It's 1944. Blue sky over Cleveland. Streetcars bustling to and fro beneath Terminal Tower's aspirational gaze. The war and its booming business bring jobs and cash and thrumming factories to the North Shore.
Marian Laska, petite and austere at 24, is serving salads at the big Lamson & Sessions Co. cafeteria at East 63rd and St. Clair, among tired and calloused workers from busy places like Bishop & Babcock Co., the East Ohio Gas Co., and the Whiteway Stamping Co.
There's a train coming into town now, chugging reverently along the New York Central tracks and rattling the eastside neighborhood's windows a bit. Drop-forge hammers pound out an industrial rhythm. Cleveland is a blacksmith's workshop. The natural movement of the city's shiny, metallic exoskeleton never seems to slow.
It's Oct. 20, an Indian Summer Friday as perfect as the city has ever seen.
Mayor Frank Lausche, an old-school cosmopolitan Democrat running in this year's governor's race, surely takes note of the sun from City Hall. He's relishing the Toledo Blade's endorsement this morning, while eyeing warily the threats of a strike over at the Illuminating Co.
The lunch rush at Lamson & Sessions' cafeteria is mechanical. You line up, you get your food, you sit down, you eat your food. You get back to work. Marian Laska, who's been on the job just a few months now, slips easily into the rhythms of Oct. 20, 1944. Everything's pretty much loping along as expected. We're getting awfully close to the big moment.
Art Stroyer, a 49-year-old foreman over at Bishop & Babcock, isn't going to lunch. "I ain't sick, but I'm goin' home!" he tells another guy at the plant as he clocks out and ambles toward his car in the lot. Rows and rows of automobiles reflect the unrelenting drive of war contracts all over this neighborhood. Sunlight glints off windshields, bouncing back onto the shiny steel surface of the East Ohio Gas Co.'s new cylindrical liquid gas storage tank — a giant bastard of technological wonder, the only one of its kind in the world. There's a fairly brisk wind tousling the trees along East 55th now.
Something like thunder shakes the ground, but it's probably just the train. There's always something happening here, something raising a splendid hell and casting clanking echoes down alleyways and into warm homes. Beautiful day outside. Art Stroyer's heading north along East 55th now, about to turn onto Lake Shore Drive to cruise back to his home in Euclid. He looks into his rearview mirror, and there it is: a truly awesome fireball ascending violently toward the heavens.
Of course, the postcard brickwork homes along East 61st Street these days do not really resemble the old neighborhood. These homes were all constructed in the late-1940s rebuilding campaign mightily helmed by local Slovenian leader Anton Grdina. He and thousands more took it upon themselves to bring it all back, to shout down the terrible humor of fate. Within a decade after the Explosion, the neighborhood had returned. Most of the same people returned too. But the cost in so many ways was incredible.
It's weird, really, to walk along the neighborhood now and try to feel out some sense that this is where it happened — to try and reconcile infamous and ghastly images of post-apocalyptic level destruction with the current mise-en-scène of a quiet bakery here, a busy playground there. This fall, 70 years after it happened, has seen its fair share of beautiful days much like St. Clair-Norwood saw on that October afternoon. With the right eyes, you can still see smoke in the air.
Still, with eyes less focused upon the wheel of history, you wouldn't consider at all that something like that had happened right here.
Back then, Art Stroyer and his pals could talk about the Cleveland Rams all day. Big win 19-7 over the Bears just last weekend. But bigger forces were afoot throughout the decade. U.S. troops landed in the Philippines on Oct. 20, 1944. Everyone was just abuzz with talk of the Pacific Theater. The war dotted the front sections of the Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press daily, and you couldn't share a doughnut with somebody in this town without hearing him tee up a diatribe on The War. But business was good.
Cleveland in the early 1940s was bustling under the umbrella of this wartime economy, and its nearly 900,000 residents were all well aware. The city laid claim to the fifth-largest hub of war-related businesses in the nation. Innovation coiled like ivy around enterprises on every street corner. Ordnance contracts flowed like freshwater. The East Ohio Gas Co. was as much a beneficiary as anyone.
By 1941, the company had set down impressive roots in the community, purchasing the land and property of one-time competitor Cleveland Gas Light & Coke Co. 40 years earlier. Everything had grown brilliantly since then. The Slovenian neighborhood around St. Clair and East 55th prospered as contracts stacked higher and industrial plants became titans. From the sky, tightly clustered residences filled the landscapes like dense, finely wrought freckles — thousands of lives tucked neatly among sprawling warehouses and the churn of profit and hazard.
Generations of neighbors grew up here talking about the big gas company — in English and otherwise. Construction of three massive spherical tanks in 1941 was major news. The company was storing liquid gas up there. The fourth tank, a cylindrical beast built in 1942 and standing 57 terrifying feet, was even more monumental.
By maintaining liquefied gas at minus 257 degrees and single-digit pressure readings, the East Ohio Gas Co. found that it could store 600 times more gas on its property — all above ground and right next to those charming neighborhoods. The large cylindrical tank, built with great rapidity, held more than 100 million cubic feet of the stuff. The three spherical tanks right next to it cranked up the capacity to 250 million cubic feet. That's a lot of liquid gas stored around a lot of people. The phrase "time bomb" was not lost on Cleveland's population. "What ifs" were passed around like bread.
Hell, the first time the thing was filled, its interior steel shell cracked. Uneven cooling, they said. Nothing of concern, they said.
Demand was skyrocketing, though, and that wasn't a surprise. Cleveland was a fulcrum for innovation as the U.S. marched into Europe and the Pacific. And at home, well, people needed gas like never before. Economically, East Ohio's developments made total sense. And the company's rapid-fire innovation came paired with assurances of security, of safety. But it's difficult to stop a machine once it's set in motion, especially one hitting on all cylinders.
Shortly after 2 p.m. on Oct. 20, 1944, as Marian Laska's lunch rush quieted, East Ohio workers checked the specs on each tank and dutifully approved whatever needed approval. No one would ever be able entirely to confirm the data, however; those guys would be swept off this plane within the hour.
The wind outside was picking up, but the weather remained fine.
The clock ticked dispassionately toward 48 seconds past 2:40 p.m. Neighbors and employees around the area would later report seeing a fine haze collecting at the base of the tanks. That would have been the leaked liquid gas vaporizing against the oxygen outside. That would have been the first and only sign that the whole galaxy was about to shift into a terrible new dimension. That would have looked awfully goddamned worrisome in the moment.
The promises of innovation and profit and energy security never mentioned the fact that a small river of liquid gas might one day escape into the air and the sewer lines and every open space imaginable and — you do understand how diffusion works, right?
The Cleveland Press' evening edition, thumping upon doorsteps even as the nightmare rolled onward hours later, told the whole story. But it would be decades before local writer John Stark Bellamy squared the tale so simply: "Only the pen of a Dante could do justice to the sights and sounds that occurred in the St. Clair-Norwood neighborhood that hellish afternoon."
Art Stroyer sees the fireball. Marian Laska feels the rumbling. The terror doesn't register immediately; neither of them are even sure what the hell any of it is, really. No one is. Everything happens instantly.
The sky blushes a grim red, a shade streaked violently with tawny ash and searing scraps of metal. The fireball can be seen from as far away as Chagrin Falls' bucolic farmland. The deep boom shakes Plain Dealer desks over on West Sixth and Rockwell. But immediately, homes lining East 61st and Lake Court and St. Clair and every road within a half-mile of those giant storage tanks are going up in flames.
Everything happens instantly.
Something ignites the fine white haze of vaporized gas — no one would ever be able to say what or how — and unrelenting fire rages outward in every direction. Up: The heavens are ablaze. Down: The sewer lines become the Styx, breathing death into homes that had been so peaceful and warm just seconds before. The accompanying sounds are unnatural.
Albert Kotnick, who's not unlike Marian Laska or Art Stroyer in his unbound wartime optimism, is heading out of his East 61st Street home when he feels, sees, becomes one with the Explosion — and, Jesus Almighty, was that really an Explosion? — and he runs back into house to get his two young children and his wife, and they're flying down the street, and as they're flying down the street the building that the Kotnick family has called home for years lights up in blazing oranges and yellows and hell-spawned reds and blacks. Within minutes, it's gone.
Are the Germans bombing Cleveland? What in god's name was that?
It's only in the microseconds between the realization that her face is burning and the realization that the walls of the Lamson & Sessions cafeteria are red with fire that Marian Laska even has time to consider what's going on. It's an impossibility. None of this adds up to a logical variable. Her manager ushers her out into the dark world, to some remote wish for safety.
Everything is burning — burning in the simplest sense imaginable. Flesh sears. Screams echo down alleyways and the burnt husks of Carry Avenue, East 62nd, careening between frantic mothers clutching babies and the dazed and delirious. Life savings — cash stored throughout homes, all of the money to a man's name — flare up in an instant. The suddenness of it all is otherworldly.
And just as suddenly, everyone is here. (The kids, thankfully, are still in schools all over the city and not really anywhere near the site.) But firefighters, police officers, reporters, photographers, butchers, printers, foremen, maintenance workers, auto repairmen, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters — they're all here. Watching. Wondering. Praying. Helping.
Amid thick smoke, flames lasso the afternoon sky at 2,800 feet. The wind, ebbing along at some 12 miles per hour, pushes fire down onto crowds of spectators lining St. Clair. "It was as if a flame-thrower had been turned on you," one man told the papers. Police work fast to cordon the area and get all the survivors south of St. Clair. "Get out before it's too late!" an officer's voice is booming through a microphone. The evacuation is under way startlingly quick, though men and women still walk through smoke in a daze.
Traffic is a real bitch right now, and ruptured culverts along St. Clair are steepling the roadway. Fire Engine No. 7 falls into a smoking crater. The earth is swallowing the neighborhood.
Art Stroyer has work to do. He works his car back to Bishop & Babcock and starts delegating tasks: Clear that flaming debris on the roof, change those sprinkler heads, get the hell outta here and stay safe. He finds a spare moment and calls his wife: "Did you hear about the Explosion?" Miles away, she hadn't. Art's gotta run, though, so he tells her he's okay and then he's back at it.
More and more people are gathering. Children are getting out of school. Manhole covers pop like corks and soar across red skies. One crashes down onto two men, adding injuries to the exponentially growing toll. There are people everywhere now. There are bodies everywhere now. How could this be happening?
A chrysanthemum of fire continues to roar above, and buildings somehow left standing along St. Clair shake visibly. Hose lines lay across all intersections like so much vermicelli. Ear-shattering Explosions rip through the city about once an hour through the evening. Smaller Explosions snap like distant fireworks 360 degrees from any given spot.
"Get out before it's too late!" the echoes continue. Men, blank-faced with fright, trip between half-mumbled prayers on the burnt corpses of sparrows. There are blackened birds everywhere now. The gnarled silhouettes of skeletal homes stand stark against a dizzying crawl of smoke.
The deceased transform instantly into disfigured heaps of soot and bone, all but indistinguishable save for an oddly unburnt toe or a pair of twisted glasses hooked around what was once a nose. Cuyahoga County coroner Samuel Gerber arrives, and his life's work — the man's legacy — is thrown brutally into stark definition.
The bells of nearby St. Vitus Church — the Slovenian parish where so many in the old neighborhood met every Sunday, the place where so many survivors will find strength in the years ahead — remain atop phlegmatic masonry, ringing mournfully and madly after each Explosion.
Firefighters were caught off guard like everyone else. It had been such a beautiful day. Capt. Albert Zahler hears thunder in the air at 2:40. Could be anything. The constant industrial rhythms of Cleveland. The hustle of the New York Central line rushing through town.
Something bad is happening, though. He and his crew pull Engine 19 out onto East 55th, and are smacked immediately with a wall of hot, red air. His crew whirls onto the scene just a few blocks away at 2:43. The fire has roiled for two minutes, but already fate has had its way with the neighborhood.
Paul Nelson, an historian with the Western Reserve Fire Museum, has catalogued the minutiae of civil service actions that day. With 28 engines responding in haste from across the city and dozens more from inner-ring suburbs — less today's technological connectivity, mind you — the Explosion prompts a logistical nightmare. The destruction rips across what could be 160 football fields, all squared around the St. Clair-Norwood residences. Nearly a quarter of that area is reduced to barren land within minutes.
"When you have a major incident like that, the key is to not get caught up in it and to try to look and see in small pieces what's happening and try to mitigate that," Nelson says, reflecting on the fire's legacy 70 years later. "For example, there were structures catching fire on St. Clair quite far away from where the blast occurred. And those in themselves were pretty good-sized fires. They had to mitigate that while all this other stuff was going on. But from a firefighting standpoint, it was pretty textbook in that you basically tried to surround it and keep it from getting away."
The air temperature tickles 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit at various points. When Berta Ott, a Lake Court resident, walks outside, her front lawn is a field of fire. "All was burning," she told the Press. "My back was so hot I thought I was myself on fire already."
Another Explosion at 3 p.m. — this time, the spherical tank right next to what's left of the cylindrical tank. The sphere collapses in on itself. Smaller Explosions rankle the community all afternoon and evening. The two remaining tanks amplify fears, but firefighters can do nothing but eye them warily when there's a moment to spare. By now, engines from around the city are either racing to St. Clair or they're there already, battling hell itself.
The police cordon grows more severe, as firefighters tangle head-to-head against an unimaginable monster and survivors look for hope amid rubble. The city's broad wartime Civilian Defense team helps guide men, women and children to safety. Hose lines become the landscape's dominant feature.
Out on Lake Erie, a U.S. Coast Guard fire boat pumps everything it's got to stop the fire from overtaking the massive Ohio Chemical and Manufacturing Co. just a few blocks northwest of the Explosion's epicenter. Destruction, all told, smears itself across 50 eastside blocks. Manhole covers are later found as far away as Glenville. Everything is charred by mid-afternoon, but the fire doesn't stop for hours upon hours.
The multi-pronged response effort wrangles Civil Air Patrol officers, hundreds of auxiliary police officers and firefighters, emergency radio system operators, private industrial fire outfits, the Red Cross and other state and national agencies. Cleveland is certainly not without a roster of wartime disaster plans, and Mayor Frank Lausche — Slovenian himself — launches them immediately.
Cuyahoga County coroner Samuel Gerber would move into fire station No. 19 — the disaster's command center on East 55th — that weekend. The body count was clearly terrible, and it fell to Gerber to catalog everyone. Volunteers equipped with shovels eyed the ruins for weeks, seeking out the rare sight of unburnt flesh or hair or perhaps a shoe and bringing Gerber around for the official verdict.
All told, the Explosion claimed 130 lives, 73 of whom were East Ohio employees. Families awaited tragic news in the days and weeks after. Some never received answers; 61 bodies were so thoroughly vaporized that they initially could not be identified.
Still, the city's people saved countless more.
Hours earlier, the hallways of Willson Junior High School on East 55th were cacophonous and filled with the buzzing energy of teenagers on the brink of the weekend. By nightfall, the hallways are a survivor's camp. Hundreds of newly homeless sleep on Army cots in the school's basement gymnasium and second- and third-floor hallways. And Willson is just one of many impromptu Red Cross emergency shelters in the region.
Passed among weary families, newspapers become treasured objects. That morning's headlines featured the Cleveland Rams' so-so season; they were off to Green Bay for a big Sunday. Cleveland Electrical Illuminating Co. employees were threatening a strike. The National War Labor Board was in town to quell unrest. The headlines feel like they're from years ago, not hours ago.
The evening and next morning's papers would note that some 10,000 people had been evacuated from the St. Clair-Norwood neighborhood. Many would remain homeless for a time after everything settled down.
A 16-year-old Marcella Reichard lays on a cot. Her blistered face is covered in bandages. She's reeling. Reporters are everywhere at this point, and Marcella decides to share her story. Though they all sound the same, every story is important. Every story is a universe itself and a glimpse into a larger one.
Marcella was mopping when the gust of hell ripped the mop out of her hands. Just mopping the kitchen floor as on any other day.
"I grabbed my mother and my little sister and we knelt and prayed. Mother went out the back way, and I told her she would be running right into the flame," she says. "I told them to hold their hands over their eyes and run toward the lake. Then we just ran." Her home was on Lake Court, a tiny cul-de-sac off East 55th. The past tense looms like a monolith. Her home was there. Twenty-three other homes were there. All gone. Her mother wouldn't let her return home to retrieve the letters she had saved from a boy down the street. He's off at war. Everything is burned now, blackened.
Dawn inches above the horizon. Few have slept. How could they?
Smoke clings to everything, cloud-like and impenetrable. Families dwell in a mental daze within the hallways of Willson Junior High and debate what to do next. What happens after the fire?
Sometime just before sunrise, Art Stroyer arrives at home in Euclid to a frightened wife and daughter who have waited all night for his return. He breaks down, weeping inconsolably. How could he not?
Then Art Stroyer changes his clothes and heads back to the plant. What else would he do?
Seven decades later, no one can say with certainty what sparked the Explosion that day. Theories dance along Occam's razor, but all return to the word "inevitable." One year after the Explosion, Mayor Frank Lausche's investigative board would sum up their findings like so: "Some deficiency or failure due to causes unknown in design, construction or operation of the unique process."
But still, how would technical debate over, say, the alloy composition of that looming cylindrical tank ever square with survivors' trauma? The lasting impact, the bottom line here, was that above-ground liquid gas storage would never again exist so close to residential property.
After several days, residents were allowed back to the neighborhood — either to homes left standing along outlying streets or to ruins in the epicenter. People from all over the city rode the streetcars along St. Clair in a macabre parade to catch a glimpse of what the place had become. Observers used the only frame of reference they had to describe the scene: It was like an atomic bomb had gone off, right in our neighborhood. Along the way, scientists would posit that the Explosion equaled a 2.43-kiloton yield of dynamite — roughly one-sixth the strength of the bomb that would destroy Hiroshima less than a year later.
The neighborhood pieced itself together slowly. For months, nothing stirred among the ruins. Snow fell, blanketing this atavistic hell, but nothing moved and no life sprouted forth. Hundreds remained homeless, as hundreds more crowded into already crowded wartime homes.
The community came together, anchoring itself as always amid Slovenian neighborliness and care.
Anton Grdina, a guy known to everyone in the neighborhood, blazed the path forward. He started up the St. Clair-Norwood Rehabilitation Corp., which purchased all the land destroyed in the Explosion. City Council allotted $200,000 with little debate. Forty-nine homes were built across the 25 acres of destruction, though not before obtaining commitments from the city and industry leaders that no new storage tanks would be built in the neighborhood. Dominion East Ohio Gas maintains offices there to this day, but the industrial works were shut down soon after the Explosion.
East Ohio fielded thousands of loss claims, the payment of which added to countless private donations and public dollars that financed the new neighborhood.
Streets were rerouted, cut off from the Explosion site by a charming playground named Grdina Park. The homes you see today in that part of town — the low East 60s north of St. Clair — were built on standardized 150-by-40-foot lots, with the first sales financing the next batch of construction. The pre-war lots had measured 30 feet across. Many former neighbors moved in together once again. That's all they wanted to do.
In those first few weeks of pain and healing, Frances Skully, 68, surveyed what remained of her home on East 61st Street. "I'd be willing to set up a cot in my chicken coop and go back again," she said. "I couldn't think of living anywhere else. I could go through the neighborhood blindfolded. I know every step of the way. All my friends are there; where else would I want to go?"
On Nov. 14, 1944, more than 2,000 people attended a mass funeral for the Explosion's 61 unidentified victims at Highland Park Cemetery. Caskets and hearses were donated for each body, and local florists brought sprays of flowers. Each victim was lowered into a concrete vault, cradled in eternity and bathed by a city's tears. It was a Tuesday, and Lausche decreed that no other funerals were to take place that day.
"We want the nation to say that Cleveland looks after its own," Edward Sexton, a member of the funeral directors' committee for the mass burial, said. "Usually such victims would go to a potter's field. That is not for Cleveland."