Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Geysers of Fire in Cleveland—The Very Streets Erupted

This is not Europe in 1944.  It is Cleveland as authorities and volunteers search for survivors in the rubble of some of the ruins left by the East Ohio Gas Company LNG explosion.

Plenty of things and places in the world were going boom with deadly intent and effect in 1944.  Perhaps that is why except for a dwindling few survivors, the families of victims,  and the scarred heart of a city that the explosions and fires set off by a leaking above  ground storage tank containing Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) on Friday, October 20, 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio are largely forgotten. 

The East Ohio Gas Company tank farm set near the shores of Lake Erie on 61st Street.  The plant was the very first LNG facilities built in the United States and was still relatively new having been opened in 1941.
Surrounding it was one of the city’s older neighborhoods, mostly small frame houses occupied by European immigrants and second generation industrial workers.  Mixed in were factories, churches, schools, and small shops along the arterial streets.  It was mid-afternoon.  Many were gone from their homes, away at work in the plants and mills of the city humming at full war time capacity.  Children were in school.  Some women were marketing for their families’ dinner.  But there were plenty of women at home, smaller children, and retired folks.  In Jewish homes, the women were busy with the ritual cleaning to prepare for Shabbat—the Sabbath.
About 2:30 that afternoon a seam on Holding Tank #4 containing 90 million cubic feet of LNG failed leaking heavier than air vapor which sank to the ground and was pushed into the surrounding neighborhood by prevailing winds off of Lake Eerie.  It rapidly found and sank into the open catch basins along the streets of the city sewer system.  It continued to flow through the system and mixed with natural methane gas always present in the system. 
No alarm or warning was made by the Gas plant operators.
What happened next was inevitable.  Almost anything could have set it off—a cigarette flicked away through an open sewer grate, an electrical spark, the rapid build-up of pressure in some pocket.  Within minutes a tremendous blast ripped through the sewer system.  Heavy manhole covers were blown hundreds of feet in the air.  One cover was later found miles to the east in the Glenville neighborhood.  Roaring geysers of flames shot into the air.  Sections of streets collapsed.  In homes and other buildings the flames erupted through toilet, tub, sink, and Floor drains, blowing the roof off the buildings and popping the walls outward like balloons.  The intense heat literally vaporized many victims.
Stunned survivors wandered the streets, many seriously wounded as fiery debris rained down infighting more fires.  The capricious flow of the gas through the sewers meant that damage was spotty through the neighborhood, some homes left standing alone or in small islands. 
As the Fire Department struggled to respond to the enormous catastrophe the Nuns at St. Vitus School and the teachers at a nearby public school,  both of which were fortuitously by-passed by the explosion, quickly calmed and gathered their students and evacuated their buildings, preventing distraught children from rushing home.  They herded the charges to neighborhoods away from the damage.
The initial explosion shook the whole city.  Flames and smoke could be seen for miles.  Being war time, many at first believed the city had been attacked by Nazi bombers or that saboteurs had been at work at the gas plant.  As word spread, workers began to stream out of their factories and head home desperate to find their loved ones.

Fires raged through whole blocks of modest working class homes.

After several minutes and as the fires from the sewers began to subside, many residents concluded that the Fire Department had the situation in hand and returned to their intact or slightly damaged homes.  Twenty minutes after the first blast, a tank adjacent to the leaker exploded leveling the whole Gas Works and pushing new flows of fire through the sewers igniting many of the houses to which survivors had just returned.
The Fire Department struggled for more than a day to completely extinguish the last of the smoldering ruins.  Hospitals across the city and suburbs were overwhelmed with casualties, many of them gruesomely burned.  It took days to reunite scattered families. 
Dr. Samuel Gerber, the visibly distraught Cuyahoga County Coroner told the local press that the death toll could exceed 200 but might never be known due to the complete destruction of many bodies.
After weeks of accounting for the missing, authorities finally set the actual death toll at about 130.  The explosions had destroyed most of an area covering more than a square mile of the east side St. Clair-Superior neighborhood.  600 people were left homeless, and seventy houses, two factories, numerous cars and miles of underground infrastructure and street surfaces were destroyed.
In addition to the loss of their homes, furnishings, clothing, and other tangible property many of the families, traditionally distrustful of banks especially after the Depression, lost hoarded  cash, huge amounts of War Bonds, stock certificates, deeds, insurance policies, and other documents for which they could never be made whole.  Because of the uncertainty of these kinds of losses, total losses have been estimated at between $7,000,000 and $15,000,000, including losses at the Gas Works and other industries.

Early headlines did not yet grasp the scope of the disaster.

East Ohio Gas shelled out about $7 million to rebuild homes and repair streets.  Victims and survivors got very little compensation for their injuries, medical expenses, or the loss of loved ones.
LNG storage practices were reformed in the wake of the disaster.  New high-pressure, seamless tanks were developed.  Underground tanks for high volume storage became the norm.  But changes took years.  There were other disasters.  But none as devastating at the one that shattered an autumn afternoon in Cleveland.

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