South Akron thought it was under attack.
Deadly explosions shook the ground, buildings twisted and buckled, splintered debris rained from the sky and shards of glass flew in all directions. Burned, bloodied victims lay writhing in the ruins while dazed survivors stumbled around in shock.
Already traumatized by the bombing of Pearl Harbor four days earlier and the U.S. declaration of war on Japan the following day, Akron residents were preoccupied with global events Dec. 11, 1941. At noon that Thursday, the United States declared war on Germany and Italy.
The news was the subject of lunch-hour discussions at the crowded restaurants across the street from Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. Proprietors Thomas Christ and Vasile Staycheff owned Randolph Lunch at 1319 Firestone Parkway. Next door, Peter Daneman and Christ Eftimoff operated the Park Restaurant at 1321 Firestone Parkway.
Popular hangouts among factory workers, the two eateries shared a one-story building west of South Main Street near Cole Avenue. Some customers had complained about a foul smell wafting from a storm sewer as they entered the building that day.
While diners finished their meals, oblivious to any danger, something churned in the sewer. Shortly after 1 p.m., the wood frame building blew up.
Harold Davidson, 20, was waiting for a bus two blocks away after working the second shift at Firestone when a concussion slammed him against a wall of a building.
“There were several explosions, and manholes began popping up all around, some of them going up 4 or 5 feet into the air and flames began shooting up out of the manholes like a lot of fireworks,” he told the Beacon Journal.
“I was looking straight at the explosion. The roof of the building went right up into the air. The walls stood there for a minute and then flattened right out on the ground. The roof dropped down into the basement.”
Davidson raced to a firebox, grabbed a rock, smashed the glass and pulled the alarm. He ran toward the rubble and yelled at strangers to join him.
Walter Perkins, 20, a worker at B.F. Goodrich’s Miller division, had just left the shop when the windows shattered. He crossed the railroad tracks and witnessed pandemonium.
Tattered victims wandered in a debris field over several blocks. Flames had scorched flesh, singed hair and burned clothes. Not only had the building collapsed into the basement, but the sidewalk had caved in, too. Muffled cries arose from the ruins.
“There was a man trying to get another man out from under a pile of the lumber and he couldn’t budge him and I ran over and helped him,” Perkins said. “I raised the timber up and the other man pulled him out from the pile.”
As firefighters and ambulances arrived at the scene, Davidson and Perkins helped carry victims on stretchers. A crowd of more than 150 joined the rescue effort.
“When we got there, there were six men lying unconscious in the street,” Police Capt. William Poalson told the newspaper. “They seemed to be pretty badly burned.
“There wasn’t much fire after the blast, which was the worst sewer gas explosion I have ever seen. It wrecked manhole covers as far as you could see and some covers sailed through the air and crashed into automobiles.
“A strip of sidewalk 15 feet long was blown up as if it were a sheet of paper. All nearby buildings showed the effects of damage. Firemen attached debris to ropes and the crowd pulled it out of the basement. This emergency crew cleaned up the debris before you could believe it.”
Ambulances rushed 28 people to Peoples Hospital, City Hospital and St. Thomas Hospital. Three victims never made it home.
Gus Bradford, 54, of Barberton, was dead on arrival at Peoples Hospital. A 12-year employee at Firestone, he had picked up his paycheck and stopped to grab a bite to eat. Bradford left behind his wife, Birdie, and five children: Hayward, Rayford, Lamire, Genevieve and Virginia.
Dr. Charles R. Park, 47, of Silver Lake, a research chemist at Firestone, died of burns and injuries seven hours after being transported to Peoples Hospital. A former professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining Firestone in the 1930s, Park was survived by his wife, Kathryn, and son, John.
Bert J. Rice, 29, of Akron, a five-year employee of Firestone, fell into a coma at Peoples after doctors amputated his leg. He died of “shock and other complications” on Christmas Eve, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Evangeline, and young daughters Margie and Rosemary.
The Akron Sewer Department, Akron Fire Department and East Ohio Gas Co. launched investigations into the disaster. Experts theorized that a company had dumped a volatile solvent into the storm sewer that passed below several industrial plants before emptying into Summit Lake.
Besides Firestone and Goodrich Miller, nearby companies included the Factory Oil Co., Burger Iron Co., Akron Paint & Varnish Co. and Xylos Rubber.
“It’s awfully difficult to put your finger on anybody and say who is responsible,” said Mayor Lee D. Schroy, whose term ended three weeks later.
Complicating the investigations, Akron officials did not have complete maps of sewers built before the 1920s. They didn’t know where all the lines went. Companies routinely dumped hot water, steam and chemicals into sewers without regulation.
In January, two mild explosions rocked the sewers. No one was hurt, but experts detected explosive gases, prompting 1,000 movie patrons to flee Loew’s Theater.
New Mayor George J. Harter made a public appeal, urging workers to come forward if they had any knowledge of solvents being dumped.
“Out of justice to the families of the three who were killed and to the 25 who were maimed, out of consideration of the safety of the lives and properties of others who may share their fate unless this practice is stopped, and out of consideration of the taxpayers of this city who may be burdened with heavy damage suits, I ask that those persons come forward now and tell what they know,” Harter said.
No one admitted any wrongdoing.
Following an inquiry, the Ohio Department of Industrial Relations released its findings in May 1942. The report cited “promiscuous, careless and negligent handling of solvents at the Miller plant,” and noted discrepancies in chemical inventories and employee testimonies. However, the report also said “there was no direct evidence” that Goodrich’s Miller division was to blame, and that “it was entirely possible” that the solvents came from Firestone.
B.F. Goodrich and the city of Akron were named as defendants in 28 lawsuits totaling more than $1 million (about $15.8 million today). The Parks family sued for $180,000, the Rice family sought $75,000 and the Bradford family sued for $60,000.
Although Goodrich denied any blame in the disaster, it agreed with the city to settle the cases out of court in 1947.
“Because of the great number of cases and the serious injuries involved, it was considered best to affect an adjustment on a comparatively nominal basis,” said attorney Cletus G. Roetzel, Goodrich’s legal counsel.
No one ever was charged in the deadly disaster.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.