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The Day Cleveland Exploded: 70 Years Later, the Unthinkable Disaster of the East Ohio Gas Co. Explosion

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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.

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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.

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