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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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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."

Causes unknown.

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."

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