One minute they were working as usual. The next minute they were swimming in the frigid waters of the Columbia River near Umatilla. Three men affecting repairs on a river tanker on March 3, 1948, were blown off the deck when the barge exploded for the third time in a year, but all three escaped unscathed except for an icy dunking.
Jack Hinkley, Melvin McCoy and Gene Hiatt, who were working at the opposite end of the barge, were unable to say what caused the explosion that tossed them off the ill-fated “Pendleton,” a 280,000-gallon tanker owned by Tidewater-Shaver Company. Eyewitness George Sawyer, the company’s plant superintendent, reported he saw a reddish-blue flash followed by a series of four explosions. After that he was too busy dodging shrapnel hurled by the exploding craft.
A six-ton portion of the barge’s deck was thrown 500 feet upstream, and another portion, weighing only about four tons, landed about 600 feet downstream. A new 100-ton barge being built on shore about 400 feet from the blast was lifted into the air and moved about two feet. The Captain Al James, a tug that was nearby when the explosion occurred, had all its windows blown out.
The “Pendleton” also was wrecked in June 1948 by a similar blast at the Umatilla facility. And it exploded in Portland earlier that year.
Hinkley, a tankerman from Umatilla, could only chatter that the water was “damned cold” when he reached shore. McCoy, a welder who also lived in Umatilla, commented that apparently it wasn’t “his time to die.”