Editor's note: This story about the Supreme Cleaners explosion in 1963 originally appeared in the book "Tucson Memories" by Bonnie Henry in 2006. Henry wrote stories about Tucson's past for more than two decades for the Star before retiring in 2010. "Tucson Memories" is out of print.
They all remembered the moment.
Stanley Salonic was boarding an airplane in Washington, D.C.
Arizona Daily Star Assistant Sports Editor Tom Foust was on his way to work.
Tony Tovar was sitting in math class at John Spring Junior High School.
“All of a sudden, the electricity went off and on. We felt something,” said Tovar.
Minutes later, he was in the cafeteria. “I heard two ladies talking about an explosion at Supreme Cleaners. I dropped my tray, ran to my locker, got my things and took off.”
Tovar’s mother, Carmen, worked at Supreme Cleaners. So did his aunt, Videlia Kingery.
“I ran back home to my grandma’s home. Our eyes met, and we both knew something bad had happened.”
Carmen Tovar, Videlia Kingery and four others died that day, March 29, 1963, in what police and firefighters would call one of the worst disasters ever to hit this city. A seventh victim died later.
A gas leak, sparked by the flip of a switch, created two explosions, followed by fire, at the cleaners’ main plant at North Stone Avenue and Grant Road.
The north wall of the plant was blown into Grant Road, crushing three parked cars.
Two of the dead were blown into the street by the explosions, while chunks of concrete slammed onto cars, streets and into neighboring businesses.
It was a little after 11 a.m. when Foust, who was driving west on Grant Road, saw a 100-foot brown cloud rise in front of him, followed by a dull thud.
Ever the newsman, he pulled his car over, hauled out a camera he kept in the trunk, and started taking photos.
“My hand was shaking so bad I didn't know what I was doing,” said Foust. He stayed until the Star’s regular photographers arrived, then drove on to the Star’s office, then downtown.
His photo ran on Page One the next day.
Thirty-two were injured that day, including Harris Salonic, who owned the cleaners, along with his brother, Stanley.
It was Harris who had flipped the switch in the basement vault of the building, igniting the leaking gas.
At that moment, Stanley Salonic, along with his wife, Teddi, was boarding a plane heading for Tucson.
Not until they landed did they learn what had happened. “Harris was supposed to pick us up,” said Salonic.
The next day he was allowed to see his brother, swaddled in gauze, inside the burn unit at St. Mary’s Hospital.
“He was madder than hell, hungry and thirsty,” said Salonic. Two days later, Harris Salonic died.
“The disaster dumped right on top of him,” said Salonic. “They were digging for hours to get him out.”
The cleaners sued Tucson Gas and Electric Co., as it was then called. So did just about everyone else connected with the disaster.
In 1967, Superior Court Judge Robert O. Roylston ruled that the explosion resulted from a gas leakage from TG&E lines near the plant.
Long before then, Supreme Cleaners had rebuilt right on the site. Many who had worked at the plant returned.
“We had a very, very loyal group with us,’’ said Salonic, now divorced and living in Las Vegas.
In the early ’70s, Supreme Cleaners was sold. Over the years, it’s housed everything from an opera company to a paint company, its current role.
“It took me years before I could go back there,’’ said Tovar, who would go on to own Congress Street Hair.
Foust, who retired from the Star, also thought back to that day.
“I’ve often thought, ‘Why did I stand around taking pictures, rather than helping people?’ But then I thought, we needed someone to record this.”
And to remember.