family."

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"He would be so proud," Copeland Leist said. "I wish there was some way he could see it... It's awesome they've taken the time to remember these firefighters. I'm just grateful."

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the explosion, the Mansfield Historical Museum unveiled a special exhibit with photos, descriptions, and artifacts from that day.