50 years ago: Dozens killed in Richmond natural gas explosion

Natural gas explosion

HMN-WTHR takes a look back at the natural gas explosion in Richmond, Indiana, that left dozens dead, and was felt for miles.  At exactly 1:47 PM, the explosion changed the history of Richmond forever.

RICHMOND, Ind. (WTHR) — A sunny spring Saturday turned tragic in downtown Richmond at exactly 1:47 p.m. on April 6, 1968.

At that moment, an explosion roared through downtown, killing or injuring dozens of people, and damaging more than 100 buildings.

The cause would later be determined to be a natural gas leak. Something would spark it and cause the inferno that could be felt for miles.

As people pause to remember the 50th anniversary, a documentary called “1:47” includes interviews with eyewitnesses to that powerful day.

“It looked like someone had dropped a 500-pound bomb right on Main Street. We had 127 buildings that were damaged. We had 41 people who were killed. That’s a lot of people killed in one area,” Former Richmond Police Chief Don Strahan says in the documentary.

Reid Hospital would be flooded with more than 120 injured people. Memories quickly come rushing back for those working the front lines.

“Hearing people cry, hearing people pray, hearing people ask about their loved ones, or finding out about their loved ones,” Former Reid Hospital Assistant Head Nurse Jewell Spears says in the film.

The powerful explosion left a huge path of destruction and devastation.

The devastation of the Richmond explosion in downtown Richmond, Indiana. (Photo: Robb Quigg/1:47 documentary)

By the numbers, 41 people died, ranging in age from just 7 all the way to 72 years old.

The explosion also hurt more than 120 people.

On top of that, 15 buildings were destroyed in downtown Richmond with 127 having damage from the blast.

“We couldn’t imagine what in the world had happened but we knew it was pretty serious; the smoke and the burning was so dense that you could hardly see down the street,” Former Richmond Mayor Byron Klute says in the documentary.

“It looked like a bombed out picture that you would see in a movie in World War II,” Former Richmond Police Chief Dan Strahan says.

This happened near the corner of Sixth and East Main Streets, where the Elder-Beerman department store now sits.

A memorial ceremony will take place In that area Friday afternoon. It will include a plaque dedication featuring names of all the victims.

The nation was still reeling from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in Memphis, but in Richmond, race would be no factor. Pictures show everyone rushing in to help in any way they could.

Those interviewed in the documentary recall a sense of unity both during and after the explosion.

Other events to commemorate the anniversary include an updated copy of the book “Death on a Sunny Street” and a dinner and video presentation at the Wayne County Historical Museum on Saturday, April 7 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

A free event on Sunday, April 8 at 1:30 p.m. at Civic Hall will also honor the lives lost.

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