At first, nobody noticed a cloud of vapor pouring from an Ohio Gas Company storage tank on Cleveland’s East 61st Street. Even if they had, no alarm bells would have rung on that October Friday in 1944 – liquefied natural gas was a new product and its explosive capabilities had not yet been appreciated. They soon would be. Wind off nearby Lake Erie pushed the heavy gas cloud inland, where it flowed into the sewer network via street drains. Once there, it was only a matter of time before the dangerous mixture of air, sewerage gases and natural gas ignited.
The flashpoint came in the early afternoon, when a violent underground detonation hurled manhole covers high into the air (one was found several miles away) as plumes of fire erupted from the depths. The number of casualties caused by this dramatic occurrence is not recorded, for the worst was yet to come. As residents got over their initial shock and the fire department appeared to gain control, crowds of spectators gathered… to their cost.
Some 20 minutes after the initial blast, one of the Ohio Gas Company’s tanks exploded, flattening the tank farm and unleashing a second conflagration. Survivors claimed that their clothes caught fire instantly – and they were the lucky ones. Many died, some being burned beyond recognition. A second wave of fire roared through the sewers and erupted from drains, engulfing homes and those who had sought safety within. When the flames finally died down over 70 houses, two factories, countless vehicles and the sewerage system had been destroyed. Around 600 people were homeless, having lost everything, and more than 100 had died. If the disastrous event had occurred after school was out and adults returned from work, the casualty list could have quadrupled.
When: October 20 1944
Where: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Death toll: 131 dead, plus 225 with serious burn injuries
You should know: As a result of explosive events in Cleveland, utility companies that were using liquefied natural gas started phasing out above-ground storage tanks in favor of less vulnerable underground facilities.