Cleveland December 26, 2017
One Of The Worst Disasters In U.S. History Happened Right Here In Cleveland
Many have learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and how it ultimately led to safer working conditions in a history class. This tragedy, which consumed 146 lives, shocked the nation and went down as the worst industrial disaster in the history of New York City; however, you may not know that a similar event actually took place right here in Cleveland. The tragic moment in our history took place in a space of healing—the Cleveland Clinic—and claimed nearly as many lives as the deadly factory fire that had changed the nation just a few years prior.
May 15, 1929 started just like any other day at the Cleveland Clinic.
Located at East 93rd and Euclid, the Cleveland Clinic was as familiar a sight as it is today. Many locals had family members who worked at the clinic or had been treated there since its founding in 1921.
But a tragedy took place that day, and it shocked the nation.
A steamfitter arrived that morning to fix a leaky steam pipe in the sub-basement.
The space had been converted into storage for x-ray film. At the time, nitrocellulose film was used in x-rays, and its chemical components were known to be highly unstable... and also incredibly flammable.
The steam leak caused the x-rays to break down, unleashing a deadly and flammable gas.
Two violent explosions partially blew the roof off of the building. Toxic fumes flooded the pipe ducts and spread into the hospital rooms above. It seeped through stairways, trapping 225 occupants in a burning building filled with toxic fumes.
Everything occurred surprisingly fast; 125 people were killed instantaneously.
Some of the lives lost were staff members.
Many were found still at their desks, evidently having insufficient time to even react. Among those lost was one of the clinic's founders, Dr. John Phillips.
Many patients and visitors were also part of the final death toll.
Some did managed to escape.
There were 92 individuals that escaped with non-fatal injuries. Those who had inhaled any amounts of the toxic gas, however, eventually succumbed to the toxins.
To their horror, firefighters found that the fire burned even after the building was doused in water.
The chemical nitrocellulose burns even when it is wet. As firefighters tried desperately to quell the flames, they only created more deadly smoke.
Though there were significant losses in life, the fire only caused $50,000 worth of damage to the structure.
At nearly $716,000 in today's money, the damages cost quite a bit, but not what one would necessarily expect for a tragedy of this size.
The nation, and even parts of the world, were stunned and mortified at this tragic and preventable loss of human life.
The fire, experts determined, was most likely started by this exposed light bulb.
Pictured here, this exposed light bulb is believed to have heated poisonous gases produced by the x-ray film chemicals, which finally exploded at 11:30 a.m.
The clinic was not found at fault for the tragedy.
While an entire nation mourned what could have been a preventable situation, industry officials began to look to the future.
The tragedy helped bring about much-needed changes in firefighting and hazardous material storage.
Hospitals around the world adopted safety procedures to prevent such tragedies from occurring. The storage of hazardous materials was (finally) regarded with utmost importance, and firefighters were equipped with gas masks. Cleveland proposed a city ambulance service, and experts in the film industry began developing non-flammable refrigerants to use in their films.
Though tragic and overwhelming, this shocking fire helped bring about much needed safety changes in several industries. It captivated and moved the entire nation. Did you ever hear stories from family members that remembered this tragic day?
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