Lebanon Reporter

State News

November 2, 2013

1963 coliseum blast still shapes survivor's life


Mrs. Goeke closed the curtains.

By the morning after, the newspapers reported this was the worst disaster in city and very possibly state history. At least 65 were dead, a number that would eventually rise to 74, according to some reports, and 81, according to the 1968 book, "Disaster in Aisle 13." Hundreds were injured.

Figuring out what happened was easy enough. Gas had leaked from at least one of five propane tanks. It had combined with a heat source and ignited.

In the hours and days after the explosions, the more urgent question was, who could have possibly let this happen? The pressure to find answers began to build.

"Is it against the code to have liquid gas inside a public building?" a reporter asked State Fire Marshal Ira J. Anderson hours after the blast, in an exchange broadcast by WISH-8 and later reproduced in "Disaster in Aisle 13."

"Yes, sir," Anderson responded.

"Then apparently there is some kind of violation here somewhere?"

"I would think so," the fire marshal said. "It indicates that at least."

Marion County Prosecutor Noble R. Pearcy convened a grand jury to get to the bottom of it. Five weeks later, it announced its findings.

The tanks weren't legally allowed in the building, the grand jury said, and they lacked the recommended safety caps. Had state and local officials inspected the building properly, they might have averted the disaster.

The jury had heard testimony from 32 people. Witnesses, the report said, "almost without exception passed the responsibility over to some other agency or person."

Jurors were not forgiving.

"Explosions do not just happen," the report said, "they are caused."

Seven people were indicted.

Three were from the company that owned the propane tanks, Discount Gas Corporation, and two worked for the building's owners, the Indiana Coliseum Corp. They faced involuntary manslaughter charges.

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