October 20, 1944: We Didn’t Start The Fire–Gas Did

Today marks the 66th anniversary of a natural gas explosion that killed 131 people, decimating a chunk of Cleveland’s east side and leaving an indelible mark on the state of Ohio—just one in a long line of natural gas and fuel pipeline disasters that have plagued the Midwestern fuel transportation hub and the rest of the U.S.

The gas leak and resulting fire, which required the mobilization of nearly the entire city’s firefighting force, is generally considered the 20th century’s largest liquid natural gas explosion as well as one of America’s signature industrial disasters. It started at a three-year-old tank farm owned by East Ohio Gas, which now does business as Dominion East Ohio.

Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, via Case Western Reserve University:

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 immediate area surrounding the burning district was evacuated and refugees were sheltered in Willson Jr. High School on E. 55th St. where the Red Cross tried to care for approx. 680 homeless victims.


[At 2:40 P.M.] a massive and violent explosion rocked the entire area. Flames went as high as 2,500 feet in the air. Everything in a half-mile vicinity of the explosion was completely destroyed.

Ohio History Central:

The death toll may have been even higher if schools were not still in session, keeping many children away from the heart of the explosion. Numerous homes and businesses were entirely destroyed over several city blocks. To store more natural gas in the tanks, the East Ohio Gas Co. had liquefied the gas. The liquid gas seeped into the city’s sewer system […] creating a fireball underground that ignited numerous homes and businesses. The fireball supposedly was more than three thousand degrees Fahrenheit in temperature. Soon other storage tanks at the East Ohio Gas Co. exploded. Cleveland residents could see the resulting fireballs from at least seven miles away and the smoke from an even greater distance. As the tanks ignited, windows broke more than one mile away, and the bells of St. Vitus Church began to ring.

NWF’s recent report on oil and gas disasters may have served as an eye-opener about the recent safety missteps and outright negligence of the oil and gas industry, but communities have been suffering for a long time as a result of dirty energy malfeasance. The 1944 East Ohio Gas explosion was one early  example.

Significant Natural Gas Distribution Incidents: geocoded from 2010-02-17 PHMSA Pipeline Safety – Flagged Incidents.zip at http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/comm/reports/safety/SIDA.html (from Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit)

As seen in Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit, a far-from exhaustive survey of recent spills, leaks, fires, and other disasters,  Ohio has suffered 74 natural gas and fuel pipeline incidents in the last decade alone, making it the eighth hardest-hit state nationally (see PDF map here; note the brown dots). Those accidents killed six people, racking up some $36.5 million in damages.

On the anniversary of a still-vivid tragedy, we would do well to take another look at the societal and environmental costs of oil and gas industry negligence—indeed, to reevaluate our very dependence on that industry.

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Published: October 20, 2010