Banner headlines in The Evening Repository 85 years ago brought the news of the deadly explosion and fire that killed dozens of people at a place — the Cleveland Clinic — that was built to help patients return to health.
“CLINIC DEATH TOLL AT 120,” blared the headline on Thursday May 16, 1929. “BLAST REMAINS MYSTERY.”
Within hours of its occurrence, investigations by local and state officials were looking into the tragic incident. Investigations centered on what touched off a supply of X-ray films in a basement storage room and engulfed the building in a penetrating cloud of poisonous gas and flames, said an Associated Press article.
One explanation blamed a steam fitter who was using a blowtorch to make a repair on a pipe near basement storage cabinets filed with volatile and flammable X-ray film. A door to the vault holding the film reportedly had been left open.
Toxic gas released by the burning film continued to kill those who inhaled it after victims were taken from the hospital alive. “The noxious, brownish gas which shattered the Cleveland clinic and dropped patients, doctors and nurses in their tracks as they fought for escape, continued its insidious work today,” said a Repository article.
One of the victims was Dr. John Phillips, one of the founders of the
clinic, who was treated with two tanks of oxygen.
“This recourse having failed, Dr. George W. Crile, co-founder and head of the clinic, performed a blood transfusion on his colleague,” a story in The Repository reported. “But, he died.”
Most of those who died at the clinic were from Cleveland. But, some also were from other cities in Ohio and a few from outside the state. A former Massillon woman, Elizabeth Farmer Sexauer, and an Alliance man, Oscar Bieshelt, were among the dead.
“Mrs. Sexauer, whose home was in Akron, had accompanied her sister, Mrs. Frank Ketcher, also of Akron, who was ill, to the clinic,” The Repository reported. “Mrs. Sexauer was waiting in one of the rooms, while her sister was in another part of the building, undergoing an examination. Mrs. Ketcher, relatives learned, broke a window and jumped from the building to safety. Mrs. Sexauer was not found until several hours later. She was lying in the corridors, a victim of the deadly gas.
Bieshelt, who operated a grocery store in Alliance, was among those who died early the next morning. He had gone to the clinic to undergo treatment for a hand injury. Two Massillon people were among others who had been listed as victims, but who remained alive as the initial report was made in newspapers. Barbara Merwin was brought home to recover and Elizabeth Hipp Bowen, the wife of a doctor on the clinic staff, was in a Cleveland hospital. Both initially suffered from the effects of gas and shock.
Two others with local ties appeared to benefit from fortunate timing and fine rescue work.
“Fred Welborn, golf professional at the Tam O’Shanter golf club, visited the Clinic Monday and Tuesday of this week, but returned home Tuesday night,” a Repository article said. “Ben Jones, a football player at one time a member of the Canton Bulldogs, was in the Clinic at the time of the explosion. He was removed from the building by firemen.”
Jones was rescued at the window of a smoke-filled upper-floor room where he was ready to jump in an attempt to avoid death by the gas.
CANTON MAN SAW
The removal of Jones by a fireman and a ladder was seen by a Canton man — a friend of the football player — and two companions from the city, who were among the first people to arrive at the scene. The man, Charles White, state commander of the Disabled Army Veterans in Cleveland, gave to The Repository a “graphic portrayal of the scenes of horror and suffering” that he witnessed with an assistant, Anthony Lebus, and fellow Cantonian Jack Brennan.
“The scene was one of terrifying confusion,” said White. “The screams and shouts of those imprisoned or injured were horrible to hear. Patients and employees were at every available window almost at once screaming for assistance.”
White and his companions witnessed a second explosion at the clinic.
White said that he saw a huge section of the roof hurtle through the air, missing by inches the heads of Jones and a girl who also was being rescued. But, they were not hit.
Jones, who following his harrowing experience, claimed he was not injured, drove 150 miles to Grove City, Pennsylvania, where he lived.
“Suddenly, at a late hour Thursday night, he collapsed, the deadly gas getting its work, and died at an early hour this morning,” reported The Repository in a story published Friday May 17, 1929. “His young wife and 2-year-old daughter were at his bedside.”
Reports in The Repository added graphic detail.
“With the first explosion, firemen concluded, the gas swept upward and filled the building. Pent in, with compression increasing as the heat intensified, the gas exploded a second time. It leaped in flame from the basement to the foyer skylight, scorching woodwork, blasting masonry and enveloping the interior in an inferno of stench and heat.
“The skylight was shattered and glass from the windows was hurled across the street. The doors enforced with steel buckled under the terrific suction of air as the gas was released.
“Then came the confusion. The swirling brown clouds, nauseating and made heavier by the sickening smell of burning celluloid enveloped the building. The fire soon spent itself, but the clouds of gas, smoke and odor of burning chemicals clung to the building hours after the fire was extinguished.”
Accounts chronicled heroic actions. Police patrolman Ernest Staab, “heedless of the gas fumes,” went back into the hospital again and again, bringing 21 victims outside, until finally he fell to the fumes. A telephone operator at the clinic, Gladys Gibson, stayed at her post, “plugging socket after socket in the switchboard, as she set all telephones in the clinic ringing madly their alarm of death.” She died after collapsing and being carried out of the hospital.
“Doctors, nurses and orderlies of the hospital responded to a clear call and went on to that which they must have known was certain death,” said an editorial in The Repository the day after the Cleveland Clinic explosion. “Policemen, firemen, pedestrians, passing motorists forgot their own safety to offer their help.
“The graves of those who lost their lives in the Cleveland disaster will be hallowed by the red cross of humanitarian service.”
Reach Gary at 330-580-8303
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