Thursday, October 20, 2011

The East Ohio Gas Company Explosion of 1944

“I went up with the potatoes this morning and another load abut three o’clock and picked up about 30 bushs on another load.  Erny Stowell has helped me today.  Has been a beautiful day.”

At 2:30 p.m. on the afternoon on Friday, October 20, 1944, above ground storage tank number 4, holding liquefied natural gas in the East Ohio Gas Company's tank farm, began to emit a vapor that poured from a seam on the side of the tank. The tank was located near Lake Erie on East 61st Street, and winds from the lake pushed the vapor into a mixed use section of Cleveland, where it dropped into the sewer lines via the catch basins located in the street gutters.
As the gas mixture flowed and mixed with air and sewer gas, the mixture ignited. In the ensuing explosion, manhole covers launched skyward as jets of fire erupted from depths of the sewer lines. One manhole cover was found several miles east in the Cleveland neighborhood of Glenville.
At first it was thought that the disaster was contained, and spectators returned home thinking that the matter was being taken care of by the fire department. At 3:00 p.m., a second above-ground tank exploded, leveling the tank farm.
However, the explosions and fires continued to occur, trapping many who had returned to what they thought was the safety of their own homes. Housewives who were at home suddenly found their homes engulfed in flame as the explosion traveled through the sewers and up through drains. The following day, Associated Press wire stories contained quotes from survivors, many of whom were at home cleaning in preparation for the coming Sabbath. Survivors said that within a split second after the explosion, their homes and clothes were on fire.
Cuyahoga County Coroner Dr. Samuel Gerber estimated that the initial death toll stood at 200; however, Gerber was quoted in newspaper wire stories stating the magnitude of the fire and the intense temperatures had the power to vaporize human flesh and bone, making an exact count impossible until weeks after the disaster. The final death toll was lower than the coroner’s initial estimates.
The toll could have been significantly higher had the event occurred after local schools had let out and working parents returned to their homes for the evening. In all over 600 people were left homeless, and seventy homes, two factories, numerous cars and miles of underground infrastructure destroyed.
Following the explosions and fires, East Ohio Gas worked to assure the public that the destroyed plant only held 24 hours worth of gas for the city. Many families living in the area not only lost their homes, but stocks, bonds and cash, which many kept at home. Estimates for destroyed personal and industrial property ranged between $7,000,000 and $15,000,000.
The explosion also had a long range impact on the natural gas industry. Until the disaster, above ground storage of natural gas, used as fuel for homes, office buildings and factories, was a common sight in cities across America. Following the disaster, utility companies and communities began to rethink their natural gas storage systems, and below ground storage of natural gas grew in popularity.
The disaster plays a major role in Don Robertson's 1965 novel "The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread."

The fire department sifts through the remains of the East Ohio Gas Comapany.


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