I hadn’t posted one of my magazine features here in a while, so here’s my October piece on the 1944 East Ohio Gas Co. explosion. The incident still ranks among the worst industrial disasters in American history.
For me, the feature allowed me to work on a historical narrative and use research materials around Cleveland that I hadn’t used prior. It was received quite well.
Art Stroyer sees the fireball. Marian Laska feels the rumbling. The terror doesn’t register immediately; neither of them are even sure what the hell any of it is, really. No one is. Everything happens instantly.
The sky blushes a grim red, a shade streaked violently with tawny ash and searing scraps of metal. The fireball can be seen from as far away as Chagrin Falls’ bucolic farmland. The deep boom shakes Plain Dealer desks over on West Sixth and Rockwell. But immediately, homes lining East 61st and Lake Court and St. Clair and every road within a half-mile of those giant storage tanks are going up in flames.
Everything happens instantly.
Something ignites the fine white haze of vaporized gas — no one would ever be able to say what or how — and unrelenting fire rages outward in every direction. Up: The heavens are ablaze. Down: The sewer lines become the Styx, breathing death into homes that had been so peaceful and warm just seconds before. The accompanying sounds are unnatural.
Albert Kotnick, who’s not unlike Marian Laska or Art Stroyer in his unbound wartime optimism, is heading out of his East 61st Street home when he feels, sees, becomes one with the Explosion — and, Jesus Almighty, was that really an Explosion? — and he runs back into house to get his two young children and his wife, and they’re flying down the street, and as they’re flying down the street the building that the Kotnick family has called home for years lights up in blazing oranges and yellows and hell-spawned reds and blacks. Within minutes, it’s gone.
Are the Germans bombing Cleveland? What in god’s name was that?