Friday, December 5, 2008

The Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion of 1944

All photos from The Cleveland Press Collection
The Cleveland Memory Project

With all the focus on fuel prices these days, we probably spend more time thinking about the price of gas for our cars than we do about the natural gas costs to heat our homes. Maybe, once a month when the gas bill comes, we moan about it but we also want to be warm in the winter. Sometimes we are reminded of the explosive power of natural gas when we hear a report of a house that has exploded from a gas leak.

Clevelanders were made very aware of the power of a natural gas when, on a Friday afternoon on October 20, 1944, a massive natural gas explosion virtually leveled an entire neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, killing 131 people and obliterating one square mile of the surrounding area. This event is on record as being the worst disaster in the city’s history. (Let’s hope it stays that way.) Time Magazine listed the event as one of the “major catastrophes of the modern industrial era”. It is also regarded as the largest liquid natural gas explosion in the 20th century, and to date. The death toll could have been much worse, as the explosion occurred while children were still in school, and many adults were at work.

The disaster took place at an East Ohio Gas (now known as Dominion East Ohio) tank farm in eastern Cleveland. The huge tanks of gas didn’t just contain “normal” natural gas. They contained liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is natural gas converted to liquid form by removing certain components, such as dust, helium, water, and heavy hydrocarbons. This greatly reduces its volume for easier storage and transport. LNG was still relatively new during the time of the blast, and little was known about the dangers of LNG at the time. When East Ohio Gas first set up this location in 1941, it was only the second installation of its kind in the country.

In 1944, a much larger LNG tank was added as demand for natural gas increased in the Cleveland area. As World War II was still going on, steel was not available to build the tank, so another alloy was used. Unfortunately, this alloy was unable to withstand the cold temperature required to contain the LNG, and a leak in the tank developed. The gas began to escape, appearing as a fog in the area, which even seeped into the sewer system. As not much was known about the dangers of LNG, city officials and those living in the area were oblivious to the extreme danger that this fog posed. All that was needed was one spark to set off an explosion. It's been speculated that the spark came from someone trying to repair the tank, but no one knows for sure, since the area and the people directly in the area were obliterated with the blast. But, as the gas fog had spread through the surrounding area, it’s anyone’s guess where that spark really came from.

Here is what happened that day, according to Encyclopedia of Cleveland History:

The East Ohio Gas Co. explosion and fire took place on Friday, 20 Oct. 1944, when a tank containing liquid natural gas equivalent to 90 million cubic feet exploded, setting off the most disastrous fire in Cleveland's history. Homes and businesses were engulfed by a tidal wave of fire in more than 1 sq. mi. of Cleveland's east side, bounded by St. Clair Ave. NE, E. 55th St., E. 67th St., and the Memorial Shoreway. At approx. 2:30 P.M., white vapor began leaking out of Storage Tank No. 4, which had been built by the East Ohio Gas Co. in 1942 to provide additional reserve gas for local war industries. The gas in the tank, located at the northern end of E. 61st St., became combustible when mixed with air and exploded at 2:40 P.M., followed by the explosion of a second tank about 20 minutes later. The fire spread through 20 blocks, engulfing rows of houses while missing others. The vaporizing gas also flowed along the curbs and gutters and into catch basins, through which it entered the underground sewers, exploding from time to time, ripping up pavement, damaging underground utility installations, and blowing out manhole covers.

The entry in Wikipedia adds to this account:

At first it was thought that the disaster was contained, and spectators returned home thinking that the matter was being taken care of by the fire department. At 3:00 p.m., a second above-ground tank exploded, leveling the tank farm.

However, the explosions and fires continued to occur, trapping many who had returned to what they thought was the safety of their own homes. Housewives who were at home suddenly found their homes engulfed in flame as the explosion traveled through the sewers and up through drains. The following day, Associated Press wire stories contained quotes from survivors, many of whom were at home cleaning in preparation for the coming Sabbath. Survivors said that within a split second after the explosion, their homes and clothes were on fire…The toll could have been significantly higher had the event occurred after local schools had let out and working parents returned to their homes for the evening. In all over 600 people were left homeless, and seventy homes, two factories, numerous cars and miles of underground infrastructure destroyed.

Ohio History Central said, about the survivors:

For the people who survived, most lost everything. The flames destroyed several blocks of homes. Many of these people also had withdrawn their savings from banks during the Great Depression, as numerous banks had failed. The flames destroyed these people's life savings. As a result of the explosions, the East Ohio Gas Co. began to store its natural gas underground. The company also helped rebuild the community by paying more than three million dollars to neighborhood residents and an additional one-half million dollars to the families of the fifty-five company workers who lost their lives.

A historical marker is located at the site near Grdina Park at East 61st and Grdina, and it says:

At 2:30 p.m. on Friday, October 20, 1944, an above ground storage tank that held liquefied natural gas in the East Ohio Gas Company's tank farm began to emit vapor from a seam on the side of the tank that dropped into nearby sewer lines. It mixed with air and sewer gas and ignited, resulting in explosions and fires that brought damage to nearly one square mile of Cleveland neighborhoods. With 79 homes and two factories destroyed, nearly 700 people were left homeless, 131 killed, and 225 injured. The East Ohio Gas Company took responsibility for this tragedy to aid those in need through direct financial assistance and by rebuilding the community. The disaster also led to a movement by public utilities and communities across America to store natural gas below ground without tanks.

The use of Liquid Natural Gas is much more prevalent these days, and handled with extreme care. According to the Center for Liquid Natural Gas:

LNG is shipped on secure and specially designed ships from countries that export natural gas to countries that import natural gas. Carriers have traveled more than 100 million miles without a major incident in LNG’s 45-plus year shipping history. LNG carriers are double-hulled, with more than six feet of space between the outer hull and inner hulls. This design makes LNG ships extremely strong, minimizing the likelihood of leaks or ruptures in the unlikely event of an accident.

Upon reaching U.S. waters, the Coast Guard oversees the movement of LNG ships through ports. It also has the authority to review background checks of crews, order internal ship searches and require the use of Sea Marshals (specially trained and armed Coast Guard personnel.)

Upon arrival at its destination, LNG is generally transferred to specially designed and secured storage tanks and then warmed to its gaseous state – a process called regasification. It is transported via pipelines to consumers, industries and power generators who rely on natural gas.

It’s somewhat comforting to know that great improvements have been made in the transport, storage, and handling of LNG since that tragic explosion. And now you also know that learning those lessons cost many Clevelanders’ lives.

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Anonymous said...

This unfortunate incident is brought to life in a 1965 novel by Don Robertson called "The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread." The book was popular with high school students for a few years before fading into literary obscurity.

Anonymous said...

Having read "The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread" in 1965, I have never forgotten Cleveland's gas explosion, nor the fictional story which climaxes with this event. I am giving the book, which is now available again in paperback, to my granddaughter to read. It is such a powerful story and has stayed with me for the past fifty years. To say that the book has faded into literary obscurity would be insulting to anyone this history has impacted and those who have only read about it.

Anonymous said...

I read this same book years ago from our public library in Hays, Kansas. It has always been my favorite book. Several years ago my sister found a copy for my personal use as a birthday present. I just read it again the other day and it still amazes me.

Unknown said...

I just picked this book up because it was recommended in-flight reading and I grew up just south of Cleveland in Akron around this time. I really loved the book, both for its story, which I had never heard before, and for the excellent craft with which it was written. I was surprised that my sisters and brothers-in-law, who were young teens in 1944 didn't remember the explosions and fire. I am about to order more of Mr. Robertson's books, especially the other one that features Morris Bird III.

katieinohio said...

My great aunt Corine “Queenie” Inglis was just 30 years old when she passed away from injuries due to this explosion. She died on October 22, 1944, two days after the explosion.