Service honors Mansfield explosion victims 50 years later

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Only two Mansfield firefighters have died in the line of duty, and it happened 50 years ago on Tuesday.

The two men were assisting firefighters in Kennedale who were battling a gas station fire when a storage unit exploded. A journalist on scene also died. Family, friends and strangers came together on Tuesday to honor their memory.

Over a dozen firefighters from several departments were seriously injured that day. Along with the two Mansfield firefighters who died, a FOX 4 TV reporter was killed covering the story. Fifty years later, the wounds are still fresh for those left behind.

Mansfield's fire chief is reflecting on a deadly explosion that happened 50 years ago. It’s still fresh on the minds of those who survived it.

Clarence Pressley was one of several Mansfield firefighters who responded to a fire at the Red Ball gas station in neighboring Kennedale on July 31, 1968.

“My boots were stuck to my leg. I had to peel those off,” he recalled. “I got burned on the back, face and hands.”

Pressley was running a hose line, along with Fire Chief Harry Blissard and firefighter Shirley Copeland, when a 10,000-gallon gas storage tank suddenly exploded.

“It was worse than any sonic boom you ever hear,” Pressley said. “It blowed us down. Actually blowed me to the ground and blowed Harry and Shirley into the truck.”

Chief Blissard was killed in the explosion. Copeland died three days later. Their melted helmets are on display at a nearby exhibit.

At a memorial ceremony commemorating the tragedy, which also took the life of KRLD-TV Channel 4 Reporter Steve Pieringer, the firefighters’ children reflected on that day.

“The fire radio went out and he left and that was the last time I ever saw him,” said Shirley Copeland-Leist, Shirley’s daughter.

“I think I was shielded from a lot, even now,” said Lezlie Blissard, Harry’s daughter. “The stories I'm hearing today I was surprised I didn't know the magnitude of that explosion. I just knew it took my dad.”

Lezlie was 13 years old when her father died. She says fighting fires was in her dad's blood. She's touched the community continues to remember him and others who died that day.

“I remember being so proud of him,” she said. “We drove a station wagon with a red light on top through the town, and he was loved it. He really was loved by this community.”

Plaques displaying the names of the fallen firefighters has been posted outside city hall.

Pressley stayed with the Mansfield Fire Department for several years after that the explosion.