Former firefighter's death spurs memories

By Josh Edwards/Vicksburg Post

VICKSBURG – The sole survivor of the deadliest day in the 175-year-history of Vicksburg Fire Department has been laid to rest, after nearly 38 years as a humble hero.
Jimmy Gibbs died May 13 at his home; he was 65. Gibbs’ hands were severely disfigured when he tried to save the life of a fellow firefighter in an explosion July 3, 1974, at Paul Pride Butane Co. near current-day Culkin and Jackson roads. He took medical retirement because of his injuries after serving on the fire department for six months and a day.
Family members said they believe Gibbs died from complications from injuries he suffered in the fire coupled with exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Capt. John Krueger, Lt. David Lewis and Lt. Johnny McBroom died as result of the explosion that injured Gibbs. Three of the four men, including Gibbs, were assigned to Constitution Station on Cherry Street. McBroom was assigned to a different station but had switched shifts with a firefighter who was taking his son to Jackson.
Paul Massey and Gibbs joined the fire department together Feb. 2, 1974. Nearly four decades later, Massey remembers the day of the explosion with clarity.
Firefighters had just changed shifts and many had gone home to start celebrating Independence Day when the explosion happened. As soon as they heard their co-workers were injured, everyone came back to work, he said.
The four-man crew went to Paul Pride Butane Co. for what they thought was a grass fire that was threatening a butane tank, said Bill Field Sr., also a firefighter at the time.
“They didn’t have a fire. What they had was a butane leak,” Field said. “There wasn’t anything we could do about it. They were called to a fire and when they got up there, it wasn’t a fire.”
About 15,000 gallons of butane had leaked from a tank and covered the ground in a fog that resembled smoke. Paul Pride tried to warn the firefighters but it was too late.
“They were in a blanket of gas before I could stop them. It looked like the moment they stopped the truck and hit the ground the gas ignited,” Pride said in 1974.
A spark of an unknown origin ignited the cloud of butane, and the truck burst into flames, said Buddy Holliday who was lead investigator of the explosion for Vicksburg Police Department. The explosion occurred in the county, but VPD investigated because a city vehicle was involved, he said.
“Guys on the inside of the cab didn’t have a chance,” said Gibbs’ son, Sean Gibbs.
After the blast, Jimmy Gibbs saw Lewis lying on the ground on fire and rushed to his aid, said Gibbs’ older brother, Al Gibbs Jr. Jimmy Gibbs used his bare hands to try to extinguish the flames. At that time, firemen were not issued gloves, former firefighters said.
“His hands melted because he was trying to put him out,” Al Gibbs Jr. said. “That’s what made him a true hero. It wasn’t about him, it was about people and saving their lives.”
Lewis – the second black firefighter at VFD – was a mentor to Jimmy Gibbs, the department’s third black firefighter, Sean Gibbs said.
Jimmy Gibbs, who suffered burns on 10 percent of his body, and McBroom, who was burned over more than 90 percent of his body, were standing when paramedics arrived and got into the ambulance without help, Massey said.
McBroom died the next day.
The fallen firefighters each had a large funeral drawing as many as 1,500 people, including the whole fire department – except for Jimmy Gibbs who remained hospitalized for about eight months.
Though his physical appearance changed and he became more isolated, Jimmy Gibbs remained a courageous, supportive person, Al Gibbs Jr. said.
Sean Gibbs remembers his father as being deep and pensive, but also showing signs of emotional scars.
“He told me he was a survivor. He said, ‘I can’t call my platoon. They’re all gone. I can’t call my crew. They’re all gone,’ but he knew God had a plan for him.”
Jimmy Gibbs would often tell his son about the war or his time on the fire department, but he would never brag.
The gas industry now requires a number of fail-safe valves to be installed on all equipment, which reduces the risk of major leaks, Atkins said.
In 2000, Fire Station 2 on Indiana Avenue was dedicated in honor of the four men injured or killed in the explosion.