I suppose everyone was expecting a happy ending. The “Holiday On Ice” skating show had started well after 8pm in front of 4,300 spectators, most of them members and guests of the Shrinners. Smoothly the cast ran through the numbers; “Holidayland”, followed by “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Egyptian Fantasy”, “Rhapsody For Strings”, and “Waltz At Maxims”. And just after 11pm the stars – including the lovely Jeanne “Jinx” Clark – were gathered just off stage for the grand finale as the chorus filled the rink and dixieland jazz swept up the audience.
In the south west corner of the building, just under box seats section thirteen, fifty-four year old Wilbur Gauthier was supervising his staff of vendors when something caught his attention. He thought it sounded like tea kettle left on the boil. As he walked toward the back of the room Gauthier was startled to see a six foot propane tank fall and begin to roll across the concrete, hissing loudly. In an instant the floor was covered in a thickening white mist. Horrified, Gauthier screamed for everyone to clear the room, and started to run toward the tank. He never made it. It was 11:06pm, Halloween night, 1963.
Walter Spangler was sitting in section 12, in the North West corner of the coliseum. He remembered, “The show was virtually over. Suddenly there was a dull thump.” Then, directly across the coliseum from his seat, “…there was a tremendous column of fire – about 15 feet in diameter, and 40 to 50 feet high. Along with it was literally a column of bodies…dozens of people flying through the air. Their arms and legs outspread. Then there was a lot of screaming.” Vivian Barkley remembered that, “The bodies looked like rag dolls." The victims began falling amidst the costumed skaters on the ice. Mrs. Manford James told a reporter later that she saw “…pieces of cement, people, arms and legs flying through the air. You could see bodies falling into the flames…” And then a second, larger explosion threw 128 seats and 700 square feet of concrete flooring of section 13 into the air and sent it plummeting onto the 240 bleacher seats at the north end of the coliseum floor. Five hundred square feet of the floor caved into the basement. In that initial 54 people were dead and almost 500 were injured. The death toll would go higher.The State Fair Coliseum in Indianapolis had been constructed in 1939, and built to the cautious standards of the Great Depression, of stone and steel; otherwise the disaster could have been much worse. Walter Spangler forced his way through the chaos that followed the explosions, trying to reach the injured. “I saw a woman lying on top of another woman. One woman’s head had been flattened by a large piece of concrete.” Pauline O’Neal recalled, “I saw two men carrying children, begging for someone to help them, but everyone just stared.” Mrs. Marilyn Barngrover remembered, “Shriners near us helped keep people calm and we moved out very quickly.” The explosion had knocked Mrs. Robert Stoeckinger onto her back. She said, “The little girl who helped pick me up had a gash in her head, but I didn’t notice it until later.” Mrs. Myrtle Ericsson said “…I grabbed my purse and started out. I fell over a fire hose and cut my lip and was bruised…I’ve never seen so many bloody people.”The reason for all this agony was originally considered a containment by the refining industry. Because it is heavier than methane, with which it is found naturally, propane has a tendency to collect in the elbows and bends of pipes, forming blockages. So it is necessary that propane, butane and other similar containments be removed from “natural gas” before it is sent down pipelines. It was only a matter of time (1913) before an inventive chemist (Dr. Walter O. Snelling) discovered that, although propane will normally boil at anything over – 42 C, if kept under pressure it can be shipped and handled as a liquid (U.S. patent #1056845). At the point of use, a simple relief valve can convert the propane back into a gas, and allow access to its stored energy. But that makes the relief valve the weak point in the system. Today all propane tanks have a thick metal safety collar that protects the valve from being bent or broken. In 1963 they did not.
Every ambulance in Marion County was dispatched to the scene. And “…literally hundreds of nurses, doctors, first aid volunteers and firemen…” who were off duty rushed to offer assistance. Because it was Halloween night there were 200 extra Indianapolis police officers on duty and they were quickly rushed to the coliseum as well. An auto wrecker was driven into ice to pull sections of concrete “the size of pianos” off the victims. The coliseum got so crowded that Chief of Indianapolis Police Robert Reilly eventually had to bar any further traffic from the fair grounds, including ambulances and first aid workers. The injured were sent to six area hospitals.
The next morning the county coroner laid out the dead in rows on the ice, and family members had to walk along their bloody, chard and dismembered ranks to identify their loved ones. The last official victim died in February of 1964. The total death toll then stood at 74, with 386 injured, including 176 who were still hospitalized. There was a strong public outrage over the tragedy, and a conviction that somebody should be held accountable.In December a Grand Jury had indicted State Fire Marshal Ira J. Anderson and Indianapolis Fire Chief Arnold Phillips on misdemeanor charges for failing to inspect the coliseum, specifically the haphazard storage of large numbers of propane tanks in busy work areas. But neither man was convicted, destroying any hopes for civil suits brought by the victim’s families against the state, which was able to hide behind the concept of sovereign immunity. It’s an old English common law idea that “The King can do no wrong.” The concept was grafted into the constitution in 1794 in The Eleventh Amendment: “The Judicial power…shall not be construed to extend to any suit…commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state….” And in 1890, in Hans V Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court held it effective even against private citizens trying to sue their own state. In other words, you can’t force justice out of city hall. But civilians had no such protection. The President, vice President and local manager of “Discount Gas” which had supplied the propane tanks were also indicted, as was Coliseum manager Melvin Ross, and the concession manager Floyd James, all on manslaughter charges. But the only person actually convicted was Edward Franger, president of Discount Gas, who was found guilty of assault and battery. And even this conviction was overturned on appeal to the Indiana State Supreme Court.Much has changed since that horrible Halloween night. Beside the safety collar on propane tanks, the disaster is used as a teaching example of how not to organize rescue operations and how not to treat the families of victims. The Coliseum Disaster Fund raised $78,000 (over half a million in 2007 dollars) from the public. In addition lawsuits by 379 victims were awarded $4.6 million in monetary awards, or a little over $12,000 per victim. It would be 2003 before a plaque was installed in the Indiana Fair Grounds “Pepsi” Coliseum, to commemorate those who died and were disfigured physically and emotionally by the tragedy. In a tragedy, it seems, there is no such thing as justice or a happy ending.
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