CLEVELAND - Sixty years ago, motorists and pedestrians on West 117th Street, the boundary line of Cleveland and suburban Lakewood, were rocked by a series of explosions that hit at the height of the afternoon rush hour.
It was at 5:15 p.m. Sept. 10, 1953, when combustibles ignited in the sewer line beneath the street.
The first of four explosions beneath the main thoroughfare began near the intersection of Clifton Boulevard. In succession, blasts ran southward on West 117th for a mile. Caught in the below-ground explosions, which ripped up concrete, asphalt and brick, were thousands of people.
"It just kept going down the road, igniting over and over until the whole road blew up," said Calvin Rydbom, a Cleveland-area author of the book "Cleveland Area Disasters."
In 1953, there were not many environmental regulations regarding the dumping of chemicals. Rydom said there were 194 industrial businesses in the area.
"It was clearly chemical waste, but investigators couldn't figure out who it was who dumped chemicals into the sewer system," Rydbom said.
Don Ray, 79, remembers the day.
"I was 19 at the time and working at Cleveland Welding at West 117th and Berea Road," Ray said. He made Roadmaster bicycles in the operation.
Ray said when he and a coworker heard the explosions, the coworker, who had just returned from military service in the US Army and fought in Korea, thought the area was under enemy attack.
"He heard that rumbling sound and he just grabbed me and threw me down," Ray said.
When they looked around, they saw many people on the street were hurt so the two men rushed to help the victims who were "blown helter-skelter in the area."
Newspaper photographs of the disaster show cars tossed upside down from the blasts, which also sent concrete and manhole covers as high as a three-story building.
"There were layers and layers of concrete," Ray said. "We were moving concrete hunks that weighed over 100 pounds.” There were people waiting for the bus at stops on West 117th Street. He said the concussion of the explosions blew them away from the curb toward what he described as a "grassy knoll" in the area of the intersection with Berea Road.
"They were laying there moaning," he said.
Rydbom said there was never blame directed at any one company or either Cleveland or Lakewood. Although there were several lawsuits that came from the incident, no company ever admitted any guilt. Rydbom wrote in his book that investigators "went out of their way not to name names or indicate who they thought was responsible."
Katherine Szabo, 42, died in the explosion when the street exploded beneath the car she had borrowed from her brother. In his book, Rydbom said she had just cleared the New York Central overpass near Berea Road when the street exploded. Her car, at the epicenter of the first explosion, was hurled into the air. When it hit the ground, it was crushed by flying concrete. Seconds later, the car caught fire.
"There was a woman who looked up to me and cried, 'Please help me,'" remembered Ray, his voice choking during a telephone interview. "I couldn't get her out and I don't know if she is the woman who died."
In Rydbom's book, he reported the Szabo woman was not able to crawl out of the wreckage of the car although others in the vehicle were pulled out. She died shortly thereafter at St. John's Hospital.
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