50 years ago today, gas explosion killed 7, leaving Tucson in shock

2013-03-29T00:00:00Z 2013-03-29T08:04:47Z 50 years ago today, gas explosion killed 7, leaving Tucson in shockKimberly Matas and Carmen Duarte Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A flip of a switch, the flash of a spark and moments later a 12,300-square-foot building was reduced to rubble.

Today marks 50 years since an explosion at Supreme Cleaners killed seven people and rocked a north-side Tucson neighborhood.

Investigators eventually determined the blast was caused by a natural gas leak, but at 11 a.m. Friday, March 29, 1963, no one who witnessed the explosion was concerned with how it happened as they clawed through chunks of concrete and mangled steel looking for survivors.

Retired Tucson Fire Department firefighter Bud Wray, 76, remembers the chaos all too clearly.

"You'd like to wipe it out of your mind, but it is in there," he said Thursday. "It is imbedded."

Wray was a young firefighter in his 20s when it happened.

"The Battalion Chief Fred Sprung was listening to the radio and told me to get into rescue," said Wray. "When we arrived at the scene at Grant and Stone, I grabbed the first-aid kit and saw a gentleman yelling for help. His head was split wide open.

"It looked like a movie setting with rebar and concrete all around ... there was rubble, there was flames and you could smell cleaner," he said.

"The gas was still leaking and we were breathing in toxic fumes. We worked six hours straight looking for victims until all people were accounted."

He recalled private ambulances taking people to hospitals.

"We didn't have the crew or equipment firefighters have today. We received American Red Cross 20-hour first-aid training classes. It was different in those days," Wray said.

"You try to train yourself that you are tough, but I look back and realize I wasn't as tough as I thought. ... You just live with it. Every time I pass by Grant and Stone, I look to where the cleaners was and I remember," Wray said.

About 40 people were working in the dry cleaning plant at the time.

Casualties would have been higher had an 8-inch-thick wall not divided the original 4,200-square-foot 1946 structure from an 8,100-square-foot addition.

Harris Salonic, 41, who co-owned the cleaners with his brother, Stanley, was working in the fur vault in the basement of the original structure just before the explosion, according to newspaper accounts.

He survived the blast and was buried in the rubble, but succumbed to his injuries in the hospital two days later. Before he died, Salonic told investigators what happened:

As he was leaving the vault, he flipped off the light switch. It threw a spark and a flash flame ignited his hair and his arms. The blast followed.

Outside the building the explosion left shock and chaos in its wake.

Newspaper accounts said a witness working at the corner supermarket described hearing "one big whoom!"

The concussion nearly knocked the grocer off his feet.

The force of the blast blew three women out of the building and into the middle of North Stone Avenue.

Immediately after the blast, seven or eight people ran from the front of the plant, but they weren't much safer outside as glass, bricks and heavy machinery rained down on the intersection.

"I remember burned victims," Wray said. "There was a customer who was picking up his cleaning and he was burned pretty bad."

A clerk at a nearby drugstore was looking out the window when the explosion occurred.

"The roof of the plant just opened up and black smoke came out," he said. "The plate glass in front of me blew outward. Two or three women were laying in the street. A car was hit by debris, but someone got in it and drove away."

That car fared better than another parked next to the building, which was flattened by concrete blocks.

A winter visitor driving in the area was struck by the fireworks quality of the blast.

"All of the sudden there was the concussion and flames and debris, and those huge machines and things started flying through the air," he said. "All through the fire and smoke were these red balls of fire. They looked like those bombs you see on the Fourth of July."

Immediately after the explosion, the visitor said a "deathly silence" descended, but the quiet was quickly supplanted by the screams of those injured in the blast.

Killed in the explosion were employees of the dry cleaner, Francis Edward Conyers, 41; Vidilia C. Kingery, 33; Carmen G. Tovar, 32; Cecilia H. Aros, 19; and John E. Nichols, 23. Also killed was Martin Schwellnus, 52, a union bricklayer who was making repairs to the basement floor when the blast occurred.

Dick Casey, now 77, covered the explosion for the Arizona Daily Star. The reporter remembers rushing to the site from the Star's main newsroom, which was then downtown.

"All hell was breaking loose. There were ambulances coming and going. The main hospitals back then were Tucson Medical Center and St. Mary's," said Casey.

"It was just chaotic. There were policemen and firemen, and no one knew how many people were missing or were buried in the rubble. People were running to come and help.

"Reporters were being called from home to come and help cover the story. The sports editor, Tom Foust, was out there taking photos - showing the rubble left from the blast.

"It was like a war scene. This story was the biggest story I covered as a reporter as far as having the most impact," said Casey from his Phoenix home.

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, a judge ruled that the explosion was a result of a gas leak from TG&E lines near the plant.

Even before the ruling, Supreme Cleaners had rebuilt at the site of the explosion and many who had worked at the plant returned, Arizona Daily Star columnist Bonnie Henry wrote in her 2006 book, "Tucson Memories."

Supreme Cleaners was sold in the early 1970s and has since closed.

On StarNet: Go to azstarnet.com/gallery for more photos of the explosion aftermath.

Learn more

For more information on the Supreme Cleaners explosion, go to the Tucson Fire Foundation website: www.tucsonfirefoundation.com Click on TFD Archives, then "Major incidents."

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Activate

Follow the Arizona Daily Star

Featured businesses

View more...

Event Calendar

Today's events | Add an event

Most viewed:


Get weekly ads via e-mail