Hughes McKie No. 1
Oil Well Explosion
Navarro County, Texas


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On May 8, 1923, the J. K. Hughes-McKie No. 1, on the east bank of Chambers Creek, blew in as the first prime producer at 2,850 feet, spewing 8,000 barrels of oil per day high over the crown block, located one mile and a quarter southeast of the discovery well.  Tragedy struck in less than twenty-four hours after the McKie well came in.  A spark ignited the oil and gas as crews were changing and thirteen men were burned to death.  Two escaped with bad burns and later died.

The heavy black smoke looked like clouds, and at night the glare from the hissing inferno was visible at Hubbard and other communities.  Steam boilers, dynamite and other explosives were used in unsuccessful efforts to snuff out the blaze.  On May 20, D. L. Kelly finally turned off the oil and gas with a valve.  The lost oil and gas was valued at $150,000.  The Hugh-McKie No. 1 defined the main pool and opened the development.  Mildred, Navarro, Providence and other communities boomed and were overrun by the oil fraternity, and Three-Way-Filling Station, Tuckertown, and old Mildred teemed with thousands of people.

Livestock and chickens were attracted to the huge blaze while the McKie well was burning and stayed awake at night grazing at the giant torch reaching into the sky.  They grew poor for lack of sleep and owners verified the truth of the statement after we had written a feature story to that effect.  Sam J. Little and I had the only passes into the drilling area and particularly to the burning well.  Visiting editors and reporters from out-of-town were required to get their information from us., and we did rather well financially.

Note: 

  • This article is a partial excerpt of an article written by Paul Moore who for many years, was a reporter and sports editor for the Corsicana Daily Sun.
  • The article appears in full in the Navarro County History, Volume I.

OIL WELL EXPLODES, THIRTEENARE DEAD

Twelve Others Missing After Volcano-Like Eruption of Texas Gusher.

Spark Caused Tragedy

Flames Shoot 100 Feet in Air and Instantly Envelop Workers on Derrick.

KERENS, Texas, may 9 - Thirteen are known to be dead and twelve more may be added to their number following an explosion of an oil gusher ten miles from here today.  The well was known as McKie No. 1 and was being developed by the G. K. Hughes Development Company.

W. A. Hicks, a prominent oil operator, of Wortham and S. P. Allen, field superintendent for the Hughes company, are reported to be among the dead.  All of those killed have not been identified and other bodies are believed to be in the wreckage.

The explosion and fire which followed instantly caught every workman on and around the derrick platform.  They had no chance.  The sheets of flame caught them as a sudden dust storm might envelop a group of travelers.  Twelve of the victims met instant death.  Another died in a hospital soon after he was snatched from the caldron of burning oil.

Tonight the fire is under control, but from 2 o'clock this afternoon until 6 o'clock this evening 1,000 barrels of accumulated waste were on fire and the full flow of the well 5,000 barrels a day - continued ignited.

Often, in operating an oil well, it becomes necessary to set a control valve alongside the gusher's casing.

The Hughes gusher came in last night, flowing wild at 5,000 barrels and exceeding 20,000,000 feet of gas.  Nor had either of these diminished as its owners and the working staff viewed throughout this morning what meant millions to them.

Just before 2 o'clcok a workman approached the casing and put a control valve along the side of it.  As he was doing this his hammer struck a rock.  There was a spark, such as a boy might make when he cracks two rocks together building an "Indian fire."  Instantly there came a roar of flame and the detonation of exploding oil and gas.

The well is the third one which has been completed in what is known as the Powell field and the liquid stream spurted when the drill hit sand between 2,942 and 3,000 feet.

The bodies of five men had been removed at 5 o'clock this afternoon.  Two other charred bodies had been located near the well, but could not be reached so intense was the heat.

Five other men belonging to the crew are unaccounted for.  A roustabout crew of twenty men which came from Mexia this morning has not been accounted for.  This crew was working near the well when it caught fire.

At present the known death list is as follows; L. C. Cook, M. O. Turner, S. P. Allen, --- Hicks, Jack Cooper, Fred Craig, L. P. Sheck, Dan Phillips, Jim Phillips, E. C. Cooper and Francis Owen.  The last named died in a hospital here.  Two other men, whose names have not been learned, are said to be still in the ruins.

A man named Simmons, who was on the derrick floor with the crew, escaped by running.  A 15-year-old boy escaped with him.

Emmet Bird of Corsicana, brought to the hospital here, stated that there were between eight and ten men on the derrick floor at the time of the fire and that he thought he and Owen were the only two who escaped.  At the present there is no way of getting a complete list of the dead.

Hundreds of persons were near the well when the explosion came, and it is almost a miracle that more were not killed.  A number of automobiles near the well are said to have been destroyed.

Word of the tragedy was telephoned to Corsicana with urgent calls that all available physicians, medical supplies and ambulances be rushed to the scene.  The injured were taken to Corsicana.

Everything within several hundred feet of the well caught fire.  All the trees and shrubbery around the well were saturated with oil and the ground was quickly burned clear.  The flames shot 100 feet in the air and resembled a volcano in eruption.  A great pool of oil near the well continued to burn an is now flowing wide open with the flames darting high in the air. - May 10, 1923


15 TOTAL KNOWN DEAD IN OIL WELL FIRE

Washington Expert Urges Stopping Still Mounting Flames with TNT Explosions

CORSICANA, Tex., - May 10. - Fifteen known dead and possibly three more was believed to be the total casualties of the fire at the J. K. Hughes Development Company oil well on the McKie lease yesterday.  The number of dead and missing varied slightly during the night, due to the inability to get reliable information as to how many men were working near the derrick and how many escaped.

A recheck after daylight showed ten bodies in morgues here and six men known to have been at the well to be missing.  Five charred skeletons could be seen near the well as it continued to burn today.

B. B. Simmons of the company owning the well estimated it would take two days to set and successfully use the twenty boilers being taken to the scene to extinguish the flames by steam.  Oil and oil-soaked debris surrounding the well for several hundred feet had all been burned this morning and the flames were fed by the stream of oil and gas issuing from the well. - May 11, 1924


Port Arthur News
10 May 1923

CORSICANA, Texas, May 10 Eleven known dead still stood this afternoon as the toll of the fire which last night swept the field on which is located the latest gusher of the J. K. Hughes Development Company, after a spark had ignited the well.
Two others are unaccounted for, and these will bring the total dead to thirteen, it is believed. Officials of the developing company emphatically deny, however, reports emanating from the field that sixteen are known dead and others are believed to have perished. Seven bodies are held in a morgue here and four skeletons can be seen in the flames, beyond the reach of workers.
A revised list of the dead and missing follows.


The Dead:
Emmett Byrd, Corsicana
W. M. (Ban) Phillips, 35, Kerens [Obituary]
Fred E. Craig, Corsicana
L. P. Sheek, Dallas
W. A. Hicks, Wortham, head driller
Travis Owens, Kerens [Obituary]
(identification somewhat doubtful)
Missing
Including those in flames:
L. C. Cook, Powell, Texas
S. P. Allen, Wortham, field manager
James E. Phillips, 32, Kerens
M. O. Turner, Norris, Miss.
Max Meismer, 30, Kerens
E. C. Cooper, Corsicana

It is impossible to ascertain which of the missing are those in the flames.

Notes:

  • Submitted by Don Brownlee
     

TWO VICTIMS OF FIRE BURIED AT KERENS

KERENS, Navarro Co., Texas, May 10. - Business houses were closed here Thursday afternoon and a pall of gloom hung over the town during the funeral services and burial of Travis Owens and Ban Phillips, who lost their lives Wednesday afternoon in the Hughes-McKie oil well fire near Powell.  The body of Jim Phillips of Kerens, who is reported missing, has not yet been identified.

The body of Mr. Owens was buried in the Kerens Cemetery at 3:30 p.m.  The services were conducted by the Rev. Joe Everheart, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church assisted by other local pastors.

The body of Ban Phillips arrived from Corsicana at 5 o'clock Thursday afternoon and was buried in the Long Prairie Cemetery at 6 p.m.

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Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox