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Cleveland's Greatest Disasters!: Sixteen Tragic Tales of Death and Destruction--An Anthology

Cleveland's Greatest Disasters!: Sixteen Tragic Tales of Death and Destruction--An Anthology

by John Bellamy II

An anthology of the 15 best true disaster stories from the popular book series by John Stark Bellamy II. Revisit the most terrible tragedies in Cleveland history, including:

• The apocalyptic East Ohio Gas Company explosion and fire of 1944, which destroyed an entire east side neighborhood;

• Genius inventor Garrett A. Morgan’s daring


An anthology of the 15 best true disaster stories from the popular book series by John Stark Bellamy II. Revisit the most terrible tragedies in Cleveland history, including:

• The apocalyptic East Ohio Gas Company explosion and fire of 1944, which destroyed an entire east side neighborhood;

• Genius inventor Garrett A. Morgan’s daring underground rescue efforts (using his recently invented gas mask) during the gruesome 1916 waterworks collapse;

• The unspeakably horrible Collinwood school fire of 1908, in which 172 schoolchildren perished in panic because of obstructed exits;

• The Cleveland Clinic disaster of 1929, in which thousands of pounds of X-ray film exploded in flames, causing 123 deaths;

• The grisly drama of two doomed workmen buried alive in the very concrete that became Cleveland’s celebrated landmark—the Terminal Tower.

A great introduction to Bellamy’s five-book Cleveland crime and disaster series.

Editorial Reviews

Cleveland Scene - Michael Gill
Bellamy sets the disasters in context and doesn’t skimp on details as he tells of 16 catastrophe—from natural-gas explosions, collapsing tunnels under Lake Erie, school fires, bridge collapses and even an explosion in a fireworks factory
Cleveland Scene
Bellamy sets the disasters in context and doesn’t skimp on details as he tells of 16 catastrophe—from natural-gas explosions, collapsing tunnels under Lake Erie, school fires, bridge collapses and even an explosion in a fireworks factory
— Michael Gill
Bellamy knows the dark side of Cleveland better than anyone.

Product Details

Gray & Company, Publishers
Publication date:
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5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 Streets of Hell The East Ohio Gas Company Explosion and Fire (1944)

It happens very suddenly, as you drive north through the neighborhood straddling St. Clair Avenue near East 55th Street on Cleveland’s northeast side. Where residential housing still persists in the upper 50s, there are mostly modest frame dwellings of turn-of-the-century vintage—small houses on postage-stamp lots, so crammed together as to give passersby claustrophobia just looking between them. Unless you know the dire history of this place, however, you aren’t prepared for the abrupt architectural change that begins north of St. Clair on East 63rd Street and persists westward to East 55th. Little by little, and then suddenly, the frame houses disappear and in their stead one finds modest, brick dwellings of a post–World War II character. And the closer you get to the property of the East Ohio Gas Company, the more modern brick homes you find—until residential housing ceases completely at the peaceful green border of Grdina Park, today the southern perimeter of the once-enormous gas company grounds. There’s a reason for that park, and there’s a reason for that eruption of modern, brick homes. For this is the Norwood–St. Clair neighborhood, once and still the heart of Cleveland’s Slovene community and the site of Cleveland’s worst industrial disaster: The East Ohio Gas Company Explosion and Fire of 1944.

How bad was it? Well, in terms of the bald body count, it wasn’t the worst Cleveland area disaster: at 130 known dead it barely surpassed the Cleveland Clinic Fire of 1929—by a mere five corpses—and fell more than 40 short of the 1908 Collinwood School Fire death toll. But for sheer horror, its effect on a large community, and the physical destruction involved it would be hard to beat. Of its 130 dead, 61 were so badly burned or pulverized that identification, sometimes even as to the sex of the corpse, proved impossible. Seventy-three of the dead were employees of East Ohio Gas. The disaster injured 225 persons badly enough to require hospital treatment, 23 of them Cleveland firemen. It totally destroyed 79 houses, 2 factories, 217 automobiles, 7 trailers, and 1 tractor, and partially destroyed another 35 houses and 13 factories. It did extensive damage not only to the Gas Company #2 works but also to property or facilities owned by Bell Telephone, the Cleveland Transit System, the New York Central Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Western Union. The total damage amounted to between $6 million and $8 million. Not to mention the cost of repairing the surrounding streets and sewer systems, largely smithereened into a splintered landscape of cavernous craters, and the promiscuous wreckage of subsidiary gas explosions.

Dollars, of course, don’t tell the real story. The explosion and fire that turned most of East 61st, 62nd, 63rd, Lake Court, and Carry Avenue into neighborhood holocausts burnt out the heart of a deeply rooted, cohesive, supportive, ethnic community. That community would proudly recover and rebuild—but no one involved could ever pretend that things would be the same.

Again, how bad was it? It was the force of 130 billion British Thermal Units (BTUs) unleashed within 30 minutes on a mere 160-acre area, much of it congested residential housing. It was 25 millions of horsepower suddenly vented to destroy hundreds of homes, families, and lives. It was searing, scorching flames, reaching heights of 2,800 feet and 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit in streets where children played and retirees sat on their front porches of a sunny October afternoon. It comprised the destructive force contained in 10,000 tons of coal or, say, the energy of 120 minutes’ worth of all the hydroelectric power west of the Mississippi devoted to the cause of blowing up and burning down the Norwood–St. Clair community.

After it was over, everyone agreed—surprise!—that it never should have happened. East Ohio Gas Company officials argued, quite correctly, that the explosion should not have occurred, given the laws of probability and the precautions taken to prevent it. City and neighborhood leaders excoriated both the gas company and city fathers for allowing such a lethal facility to be built so near a residential neighborhood. The fact of the matter is that the East Ohio Gas Company fire came, like Carl Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet. Decisions, both residential and industrial, unwittingly taken over decades of development, quietly and steadily made it almost inevitable that the East Ohio tragedy would happen just the way it did. All it took was a dangerous facility located close to a fragile, congested neighborhood. The East Ohio Gas Company #2 plant, located cheek-by-jowl to the Slovenian neighborhood of the East 60s, provided just such a site . . . and the exigencies of World War II energy production and distribution ensured that the disaster would occur in a certain way in that very particular place at that precise time.

The East Ohio Gas Company works located north of St. Clair and east of East 55th (formerly Willson Avenue) was one of the oldest industrial sites in Cleveland. Developed originally by the Cleveland Gas Light & Coke Company in the mid-19th century, the gas works became a part of the extensive East Ohio Gas Company properties shortly after the turn of the century. Known eventually as the #2 works, the 10-acre gas company grounds east of East 55th and north of St. Clair became a major nexus for the storage and distribution of natural gas to East Ohio’s many thousands of customers throughout Ohio. Meanwhile, just to the south of the #2 works, a vigorous ethnic neighborhood was developing simultaneously, and with little coordination to its industrial northern neighbor. Most of the housing stock was built between 1895 and 1905, predominately modest, working-class houses on very narrow, short lots, many of them two- or even four-family homes. This predominately Slovenian community stretched along the axis of St. Clair Avenue from the East 30s well into the East 70s, with the emotional focus of the community centering on St. Vitus Church, a Catholic nationality parish created in 1893.

It was only in the 1940s that the character of the #2 works changed in a manner threatening to the actual existence of the neighborhood. Owing to fluctuations in the rate of supply and limited storage capacity, East Ohio Gas was having trouble meeting the needs of its customers, especially during times of peak demand, such as prolonged winter cold spells. Supply problems were further aggravated by the war, and gas service to East Ohio customers had to be curtailed a number of times in the early 1940s. Something had to be done, and the solution chosen was a gas liquefication-regasification facility. And it was to be located at the heart of the utility’s service area, the center of Cleveland’s East Side.

The technology of natural gas liquefication had been under development for a half century, with most of the technical advances made by German chemists. The scientific concept was simple and its practical advantages were obvious: transformation of natural gas to a liquid state at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit involves a volume reduction ratio of 640:1. To be able to store 640 times as much natural gas as could be stored in its gaseous state, for regasification and use at peak demand times, was an irresistible option for East Ohio Gas, and they exercised it by constructing three liquid storage units of spherical design.

Built at a cost of $1.5 million, the three tanks were completed in January 1941. Their total capacity was 150,000,000 cubic feet. An adjoining regasification plant could convert the liquid back to gas at a rate of 3,000,000 cubic feet per hour. Storage commenced on February 7, 1942, and the plant quickly proved its commercial worth. But there were still shortages as wartime production demands increased, so East Ohio Gas Company received permission from the War Production Board on August 3, 1942 to build a fourth tank of 100,000,000 cubic feet capacity, double the size of its existing #1, #2, and #3 tanks.

There were some critical differences in the design of the fourth tank. Unlike the first three tanks, it was of cylindrical design. The first three tanks, in fact, were designed as spheres-within-spheres, the inner gas-holding sphere being insulated from its outer containing sphere by cork, with the entire 57-foot-high structure supported and suspended by steel supports. The fourth tank was a cylinder-within-a-cylinder (technically called a toro-segmental two-cylinder) and its inner insulation between the cylinders was composed of rock wool. The contrasting designs reflected, mainly, wartime economies. Despite its higher capacity, the #4 cylinder tank used 100 fewer tons of steel than a comparable spherical design, in part because it required fewer steel supports. Since cork was a critical war materiel, rock wool was chosen as the substitute insulation. As was the case with the other tanks, the inner gas-holding shell of the 50-foot-high #4 was constructed using a three-and-a-half-percent nickel-steel alloy to construct.

Designed and built by the Pittsburgh–Des Moines Steel Company, the #4 tank went into service in March 1943. But not for long. While being filled for the first time, the bottom of the inner steel shell cracked because of uneven cooling, and it had to be rebuilt. It was soon back in service, although it seems that the cooling problem was not corrected. Neighborhood air-raid wardens would complain periodically over the next year and a half that there was frequent “frosting” on the surface of the tank, obviously caused by settling of the rock wool insulation, which allowed outside moisture to settle on relatively uninsulated spots between the inner and outer shells of the #4 tank.

Friday, October 20, 1944, arrived and waxed as a beautiful, crisp fall day in Cleveland. Things were humming at the #2 works. In anticipation of the coming winter, the L.S.&R. crew of 24 was topping off the last of the four tanks, #1, and expected to finish the job about 2 p.m. As that hour came, no one, later, remembered anything unusual. East Ohio Gas Company Assistant Chief Engineer John R. Feightner and Engineer Hugh O’Donnel were underneath the #4 tank searching for a steam hose about 2:15, and noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Mrs. Charles Flickinger, 36, of 5614 Carry Avenue, was cleaning house and was just about to plug in her sweeper. Mrs. Thomas Komor, also of Carry Avenue, was walking with her two-year-old daughter, Judy, to a grocery store on E. 61st Street. Mrs. Julia Torok, 44, of 1162 E. 58th Street, was on her way to her husband’s barbershop on the south side of St. Clair at East 55th Street. And Marcella Reichard, 16, of 5473 Lake Court, was mopping the kitchen floor. Most school-age neighborhood children were in classes at Willson Elementary School on East 55th, anticipating the end of the school day and their return home in 20 minutes. The sun was shining and the wind was between 10 and 16 miles per hour. The time was 2:40 p.m.

No one will ever know with certainty just why and how the #4 cylindrical tank blew up at that moment. Most of the witnesses close to the initial disaster were killed, most of them the very East Ohio Gas Company technicians whose expertise might have most aided the ensuing investigations. But various witnesses in scattered locations later reported “heavy, white, steam-like vapors creeping and rolling” in the #4 vicinity about 2:30 p.m. Some of them thought the leak started about 10 feet off the ground and went halfway up the #4 tank. Two expert witnesses saw the blast preliminaries. H. J. Hense, of the American Gas Association Laboratories on East 55th, across the street from the liquid gas tanks, looked out the window about that time and noticed a leak in #4, with snow-white vapor or liquid gas streaming out. Seconds later he saw a second stream. John R. Feightner, the chief engineer of the L.S.& R plant, reacted immediately to what he saw. Standing in the center north door of the gas compressor building, he spied the cloud of white vapor and said, even as he began to run for his life, “My God, Number Four has let go!”

The first explosion came at about 2:41 p.m. The billowing clouds streaming out from #4 were suddenly illuminated at various points by rapid, yellowish-orange flashes. Seconds later came a tremendous blast, which shook the ground as far away as Shaker Square, and the flames of which were seen in Chagrin Falls. Almost instantaneously, a good deal of the 29-acre area including and surrounding the #2 works was on fire.

Outside the immediate blast area, waves of heat began to blow southward. Automobiles travelling on East 55th had their tires suddenly blown out from the heat radiating through the asphalt, and workers at the Warner & Swasey plant all the way down on Carnegie Avenue had to shut their windows against the intense heat. Meanwhile, young reporter George Condon was talking to the men’s fashion editor on the 6th floor of the Plain Dealer building when, suddenly, over the editor’s shoulder, he saw an immense pillar of flame rising on the northeastern skyline. He and his fellow reporters immediately left the building, heading east.

The first alarm was pulled at 2:41 p.m., and by the time the first Cleveland Fire Department company arrived at 2:43 many of the houses on East 61st and East 62nd were burning like torches. Fire officials and other witnesses later reported that many of the houses closest to the #4 tank at the northern end of East 61st seemed to be burning from the inside out. The reason for this soon became horrifyingly clear. Apparently in the minutes between the initial gas leak and the first explosion, a lot of liquid gas had seeped into the sewer system in the St. Clair area. Thousands of gallons of liquid fuel had already penetrated residential plumbing and drainage systems when ignition came, and shocked eyewitnesses watched as streams of flame raced up and down the neighborhood streets from catch basin to catch basin.

Aside from the force of the initial explosion, two factors increased the intensity of the initial inferno. One was the nature of the gas itself. As it was transformed back into its gaseous state by contact with the air, it became flammable, not to mention expanding to 640 times its liquid volume. Its presence in the sewer system and area house basements guaranteed that each home became an expanding holocaust as soon as ignited. The other factor was the unforeseen agency of the rock wool insulation, blown into countless liquid-gas-soaked fragments by the initial blast. Many of the rock wool pieces became flaming incendiaries that soon ignited numberless subsidiary fires.

Those who survived the first few minutes of the explosion and fires had terrible, touching stories to tell. One of them was Mrs. Berta Ott of 5472 Lake Court. As she later recalled:

Out of my window I see everything all red right after I hear the big noise. When I open the door the grass was burning in the yard already. So hot was it I didn’t know whether to open the door or not. All the children but Geraldine were at school. We ran out . . . We run through the field. All was burning. My back was so hot I thought I was myself on fire already. I took so good care of everything. My dog Tootsie—she was to have puppies—my three cats, my chicken all gone. My poor Tootsie.

Another woman with memories of instant hell was Mrs. Charles Flickinger of Carry Ave, the housewife who had just been about to plug in her carpet sweeper at 2:40 p.m.:

Suddenly it seemed like the walls turned red. I looked at the windows and the shades were on fire. Just like that. The house filled up with smoke. I think the furnace had blown up. Then I go out and see the fire all around.

There were many heroes and heroines in the first few minutes after the #4 explosion. One was Jack Bogarty of 6357 St. Clair, who had no idea what was going on when the doors of his house suddenly blew in:

I thought we had visitors. A second later we heard the explosion. A hot wave of air filled the house. I grabbed little Georgene off the couch and ran outside.

Bogarty’s experience was typical of the dozens of residents who conquered their initial fear of a world on fire to concentrate on helping others get to safety. Perhaps the most celebrated of this breed was Marcella Reichard, 16, of Lake Court. When the first blast knocked the mop out of her hand, she ran outside and saw that not only was the grass on fire but even the pavement, too. Marcella knew what to do, though:

I grabbed my mother and my little sister and we knelt and prayed. Mother went out the back way, and 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.

Marcella also tried to save an elderly next-door neighbor without success, not to mention a cache of letters from her soldier boyfriend overseas. She ended up badly burned all over her face and left arm, but she managed to save her family. She was also responsible for, perhaps, the most eloquently homely description of the disaster, “The whole kitchen looked as if the sun were setting right in the room.”

The local residents weren’t the only people with horrific stories to tell. Seventy-three of the 130 people who died that afternoon worked for the East Ohio Gas Company, and the surviving utility employees and those at neighboring businesses had terrible memories of what they saw as they fled the spreading holocaust. Within seconds of the #4 blast, virtually everything in the area was on fire: buildings, vehicles, utility wires, asphalt streets, grass, sewers, and a large number of human beings and animals. (In addition to dogs and cats, many area residents raised chickens; only the area cats had a high survival rate). Or as Mrs. Frank Mervar, of Mervar Cleaners at 5372 St. Clair, put it:

Everywhere you looked, every little leaf, every twig branch, the telephone wires, everything was a mass of flames. I was sure we were being bombed.

A very lucky East Ohio employee was engineer John Feightner. He had already started running when the first blast knocked him off his feet, but he got up and managed to make it into the #9 Water Seal Holder, which was a water-well area within a nearby gas drainage container. Seconds later, Feightner saw fellow employee Dale Keller running by, enveloped in flames. He managed to get his attention, and Keller jumped into the well with him, extinguishing his flames. Meanwhile, another employee ran by in flames, but Feightner and Keller were unable to get him into the well. They watched until he stopped running, fell down, and burned to death. After some minutes in the well, Keller and Feightner got out and started running north toward Lake Erie. They had just gotten to the New York Central railroad tracks when the #3 tank exploded.

It isn’t surprising that #3 blew up at 3 p.m., about 20 minutes after the first blast. Given the force of the #4 blast and the temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, it is surprising only that it took 20 minutes to melt the steel supports of #3 enough for it to collapse and detonate. More surprising still, however, was the fact that the #1 and #2 tanks did not blow up, despite their proximity to the two exploding tanks and the intense heat. For hours, virtually helpless firefighters watched and waited for #1 and #2 to blow . . . but it never happened.

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. Many of the human casualties were later found where they had died on the streets and in the houses adjacent to the #2 works. In the years to come there would be legends of completely cremated bodies found in the metal lockers of the East Ohio Gas Company Meter building, where terrified humans had locked themselves in to escape the heat—but such stories are apparently apocryphal. Thousands of birds, mostly sparrows, were instantly melted out of the sky and off telephone wires, as flames arced thousands of feet high, releasing temperatures usually not encountered outside a blast furnace. Meanwhile, the streets—East 55th, East 61st, East 62nd, East 63rd, St. Clair Avenue, Carry Avenue, and Lake Court—were littered with the pyres of burning human beings and the homes they had once inhabited.

As might be expected, the disaster did not bring out the best in everyone. Although initially Sea Scouts from local Coast Guard units and, eventually, the National Guard were put in place to prevent looting, not much could be done to defeat the ingenuity and ghoulish interest of many Clevelanders in the tragedy rapidly unfolding on the city’s northeast side. There was a reported incident of children being trampled by a crowd of rubberneckers, who panicked when the wind suddenly shifted the flames toward them on East 55th. And there is a memorable photograph of crowds waiting for the trolley on Saturday, October 24, at Marquette and East 79th. Many of them repeatedly rode this line back and forth all day, as it afforded the best view of the otherwise sealed-off neighborhood.

The response of safety officials was rapid and well organized, but there was little they could initially do, except to rescue the rescuable and to seal off the neighborhood. Because of the release of liquid gas into the local sewer system, much of the water system was soon destroyed by a series of subsidiary explosions which continued to blow craters in the streets and pop manhole covers hundreds of feet high throughout the rest of the day. Many of the newspaper reporters who covered the catastrophe would remember the latter phenomenon best, especially their frenzied panic as exploding manhole covers chased them up and down the smoldering streets. Cleveland Press reporter William Dapo remembered:

The exploding sewers for a time seemed worse than the fire itself. I was standing at Norwood Ave. and St. Clair when the blast so buckled the street a fire truck was buried in a huge crater. There was a hissing sound, then a roaring blast lifted the truck into the air. Flying bricks and glass flew all over the intersection. Too scared to run and too scared to lie down, I managed to move about three feet—to see beneath those feet another manhole cover. I took off then, but fast.

In practical terms the multiple sewer and street explosions meant that there was little water with which to fight fires that already encompassed an eight-block area. Thanks to the lakefront presence of the Coast Guard, however, a 1,500-foot hose was soon rigged up from a lake tug and water began to pour onto fires from the south side of the New York Central Railroad tracks. Meanwhile, the area from East 53rd east to Addison Road and south from Lake Erie to St. Clair was evacuated of more than 10,000 residents and sealed off.

The timing of the neighborhood quarantine was full of pathos, as it was accomplished just as neighborhood children were let out of Willson Elementary on East 55th. They arrived at the perimeter of their neighborhood to find it in flames—and probably their loved ones, too—and were sent back to Willson, where the Red Cross quickly established a disaster relief center. That night, 680 area residents slept on cots there, most still ignorant of the fate of their loved ones back in the burning inferno they had called home. Meanwhile, the County Morgue down on Lake Avenue at East 9th was besieged by a hysterical, weeping mob, desperate for news of missing relatives.

It is hard to say when the fire was brought “under control.” Cleveland firemen claimed mastery about midnight (Saturday morning). Residents were allowed to return to most areas on Sunday morning, October 22, although some fires continued to smolder for days, and small, exploding pockets of gas continued to make life interesting for reporters and safety forces for some time after the flames had dissipated.

As in all disasters, there were some oddities that were never accounted for. Given the intensity of the blasts and the heat of the flames, a great number of homes on the streets nearest to the #2 works were completely destroyed, as even a casual drive down East 61st, East 62nd, or Carry Avenue makes manifest today. Homes many blocks away had paint blistered and stripped by the volcanic temperatures. Yet some homes relatively near the center of the disaster escaped damage almost entirely, and the same could be said for some lucky human beings, who inexplicably survived a catastrophe that killed most of their neighbors. Not to mention such freakish events as the death of Minnie Schwebs of 1011 East 61st St. Burned over her entire body, her clothes burnt off completely and her charred flesh hanging in grotesque shreds, Schwebs apparently walked from East 61st to Glenville Hospital, where she collapsed and died. Physicians could only conjecture that extreme shock kept her going long after she should have succumbed to her burns.

If forethought was lacking in the period leading up to the East Ohio Gas disaster, the aftermath certainly afforded careful hindsight and recrimination. After the flames were brought under control, some rather intrepid gas workers began to drain the liquid gas out of Tanks #1 and #2. This took several days, as there was no power available in the area and three locomotives had to be brought in on the New York Central tracks to provide power for the drainage operation. Meanwhile, Coroner Sam Gerber supervised the grisly task of searching for the many missing bodies and the accumulation and classification of evidence.

It was ghastly work, somewhat hampered by poor early-November weather and the unsafe condition of many of the damaged buildings which contained the bodies of the missing. Of 130 bodies in the official tally, 61 were so badly burned or pulverized that no identification could be made. Most of them, like the 69 corpses identified, were either neighborhood residents or gas company employees. But some of them were just unlucky souls who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. People like Louis Ringhoff and Joseph Meidler, roofing contractors, who just happened to be repairing the roof of a #2 works building that Friday afternoon when they were instantly incinerated. Likewise, James A. Conforti, 23, of Cornell Road, survived the blast but suffered severe burns. It seems he was putting himself through chiropody school by giving driving lessons, and he had unluckily picked the Norwood–St. Clair area for his student’s lesson that Friday afternoon. Conversely, there were lucky individuals like George P. Binder. Superintendent of the liquid gas units, Binder, 45, was out in the field when the disaster struck. Virtually everyone in the office where he usually worked was killed as he watched from afar in horror.

Many of the neighborhood residents had to cope with the loss of their life savings, in addition to losing their families and homes. Among the saddest sights of the disaster, observers remarked, were the many scenes of returned residents weeping over burnt tin boxes and cans. Like many Americans who had lived through the Depression, area residents were suspicious of banks, all the more so as a large neighborhood bank had failed during the 1930s. So when the fire came, it incinerated numerous boxes and lard tins of cash and war bonds that householders had stashed under their mattresses and in their basements. The bonds would be replaced eventually by the U.S. government but the currency was redeemable only if still largely intact. More complex financial problems were presented by the estates of victims whose wills had also been destroyed in the fire. Not to mention the difficulties of probating cash and silver found on the bodies of the dead.

East Ohio Gas Company, for its part, moved toward settlement of claims as rapidly as possible. It had good reason to do so, as hungry lawyers were already swarming like a Biblical plague on Norwood–St. Clair, hot on the heels of the vulnerable, returning residents. An office was quickly opened to process claims against the utility, and the company astutely sought to protect itself from bogus claims by conducting a thorough photographic inventory of every structure and vehicle in the affected neighborhood. This proved a prudent precaution, as in one case where a claimant came in with only a license plate, claiming all evidence of the vehicle it had belonged to had been destroyed in the fire.

By mid-November the search for the dead, conducted by 80 men with picks and shovels from the county engineer’s department, was complete. More than half the casualties were represented only by bone fragments or body stumps. On November 14, 1944, a mass funeral and burial for the 61 unidentified dead was held in Highland Park Cemetery. There, before a crowd of 2,000, each body or body part was buried in a separate casket in an individual concrete vault. Each body received an individual grave number and the remains were carefully inventoried. Later, a simple, moving commemorative marker within a quiet garden was erected at the gravesite. All caskets, hearses, and the services of the funeral directors were donated.

And that was that, except for the rebuilding of the neighborhood—and the pleasures of the recriminations to come. Thanks to some insurance money, the eventual proceeds of almost 2,000 fire-loss claims filed against the gas company, and—above all—the efforts of the local Slovenian community itself, the neighborhood was rebuilt. The indomitable Slovenian residents would settle for nothing less. Mrs. Frances Skully, a 68-year-old widow, may well have spoken for the neighborhood as she returned to the rui...

Meet the Author

John Stark Bellamy II is the author of six books and two anthologies about Cleveland crime and disaster. The former history specialist for the Cuyahoga County Public Library, he comes by his taste for the sensational honestly, having grown up reading stories about Cleveland crime and disaster written by his grandfather, Paul, who was editor of the Plain Dealer, and his father, Peter, who wrote for the Cleveland News and the Plain Dealer.

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