UNDERGROUND GAS BLASTS WRECK CLEVELAND STREETS
Many Casualties Caused by Flying Debris; Over a Mile of Pavement Ripped Open
ONE woman was killed and sixty-four other persons were injured, three critically, and property damage estimated as high as $5 million was done by a chain of unexplained explosions beginning at 5:15 P.M. Thursday, Sept. 10th in Cleveland, Ohio.
The first blast occurred on West 117th street, where the road dips under the New York Central Railroad. It was followed shortly by four others as the progressive destruction spread rapidly north along W. 117th street, and over nearly a mile square area.
The concussions terrorized and confused residents of the city’s West Side, brought firefighters from Cleveland, under assistant chief Ferdinand Boehmer, and from suburban Lakewood, under Chief Charles A. Delaney, police, civil defense and disaster workers from eight suburbs to control crowds, restore order and untangle the resulting huge traffic jam.
The damage was divided on both sides of the Cleveland City and suburban Lakewood line. It was the third gas explosion of the summer in the city of Cleveland alone. The last one, on W. 9th street near Frankfort Avenue, injured 12 persons and was ascribed to marsh, or sewer, gas.
The first and most severe blast of the latest tragedy occurred near the junction of W. 117th and Berea road at the railroad underpass. A woman in an automobile was killed just north of Berea road by flying concrete that crushed her car. At this area, sidewalks vanished and the street shattered into great chunks of concrete with crazyquilt patterns formed by pavement bricks. Cars were tossed over like straws in the wind, buffeted and crushed by flying masonry and concrete, the occupants of many of them pinned helplessly in the wreckage.
From Madison Avenue, the first street crossing W. 117th north of the railroad, the pavement was shattered to varying degrees for over four long blocks. Just north of Madison on W. 117th, tracks of the old carbarns were wrecked. Heavy glass damage was done to structures ail along W. 117th. Between Detroit Avenue and Clifton blvd., along 117th St., destruction was widespread, practically all windows in the Dougherty Lumber Co., east of 117th street being shattered. Damage to the Nickel Plate Railroad overpass between Detroit ave. and Clifton blvd. was heavy and caused stoppage of all traffic. At the corner of Clinton blvd., a gigantic block of pavement was thrown against a W. 117th st. bus. Manhole covers popped, following the major blasts, as far as W. 104th st. along Clifton, and as far east as 110th st. on Lake st.
Following the devastating explosion, the air was filled with debris and dust. When it settled, wrecked automobiles and trucks were strewn about, with many of their occupants pinned inside. As some of the smashed vehicles took fire from ruptured gasoline tanks and lines, screams for help sounded.
Fire alarms from boxes and telephones flooded fire alarm headquarters where the operators and dispatchers quickly sifted them out, analyzed the extent and nature of the disaster, and set in motion the fire department and other emergency forces that sped to the area.
Arriving fire fighters encountered a flood of water gushing from a broken water main almost under the New York-Central overpass. Another flooded area was found along Clifton blvd. In between these two points, four blocks apart along W. 117th st. were cars and rubbish burning in varying degrees, crowds milling about eager to aid but more or less helpless until the fire forces pulled in. After that it was routine— the quick search of every damaged car and of every pile of debris that looked like it might hide victims; the extinguishment of the small fires and setting up precautions against possible later blasts from escaping gas. Police and cooler headed citizens calmed the panicky residents of the area who milled crazily about, or huddled fearfully in their dwellings and shops. To many of them, it was another East Ohio Gas disaster. To others, it was an atomic attack. Only the presence of the Cleveland and Lakewood emergency forces finally brought calmness and order out of the near-chaos.
Stories of incredible escape from the effects of the explosion were described throughout the entire one mile route of the blast area. Why everyone in a city bus was not killed or critically injured nobody could guess; said a witness “it seemed as if the street tipped right over onto the bus.” But its passengers scrambled out unhurt.
As city gas, sewer, electrical and other workers converged on the scene, the first efforts were directed at capping the 10-inch gas lines which burst by the concussion. First arriving fire fighters gave this danger their immediate consideration. The whole intersection of Lake ave. and W. 117th was threatened by escaping gas and firemen quickly wet down the area. Manhole covers popped skyward along Lake, as the forces went into action.
Efforts were directed also toward stopping the flow of water from a broken 24-inch main which was flooding the southern end of the W. 117th area at a rate of about 416,000 gallons an hour. Attention was also given the ruptured sewers throughout the district.
All this time the sirens of ambulances and fire apparatus summoned from a wide area were heard. The injured were rapidly dispatched to six different hospitals. Auxiliary police and civil defense workers appeared and pitched in where they were needed.
The exact cause of the initial blast was being debated days later, but it was believed to have been a spark of some sort, which ignited gases built up in a large sanitary sewer under W. 117th St. Representatives of the City Southerly Disposal Works, and of the East Ohio Gas Company, joined with other local and out-of-town officials in the investigation which followed.