On the afternoon of October 20, 1944, disaster struck Cleveland. An explosion at the East Ohio Gas Company complex near East 55th and St. Clair Avenue killed over 160 people (at final count), severely injured hundreds more and demolished an entire neighborhood. Cleveland Police quickly responded to the devastating scene, took command of the response, secured the area, assisted surviving victims, and launched an investigation into the cause of the explosion.
CPD Inspector Timothy J. Costello and Chief of Police George Matowitz compiled a report of the disaster, most likely to share with the city’s administration shortly after the explosion. Below is a transcript of that report, along with photographs taken by Cleveland Police as well as Cleveland Press photographers (courtesy of clevelandmemory.org).
WARNING: This article includes graphic photographs.
The East Ohio Gas Company fire was caused by liquefied gas escaping from a tank or container, situated on the company’s property at the foot of East 61st Street, adjacent to the New York Central Railroad, presumably due to a rupture of a metal connection to the container. The fire burned continuously for two days.
At approximately 2.40 P.M. Friday October 20, 1944, Captain Albert Zahler of the Cleveland Fired Department, Engine Company No. 19, was seated in the front part of his quarters at 1321 East 55th Street, about one-quarter of a mile in a southwesterly direction from the center of the fire. Suddenly the windows rattled and the building began to shake. He immediately ran outside and was met by a blast of extremely hot air. He observed hundreds of people running toward him and could see flames up over the tops of the buildings between himself and the fire. He hastened to the telephone in his quarters and caused a 2-2- alarm to be sounded. Then with his men and apparatus he started out of the station and got as far as the apron in front but found the fire shooting up the street as though coming from a flame thrower such as is used by our armed forces.
The men alighted and rushed back into their quarters. The Captain contacted the fire exchange and ordered a 5-5 alarm turned in and gave instructions for responding companies to follow in approaching their locations and in combating the fire. During the three minute interim the flames had moved away from the front of the engine house. They then started to go in the direction of the fire and had gone but a short distance when they were met by more flame. They jumped from their apparatus and threw themselves on the ground until it had passed over. When they arose they were tossed about as feathers in a wind, due to the “brisance” of the explosion creating a vacuum. One man sustained a broken leg and others received severe burns.
An area of approximately one-half mile (one hundred and sixty acres) was directly involved by propagation of the heat. We have reports from people who were at least one-half miles distant from the seat of the fire who felt the heat so intensely they had to move further away.
An area of approximately twenty-nine acres was completely gutted, consuming everything combustible, including factory buildings, homes, automobiles, public utilities equipment, even destroying fire hydrants, railroad cars and steel rails.
One hundred and thirty police in Zone Patrol cars, mounted men, motorcycle men and traffic post men and fifty detectives and Police Ambulances, were immediately dispatched to the fire area. All men of the first platoon who would ordinarily report off duty at 3.00 P.M. were ordered to remain on duty until relieved. All of the second platoon men reporting for duty at 3.00 P.M. except sufficient number of men to man station houses and to maintain patrol duty in our radio equipped cars, to police the City throughout, were ordered to report to disaster headquarters, which were established in Engine Co. No. 19 at 1321 East 55th St., where emergency phone lines were quickly installed, all telephone communications in the area having been disrupted except the police call boxes.
Men from the second platoon provided an additional one hundred and sixty police for the disaster, making a total of three hundred and forty men. Officers were placed in command of squads assigned to evacuating people from the affected and adjoining areas, aiding the injured, removing serious cases to hospitals, regulating traffic, preventing looting, and in maintaining a blockade of the affected and adjoining areas, which had been isolated by the police.
Numerous schools in the area and adjacent thereto were in session. All children in those closely situated were kept in school. Those a safe distance away were excused on time and directed away from the disaster to their homes.
At 2.45 P.M. the entire Civilian Defense Corps was alerted and splendid response was had from all sections of the City and some of the nearby adjoining suburbs. Hundreds of Auxiliary Police and Air Raid Wardens, nine-hundred and seventy-five in all performed magnificently in assisting the police in their multitudinous tasks attendant upon a disaster of such magnitude. Two hundred and fifty-nine Auxiliary Firemen aided members of the Fire Department in fighting the fire. Emergency medical mobile service, doctors, nurses, transport corps, shelter and casualty station personnel, ambulance service, etc. in fact members of sixteen branches of this Volunteer Defense and Service Corps, totaling 2723 people, responded and were assigned to duties within or adjacent to the area, or in rescue stations and hospitals serving the victims.
Mr. John A. Kiener, Chief Radio Aid, Station WJJH, Cuyahoga County War Emergency Radio Service, (Civilian Defense Unit) who responded with ninety-five of his personnel, had twenty-five mobile units in the field and several Civilian Defense Report Centers in and adjacent to the area were manned. He also had six “walkie-talkie” instruments for use in the field. This unit rendered invaluable service in the transmission of two hundred and fifty messages for police officials and other services including the routing of injured to hospitals etc., as directed by Doctors of the Emergency Medical Unit on the scene.
The Honorable Frank J. Lausche, Mayor of the City of Cleveland issued a proclamation declaring an emergency existed, prohibiting persons from entering the stricken area or from congregating except under permit lawfully issued, and conditions quieted considerably after midnight of the first day.
However, there was still the constant danger of the other gas tanks exploding. The police force was placed on twelve hour duty effective 7.00 A.M. October 21, 1944. In this manner sufficient men were made available to handle the situation efficiently and provide full protection to the entire City, the Second Platoon being utilized in policing the stricken area. Members of the first Platoon who had been on continuous duty from 7.00 A.M. the twentieth, were gradually released after midnight.
Ohio State Guard Officers appeared on the scene and requested that they be allowed to take over the situation. They were promptly advised that the Cleveland Police Department was able to cope with the matter, but however if they wished to volunteer their services in aiding the police they would be gratefully accepted. After some delay, this they agreed to do. The State Guard and an outfit of the U.S. Coast Guard who also volunteered their aid, went into service in the effected area at 10.30 P.M. October the 20th. State Guardsmen patrolled on foot. The Coast Guard patrolled the area in jeeps, both aiding the police in maintaining the blockade, in the prevention of looting etc., the Civilian Defense Corps fully cooperated throughout the night and into the following day.
A police order was issued announcing that the police had full jurisdiction throughout the area, the military units to aid and assist the police in preventing looting, preserving good order and in maintaining the blockade of the area into which no person, including residents or property owners were to be permitted to enter until further orders.
No property or dead bodies were to be removed except under the supervision of the Cleveland Police or Fire Departments. Before the removal of any bodies to the County Morgue, complete descriptions of same and all circumstances surrounding the finding were to be noted, time, place, name if possible, type of building, etc. Tags were to be filled out and attached to each body and report made on same.
The survey cards, which were filled out by Civilian Defense Corps members, when a survey of the entire City was made, every building in the City being described, giving the address and name and the description of each person residing therein, proved of great value in the identification of bodies and the ascertainment of persons missing. Photographs of the work in progress and the entire stricken area were taken by Police photographers.
The Ohio State Guard withdrew at midnight October 24, 1944. The Coast Guard withdrew at midnight October 25th. The Police force were returned to regular hours of duty on October 27th.
The following is a summary of persons killed, missing, injured and administered first aid at casualty stations which were set up in the area:
- 76 identified dead
- 53 unidentified dead
- 32 missing
- 251 injured and sent to 13 hospitals
- 150 treated at casualty stations in the field
Summary of Property Loss:
- 81 homes totally destroyed
- 35 homes partially destroyed
- 2 factories totally destroyed
- 13 factories partially destroyed but could resume work after repairs
- 217 automobiles totally destroyed
- 7 large trailers totally destroyed
- 1 large tractor totally destroyed
In addition to the East Ohio Gas Company, damage was also sustained by the Ohio Bell Telephone Co., New York Central Railroad system, Cleveland Fire Department, Western Union Telegraph Co., Cleveland Transit System and other public utilities with a combined loss of approximately six million dollars.
Mayor Lausche appointed a special board of inquiry to determine the cause of the fire. To date they have not been able to do so or to ascertain the cause of the rupture in the metal which permitted the gas to escape. Many theories have been advanced by technical experts, chief among them being that because of the extremely low temperatures, 250 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) under which this gas was stored, caused the metal to become as brittle as glass and the vibrations of the earth caused by heavy trains passing and by heavy drop hammers in neighboring industrial plants, caused the metal to crack and open, thereby releasing the contents of a cylindrical tank, which vaporized and burned with explosive speed and force completely demolishing it. About twenty minutes later one of three spherical tanks exploded, which contained liquid gas the equivalent of fifty million cubic feet of natural gas at normal temperatures and pressures.
The cubical content of the holding sphere is ninety-seven thousand cubic feet. The cylindrical container held the equivalent of ninety million cubic feet of natural gas at normal temperatures and pressures, which had a cubical content of one hundred and seventy-six thousand cubic feet. Both these tanks were reported as filled, which means a total of approximately 273,000 cubic feet or 2,042,040 gallons of liquid hydro-carbon were released. The natural gas is lighter than air rating .61 an the liquid gas is about .4 compared to water. The weight of the fuel alone in the spherical tank is approximately 1210 tons and that of the cylindrical tank approximately 2198 tons.
On November 14, 1944, a mass funeral for sixty-one of the dead, fifty-three of whom were unidentified, was held in Highland Park Cemetery, where their remains were laid to rest in a large circular grave, funeral services were conducted by Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergymen in the presence of approximately 2000 people of all races and creeds.
This disaster proved to be the most difficult, hazardous and heart rending situation the Cleveland Police Department has ever been called upon to cope with. In the area south of the tanks, gas accumulations in various sewers, underground electric conduits, well holes, basements, buildings and other depressions. Explosions frequently took place for many hours after the inception of the fire, blowing man-hole covers many feet in the air, blowing up pavement all over the area, rupturing water lines, sewers and electrical service, blowing out numbers of plate glass windows on St. Clair Ave. one quarter mile from the center of the fire. Also residence windows were broken and some buildings were partially demolished from this cause while others were entirely demolished, causing many fires and injuring many people, including firemen, policemen, and members of the Civilian Defense Corps, none of them however were seriously injured.
Man-hole covers as far as four-fifths of a mile away were blown off. Somehow these gas accumulations in sewers would become ignited. They would start with a sudden hiss, then a rush of flame and hot gases would come from the man-hole followed in a very few seconds by a terrific explosion underground, which seemed to ignite all the gas accumulated in that area.
One of these explosions blew up the pavement under a fire department pumper situated at St. Clair Ave., and East 62nd Street putting it and the fire hydrant to which it was connected out of service. Several minutes later a second explosion occurred in the same location blowing a large crater in the street twenty-five feet deep, thirty feet wide and sixty feet long. The pumper which is about twenty-five feet long dropped into the hole, rear end first. The force of the explosion broke a large hole in an intercepting sewer, ruptured the water supply and underground electric system. Those hazards together with two other tanks which were considered potential “block busters” confronted all engaged in working in the disaster area, until the fire was extinguished.
Honorable Frank J. Lausche, Mayor, Frank D. Celebrezze, Director of Public Safety, Lewis B. Weinacht, Executive Secretary to the Safety Director and Dr. Samuel R. Gerber, Coroner, were on the scene through the critical hours.
The Department of Public Safety deeply appreciated the splendid work done by and the cooperation received form the following organizations: U.S. Navy Diesel Engine Outfit, U.S. Navy Coast Card, U.S. Navy Shore Patrol, Ohio State Guard, Sheriff Joseph M. Sweeney of Cuyahoga County, Crile Hospital for the service of their doctors and ambulances. The Salvation Army, the Red Cross, teachers of schools in and adjacent to the area, who kept their children under control, clergymen who administered to and comforted the injured and bereaved, the Civilian Defense Corps, without whose invaluable aid in the early hours of the disaster the police would not have been able to so successfully cope with the situation.
This latter fact will be gratifying to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, because at their conference held in Cleveland, August 14-16, 1944, the delegates adopted a resolution recommending that the Civilian Defense Corps be maintained intact for the duration and even after the end of the war.
A disaster such as the East Ohio Gas Company fire proves definitely that properly trained and properly coordinated volunteer groups, such as this, have a definite place in the relief setup of any community.
George J. Matowitz, Chief of Police
Timothy J. Costello, Inspector of Police