Sunny day, for Cleveland, so we walk in the cemetery, looking for groundhogs and turkeys, meeting only one blue jay squeaking in a pine tree like a rusty door. Heading home, we come upon a monument so drab we have to crouch to read it: “In this plot lie 61 victims of the St. Clair – Norwood Disaster of 10/20/1944. Twenty-one of them could not be identified.” We look at each other.
Later I read : a sunny October afternoon, children playing in the Polish-Hungarian-Slovenian streets, in front of small white houses so close they almost hold hands, a squadron of pillows around the East Ohio Gas plant. At 2:40 p.m. Mary Flickinger, about to plug in her sweeper. Theda Komor, walking with her two-year-old daughter to the grocery, Julia Torok on her way to her husband’s barbershop. Marcella Reichardurt mopping the kitchen floor.
When it blew, the #4 tank shot flames 3,000 feet in the air, temperatures reached 2,800 degrees in minutes. Burning people ran down the streets. Trees still green burned. The heat traveled through the ground so fast that it blew out the tires on cars 15 blocks away. 150 acres were leveled, 130 people were dead. 225 people were hospitalized It took more than two days to extinguish.
And yet: Frances Skully, a 68-year-old widow, returning to the ruins of her home, says, “I’d be willing to set up a cot in my chicken coop and go back again. I couldn’t think of living anywhere else. I could go through the neighborhood blindfolded. I know every step of the way. All my friends are there; where else would I want to go?”