City on Fire

By Ed Staskus

   The Friday afternoon the east side St. Clair neighborhood of Cleveland blew up, Hal Schaser was walking home from his 7th grade class at Wilson Junior High on East 55th St. He was 13 years old. It was an Indian summer October 20, 1944. He was looking forward to a bowl of soup and salt crackers. He was nearing his house near three in the afternoon when he was shaken and nearly knocked off his feet by a thunderous blast. When he steadied himself and looked around, he saw roofs on fire as far as he could see.

   “It was like the sky blew up all at once with lightning bolts and thunder,” he said. Thick black smoke turned day to night. His dog Buddy bolted up the front steps and pawed at the door. It was every dog for himself. “Only the pen of a Dante could do justice to the sights and sounds that occurred in the St. Clair-Norwood neighborhood that hellish afternoon,” local writer John Bellamy said.

   Hal’s mother ran out of the house. Buddy ran into the house. Hal ran to his mother. They looked up at the burning sky.

   “Captain Albert Zahler of the Cleveland Fire Department, Engine Company No. 19, was in his quarters at East 55th Street,” Cleveland Police Inspector Tim Costello’s report the next week recounted. “Suddenly the windows rattled, and the building began to shake. He 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 two-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 firemen retreated. Captain Zahler ran back to his telephone and revised the SOS to a five-alarm. When the flames moved on from the front of the station house, he and his men started out again. They didn’t get far.

   “They 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.”  

   The explosion and too many to count fires were caused when an East Ohio Gas liquefied gas holding tank started leaking. The gas flowed into the street and began to vaporize. It turned into a thick white fog. Nobody knows how it happened, but it ignited. It might have been a spark from a passing railcar or somebody lighting a cigarette. The thunderous bang wiped out the tank and everything else in its way.

   It happened at the foot of East 61st St near the New York Central Railroad tracks. When the gas blew up it blew up at about 25 million horsepower, the same as the combined output of all the hydroelectric plants west of the Mississippi River in 1944. Streets shook four miles away. Flames reached 3,000 feet high, and the heat reached 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After the war, a nuclear scientist estimated that the explosion released energy the equivalent of two and a half kilotons of dynamite, or about one-sixth the yield of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

   Tim Kelley’s father was home on leave after finishing basic training. He and a cousin were messing around the neighborhood when the big bang happened. “They took shelter under a box car to watch until they realized the steel wheels had gotten too hot to touch,” Tim said. It was time to go, they agreed. They beat a hasty retreat.

   Hal, his kid brother Willie, and mother Agnes lived on East 66th St. and Lexington Ave., just a mile-or-so from the East Ohio tank farm. Agnes sprayed garden hose water on their house until the water pressure dropped to nothing. Standing on the front porch they watched a tangled mass of cars busses and townsfolk on foot going the other way. Police fire and civil defense cars and trucks went towards the fire, which was spewing gas, molten steel, and rock wool into the sky. Birds turned to charcoal and fell out of trees. Hal’s dog Buddy snuck into the basement and didn’t come out for three days.

   When the storage tank, holding 90 million cubic feet of liquid natural gas in reserve for local war efforts, exploded, fire engulfed more than a square mile of city life, from St. Clair Ave. to the Shoreway, from East 55thSt. to East 67th St. The sky went red and orange then squid ink. Fire boats poured water on factories on the shoreline of Lake Erie. 

   Sandy “Candy Man” Drago was checking a shipment of pipes at the tank depot. His candy was on his desk. His car was parked in a nearby lot. When the tank ruptured and exploded, he was knocked flat and the paperwork in his hands turned to ashes. When he looked himself over for damage, his clothes were gone. He was left wearing underpants with melted elastic. He ran for his life. His office and the candy on his desk caught fire. His Chevy caught fire. Two roofers replacing slates on top of the tank were blown to kingdom come. Not even a fragment of them was ever found.

   Mary Kolar was in her kitchen when a fireball smashed through the window, landing on her linoleum floor.  Her first thought was, “My God, the Nazis are here.” She swept up her children and ran for her life. Her house caught on fire. They passed a charred man caught on a fence. He was dead. “All that was left were his shoes.” When teenager Josie Mivsek rushed up to her house, it was just in time to see it collapse. She later retrieved her marbles, being a marble-shooting champion, but they had all melted together into a lump.

   The smell of burning whiskey hung over streets as bars taverns and backyard stills went up in smoke. The copper lines and barrels of yeast melted. Cash money tucked away into drawers and under mattresses was set alight and lost forever.

   Eleanore Karlinger was working on the Sunday bulletin at St. Vitus Catholic Church. When she was knocked off her feet she stayed there. It can’t be an air raid, she thought. She cradled her head just in case. Then she thought it must have been the devil. When she came to her senses, she thought about getting the hell out of the church. She started to run but went back to man the phones in case the house of God was needed for shelter. Mothers dragged their children into the church, which was still standing safe and sturdy, for safety.

   Housewives were caught unaware as flames raced through sewers and up their drains and their homes were suddenly on fire. “I was going to plug in my sweeper,” said Mrs. Charles Flickinger. “Suddenly it seems like the walls turned all red. I looked at the windows and the shades were on fire. The house filled with smoke. I think the furnace had blown up, then I see the fire all around.”

   Hal’s house didn’t catch fire. He, his brother, and mother didn’t have to shelter at Wilson School. It was where the Red Cross ended up taking in nearly 700 suddenly homeless men, women, and children. It was more than a week before he went back to school.

   Less than a half hour after the first explosion, a second tank exploded. Gas ran into the streets, into the gutters, and down catch basins into sewers, igniting and blowing up wherever it pooled. Telephone poles bent in the heat, smoking and igniting. Pavement was blasted into chunks and manhole covers sent flying. Fire trucks fell into sinkholes.  

   “Manhole covers were being blown up into the air like flipping pennies heads or tails,” Hal said. One of them was found in Glenville, miles away. One fell from the sky onto the heads of two men. All that day and the next day sirens never stopped wailing. More explosions followed, seven in all, smaller in scope but each one unleashing a fireball. When things died down “it looked like the end of the world,” he said.

   His world had already been turned upside down twice. He was 2 years old when his father, who ran a corner store, was robbed shot killed by two young thugs. His mother found out while in the hospital giving birth to his brother Willie. After she re-married, after a few short years, Hal’s stepfather died after a short sudden illness. Agnes Schaser never married again, going it alone, raising her two boys with no help from anybody. The land of dreams had turned into bad dreams. She was from Romania and would have gone back except for the war.

   When Albert Kotnik’s house shook like it was going to fall apart, he grabbed his two children and ran outside, followed by his wife. They looked towards the east side where it looked like hell had suddenly become real. They turned around when they heard all the windows of their house cracking busting. The house was on fire all at once. It burned down to the ground in ten minutes. 

   Marcella Reichard’s house on Lake Court burned down to the ground. So did every one of the other twenty-three houses on the cul-de-sac. “I grabbed my mother and my little sister, and we knelt and prayed. Mother went out the back way, but I told her she would be running right into the flame. I told them to hold their hands over their eyes and run toward the lake. Then we just ran.” 

   More than 10,000 people were evacuated from the neighborhood.

   Jack McLaughlin’s father died at the tank farm trying to rescue a great-uncle who worked for East Ohio Gas. Jack was the same age as Hal. “This was in God’s plans,” he said. Many who died worked for East Ohio Gas. Some of them were never identified, burnt so badly as to make identification impossible. Others were never found, their flesh and bone vaporized. 

   Anthony Greenway worked for East Ohio Gas. He was killed. “Uncle Anthony’s damaged watch was located and returned to the family. It was all they ever found of him,” said Kathy Chamberlain.

   Fatality figures for the burned are hard to come by eighty years later, although it is certain many of the severely burned subsequently died. “They didn’t have the tools and treatments in the 1940s we have today,” says Cleveland dermatologist William Camp. “They would have died of electrolyte loss, body heat loss, and infection.”

   Most of Cleveland’s fire companies and policemen raced to the immense blaze, as well as military personnel, utility workers, and civilian volunteer groups. Auxiliary police, auxiliary firemen, and air-raid wardens showed up by the hundreds. The Coast Guard and National Guard showed up. Firemen and policemen worked non-stop shifts, grabbing a few minutes of shut eye when they could. They surrounded the fire and tried to keep it from getting away from them. They fought it all day and night dealing with consuming heat, explosions, and pumpers sinking into melting ground. Fire Engine No. 7 disappeared into a big hole in the ground.

   Cindy Greenwald’s father was working at a nearby war plant. “They were all let out of work to fight the fires,” she said. “He and some other guys worked all night long hosing down buildings on St. Clair. They watched the fire truck fall into the hole in the ground. When daylight came, they found out what they’d had their backs to the whole time. It was a gas station.”

   By the end of Saturday morning, the fire department and volunteers had almost all the fires under control. In the afternoon. Hal and his kid brother Willie went exploring. All the stop signs and traffic lights were gone, but there was no traffic, anyway. Burnt up hulks of cars and trucks littered the curbs. Fire hoses littered every intersection. Small still smoking fires littered every other front yard.

   “What happened to this place?” Willie asked. “It’s a mess. Was it the Martians? Was it the Germans?”

   “Before yesterday this mess was our place,” Hal said. “It wasn’t the Martians. Mom said it must have been sabotage.”

   “This wouldn’t have happened if Superman had been here,” Willie said.

   “Yeah, him and Captain America, too, they got the moxie,” Hal said.    

   Many of their friends schoolmates relatives in the neighborhood were gone. They had gone somewhere anywhere safe. It was like a ghost town. The fire destroyed homes, small apartments and boarding houses, factories, tractor trucks and trailers, and 217 cars. The death toll reached 130 while the burned and injured reached into the thousands.

   They slouched home, there being little to see except destruction. Besides, they had already been told twice by policemen to go home. Their mother always said three times is the charm. They didn’t want to tempt fate. When they got home, they checked on Buddy, who told them in so many words he was going to stay in the basement for another day or two, just in case.

   A month later there was a mass funeral for the unidentified dead at Highland Park Cemetery. Florists donated flowers and funeral parlors donated caskets. Thousands watched silently, wondering which one of the coffins held their missing father mother brother sister. The dead were lowered one by one into a concrete vault. The mayor ordered that no other funerals take place that day.

   “We want the nation to know that Cleveland looks after its own,” said Edward Sexton of the committee for the mass burial. “Usually, such victims would go to a potter’s field. That is not for Cleveland.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

3 thoughts on “City on Fire”

  1. I was in the 7th grade in St Casmir school on E 82nd street. On the third floor doing so art work. I felt the building shake, heard the blast, looked out the window and saw this huge black cloud. I remember seeing the red sky at night and praying it would not reach us. Thank you….

  2. I don’t remember a thing but my mom said she swept me up and ran outside with my older sister at her knee. I was born on 12-30-43. She said she thought it was the end of the world and started to head toward St. Vitus. Ended up going back to our home the “up” at 1240 E. 61st St.

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