The Day Disaster Struck

by Connie Cronley

02/05/2015

Watch any television newscast, read any newspaper, and you’ll know that humans are fascinated with catastrophe. Audiences seem to devour disaster information, however gruesome.

It’s not simply morbid curiosity with death and destruction. Our concern involves a search for information, a study of cause and effect.

We want to know how it happened, and how people lived through it. We like to know that when calamity strikes, people like us survive. Some even behave heroically.

We like to re-examine the causes to avoid repetition of disaster. We like to know the effects.

We’re comforted to discover communities pulling together after a disaster, to mourn, to comfort, and to rebuild. We discover safety laws and preventive measures rose from ruins of historic disasters to make our lives safer.

Following are a few of Oklahoma’s sad contributions to major disaster statistics. These are all man-made disasters—fire, railroad wreck, explosion, mine tragedy—the price of an Industrial Age. Each was sudden, swift, and without warning. Each brought sorrow to young Oklahoma communities, and a rain of tears.

Babbs Switch: Siege by Fire

The little one-room school at Babbs Switch shivered in the cold wind Christmas Eve, 1924. At 16 degrees, with a strong prairie wind, it seemed too cold to snow.

Still, the community gathered for the social event of the year—the Christmas party at the school, District No. 42.

The 24-by-36-foot building, designed for 40 children, was jammed with more than 200 that night. More gathered outside. Volunteers had sacked candy and nuts all day. The teacher, Florence Hill, 26, decorated the stage with white muslin for the children’s program. The tree, a dry cedar almost brushing the ceiling, was trimmed with presents and homemade decorations—candles and cotton. Everybody said it was pretty; nobody guessed it was deadly.

After pieces were said and songs were sung, Dowell Boulding, dressed as Santa, distributed presents to the children. As he reached deep into the branches for one of the last presents, 12-year-old Mack Cizek, with a front-row seat, saw what happened. “His sleeve caught on a twig and pulled a candle over.” A ball of cotton caught fire, then “one whole side of the tree was blazing almost instantly.”

Boulding tried to beat out the flames with a canvas window shade. Orville Peck tore off his coat and tried to smother the fire. Both were about to die.

Then the tree fell, and the muslin curtains were ignited. The uneasy crowd was on its feet. The fire raced across the stage and up the walls where it fed on new paint.

“When the fire started,” Mack’s sister Hattie remembered, “I turned to my brother and said in Indian, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ but he nudged me to keep quiet. He said they would put it out.” She ran anyway. When she looked back, “it was all inferno.”

Somebody screamed. Everybody rushed for the only door, but somebody fell. Then somebody else, and the aisles were blocked.

“I remember the fire licking up at a gasoline light hanging over the stage,” Mack said. Suddenly the light exploded; it was heard two miles away. The explosion splattered fire throughout the school. It knocked many flat; it dazed others. A few crawled to safety under the desks. Mack Cizek was one of them. He was burned so badly that his sister Hattie didn’t recognize him.

Many people ran to the windows. That’s when they panicked. The school was a firetrap. To keep out prowlers, steel mesh had been bolted over the window with quarter-inch bolts.

Outside, Andrew Jackson clawed at the mesh. His sister Vesta, 18, appeared on the other side of the window. “Help me. Help me,” she cried. He tore his hands bloody, but the mesh held. Then a wall of fire obscured his sister and he never saw her again.

“Every pane of glass in the building was broken,” he said, “and this made a draft in the brisk wind. Within three minutes, the dry wood of the room was a mass of flames.”

Somehow, one boy pulled a corner of the mesh away wide enough to shove a baby through to safety.

“Wait. Save the children,” the teacher, Mrs. Hill, shouted. Her husband Glenn shoved his way through the mob, grabbed her in his arms, and started for the door. In the maelstrom they were separated. He got out; she fell and was trampled. When her body was recovered, she was clutching two children.

At the back of the room, Louis Edens was trapped. The door opened inward, pinning him inside. “I was the last human being to get out alive. I crawled over dead bodies to get out.” He was in critical condition for months.

Not all clawed for safety. Surrounded by fire, one entire family—Tom Coffey, his wife, and their four children—saw death was inevitable. In the middle of the blazing room, they embraced one another as the rafters fell.

Outside, there was no well on the remote school grounds, so no water to fight the fire. The building burned to the ground in less than an hour. Driven back by intense heat, survivors listened helplessly to the screams of those inside. Many who died were children. Some survivors say their tears froze that cold Christmas Eve.

When the ashes cooled, 33 bodies were laid on the hard, crusted ground. Two died later.

Norman: A Hospital in Flames

Only one other fire in Oklahoma’s history was worse. When the state hospital burned April 13, 1918, in Norman, 38 died.

In France, where World War I was grinding to an end, Allies and Germans fought in Apremont Forest. In New York, Mary Pickford sold Liberty Bonds at Lord and Taylor.

But in Norman that cool, damp spring night, farmers had gone to bed hoping for rain. The 25-year-old State Hospital for the Insane (later Central State Hospital) on the east edge of town was dark.

At 3 a.m. the night watchman of Ward No. 14 made his rounds. Outside, it was 51 degrees with showers and 22 m.p.h. winds. Inside, all was well. Until he checked the linen closet on the ground floor of the two-story frame building.

“I opened the door,” L.T. Hawes said, “and the entire room was on fire and it was spreading.” Defective wiring was later blamed.

Hawes ran to unlock cell and dormitory doors, gave a general fire alarm, then began the real work—evacuating the building. “Telling them to get out did no good,” he said. “It was necessary to carry them out, many of them fighting every step.”

Within 10 minutes, the asylum fire department and 60 guards and nurses were pulling patients from the smoke and fire. “The slogan was to save lives,” superintendent W.D. Griffin said. “I worked with the others.” In the next frantic minutes, they would evacuate 307 patients. “The patients were taken outside, laid on the ground in the rain and covered with blankets. Some of the women guarded them,” Dr. Griffin said. Thirty-eight wouldn’t feel the rain; they would die in their beds, most overcome with smoke.

The wind fanned the fire of Ward 14 to a fierce blaze. Another building caught fire, then a strong breeze carried a sheet of fire to the dining room. The three buildings burned to the ground in 30 minutes; a fourth was badly damaged.

Ten men and boys were carried out of white Ward 14, where most fatalities occurred. When the fire spread to the adjoining black ward, 35 men were removed safely. Ninety-four women were led from Ward 6 in the race against death.

The Norman Fire Department arrived to fight the fire. Fireman George Monical was working in deadly Ward 14 when flames cut off his escape. He knocked a hole in the wall to get out. “Several patients were lying in beds in that corner of the building,” he said, “but I could not save even one of them.”

Nurses Zella Moss and Minnie Dendy helped M.B. Shives, a guard, wrestle strong and often violent patients out of Ward 15. “Some were frightened and screaming,” the guard said, “but others were silent and acted as if they had no idea what was going on.”

A.Z. Dean was the last man to leave Ward 15. “I was dragging two patients and the flames were about to cut me off,” he said. “As I left the room I saw a Negro boy crouching in the corner. I couldn’t take him along and before I could go back, the flames had stopped all rescue work in the building.” It was the only fatality in Ward 15.

Half who died in the fire were boys, 12 to 20 years old. The rest ranged in age to 40.

Speaking with the limited medical knowledge of 1918, authorities described all inmates as “feeble minded” or “imbeciles” who couldn’t grasp the idea of escape. Actually, many were mentally retarded, lumped together with the severely disturbed “insane.”

In the confusion of the fire and rain, 37 patients were missing. Two wandered off and were found later four miles away, cold and wet. They were waiting for the interurban train to Oklahoma City. “Put in your paper that I am sane,” one told a reporter, “and was put here as the result of a conspiracy.”

A grim confession from authorities surfaced at the coroner’s inquest, “We’ve been expecting this for some time,” said A.N. Leecraft, a member of the Board of Affairs in charge of the hospital. “All these wooden buildings were firetraps.” Fewer than half the 22 wards were fireproof, he explained, but construction of new fireproof buildings was delayed because the state legislature tired up appropriations. The state was growing too fast to meet all the demands, politicians countered.

Governor Robert Williams had inspected the buildings only a week before the fire and had urged that the wooden wards be abandoned. “We planned to use the frame structures as barns,” he said.

Ardmore Explosion: The Clocks Stopped at 2:35

After the mighty Healdton Oil Field came in 1913, Ardmore became the oil capital of southern Oklahoma. That oil boom—the refineries and railroad—set the scene for the greatest oil tragedy in state history. A gasoline tank exploded in downtown Ardmore on September 27, 1915, leaving 47 dead, more than 200 seriously hurt, and property damage of almost $1 million.

It was Monday afternoon and Ardmore, population 8,600, was bustling. Business was brisk around the freight and passenger stations at the Union depot. The companies nearby were busy—the packing plant, wholesale feed and grocery companies, hotels. The two-story black pool hall and rooming house across the street was hopping. A few blocks away, high school students gazed out of classroom windows and wished they were at the state fair in Oklahoma City.

A Texas preacher got off the train and walked across the street to get a shave. “The barber was putting tonic on my hair and a bootblack was shining my shoes,” Reverend E.A. Bedichek said.

W. DeWitt, owner of the cigar factory where 18 girls were hand-rolling cigars, was worrying about the “bad order” tank car since his company was so near the depot. The leading car had been shunted to a siding. Switchmen refused to move it, so tank-inspector Ira Woods, 39, was called. He brought a steel hammer to work with.

The tank car, filled with 3,000 gallons of casinghead gasoline of 80 degrees gravity, was en route from the Victor Gas Company in Cushing to the Ardmore Refinery to be blended with lower gravity gasoline. Sitting in the run, the gasoline began to vaporize, filling the railroad yards with fumes.

Then Ira Woods used his hammer on the car, and a tiny spark set off an explosion equal to more than 400 thousand pounds of dynamite. People 22 miles away heard the blast. Horses eight miles away were knocked to their knees. Bricks, stone, and timber filled the air. It was 2:35 p.m., and the clocks stopped in Ardmore in the shock of the blast.

Cigar factory bookkeeper T.F. Burton saw it happen. “All of a sudden there was a sheet of flame under and around the tank car, and I heard and felt an explosion. I stood stunned for about five seconds and there was another loud report and the earth shook. Buildings began to crumble and the sound of glass breaking was everywhere.”

The minister in the barbershop was also dazed by the deafening blast. It was like the San Francisco earthquake, he said. “The floors seemed to be rising and the ceiling falling.” He ran out the door to see “a great pall of black smoke hanging over the depot and railroad yards. In a few minutes, flames began to shoot up.”

What the first explosion didn’t collapse, the second blast did. Then the fire took over.

DeWitt and Burton ran into the crumbling cigar factory to rescue the 18 employees.

Oklahoma City oil operator W.J. Milburn was visiting friends in the St. Croix Sanitarium when it happened. “The earth shook, windows shattered, plaster fell from the walls,” he said. “Nurses commenced screaming and patients ran out into the hall.”

He rushed outside to see a city of broken glass; almost every window in the city was broken. Glass store-fronts shattered and fell into the street. Ardmore might have been blitzed; people were crying with pain and panic. “Every other person in the throng bore some kind of wound,” Milburn said. “The sidewalks were splattered with blood; groans and cries filled the air.”

Near the depot he saw a mangled body of a boy, no older than 10. A man burned black, his skin hanging in strips, stood on the street begging people for help, listing over and again his membership to prominent lodges. A woman standing near the depot ran four blocks carrying an infant and four-year-old child, her clothes blazing until somebody caught her and beat the flames out with their bare hands.

The freight station burned to the ground. A man and woman, shipping their household goods when the explosion occurred, were trapped inside. As the fire approached, they turned together and died in one another’s arms.

One side of the historic four-story Whittington Hotel a block away was sliced off “as smoothly as if cut with a knife.” Ardmore pioneer Captain W.F. Whittington was in New Mexico negotiating the trade of the hotel for ranch property at the time. The hotel was valued at $100,000. That night his son Willis wired him: “Call off the ranch deal. You have no hotel to trade.”

Then the fire truck clanged down the street, adding to the noise and confusion. Frantic searches for loved ones, desperate rescue work, and emergency first-aid efforts began.

Telegraph operator Charles Neil was one of the heroes despite his injuries. First, he pulled to safety a railroad engineer and conductor trapped when a switch engine had been blown against a building. Then he dug through the wreckage to find his telegraph instrument, walked two miles down the track to the first undamaged portion of telegraph line, and tapped out the first emergency message to Dallas.

Rescue workers found the bodies of drayman M.E. Atkins, who had been standing on North Washington Street three blocks away. They found the remains of fruit peddler A.G. Gould, who had been driving his wagon across the railroad tracks. They uncovered the body of an Indian and his team and wagon, crushed when the Love Hotel collapsed. They pulled wounded guests out of the Hardyman Hotel and injured working girls from Madden Dry Goods.

“At five o’clock this evening,” oilman Milburn said, “Ardmore was a hideous inferno of smoke, flames, and pungent odors.”

By 8:30 p.m., the fire was under control. After dark, by lantern and candlelight, rescue workers searched through the debris for injured and dead. Property damage was estimated at $500,000. The next day it was elevated to $1 million. A special police force of 100 patrolled the downtown area, guarding especially the bank where all windows were blown out. Later, Ardmore proudly reported not one arrest made, and not one case of looting.

With no lights, the city was in darkness Monday night. With no gas, Ardmore went without breakfast Tuesday morning. Then they began the work of burying the dead. The death toll was 47. Funerals were held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All were given Christian burials except one.

Krebs: A Black Grave

In 1892, Krebs was a company town where miners were paid in company scrip redeemable only at the company store. The population of Krebs, five miles south of McAlester, was 4,000 and predominantly Italian.

This was the site January 7, 1892, of the worst mining disaster in state history; 100 men died in a black grave. It became known as The Great Mine Disaster.

More than 300 miners were working underground for the Osage Coal and Mining Company that Thursday. One shift was going off duty at 5 p.m. Crews were being brought to the surface six at a time in the hoisting cage. Just as one man stepped to the platform, a shot was fired in No. 11.

Later, mining experts would say the blast was overcharged and premature. It should have been fired at 5:30, after the miners had left. The explosion would have occurred anyway, but only five or six men would have been killed.

Instead, the shot was fired at 5:07 p.m. It ignited accumulated gas or coal dust. The powerful explosion wrecked the engine house, and threw the cage up through the 60-foot-tall tower. Fire leaped 100 feet into the air. At 5:08, 300 men were trapped 600 feet below the ground.

Almost half the miners escaped by climbing the airshaft. One climbed 450 feet with a broken leg. Others were so badly burned that flesh stripped away from their hands when they grasped the ladder.

At least 100 were entombed. Miners from neighboring coal fields arrived by every train to volunteer for rescue work. A crowd of 5,000—mostly relatives half crazed with fear and grief—gathered at the mine entrance. Rescuers worked 48 hours without break, until they dropped with exhaustion.

Friday morning, the weather fitted the occasion. The gloomy day was dark and drizzling. Even the engines at the mineshaft sobbed sorrowfully, one witness said.

Animosity between black and white miners, always a problem in the early days of mining, threatened to erupt in violence. A U.S. deputy marshal drove the black men away from Winchester.

Every mine in the area shut down. All the miners were at Krebs for the rescue work. All the wives, sisters, and mothers were there to perform the offices for the dead and to tend the wounded. The explosion left 200 crippled or maimed. The tragedy resulted in some area improvements.

After the disaster, the mining company installed safety measures required by Congressional Act of 1891 with specifications for blasting. The tragedy spurred area inhabitants to ask Congress for an appropriation for provide an office of U.S. Mine Inspector for Indian Territory. These actions improved working conditions in the mines and lowered the accident rate. Miners were safer, but not completely safe, as Wilburton proved.

Wilburton: A 400-foot Tomb

One superstitious black miner dreamed his child was burned, so he didn’t go to work Wednesday. Three men didn’t go because it was the 13th day of the month, an unlucky number. By the time Howard Johnson caught his old gray horse, he was too late for work.

Because they didn’t go down Degnan-McConnell Mine No. 21 at Wilburton January, 13, 1926, they lived to bury the miners who did.

A.P. Thomas, 26, went down the mine. He was a mining engineer and School of Mines faculty member contracted to survey the mines. It was his first day on the job. An Italian miner took his son down that morning “to show him how it works.” Driver boss Sam Wilson and his sons, Buster and Jimmy, were at work as usual. All in all, 101 men were below ground at 8:10 a.m. when Mine 21 was demolished by a gas explosion so violent that rescue workers spent days fighting fire, gas, and falling mine debris.

Julius Graham heard it coming. First he heard a quivering roar, followed immediately by a deafening blast far below. “I was in another explosion years ago,” he said, “and I knew what happened as soon as I heard that quiver.” After the explosion, the mine was so full of smoke, miners’ lamps were useless. Graham and his brother Roy began feeling their way out of Level 13. “We had to keep talking so we could keep together. We couldn’t see anything.”

The explosion started on the 16th level, state mine inspector Ed Boyle said. That began the mammoth blast that swept through the mine. The explosion sealed 101 men in a 400-foot tomb; 10 would escape. The rest, 91, were carried out after two days of frantic, frustrating rescue efforts. The disaster left 65 widows and 200 orphans.


Published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 2, January 15, 2015. This story originally appeared in Oklahoma Monthly, 1979. It has been edited and condensed.