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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 24

WHEN AN EDITOR is interviewed, one of the questions likely to be asked is: What is the biggest disaster story of your lifetime as a newspaperman?

I have two answers to this question. One was a disaster that I didn't see. It happened only a year after I became Editor of The Press, when the world-famous Cleveland Clinic was destroyed, claiming several hundred lives, shattering buildings, trapping patients and doctors and nurses and visitors alike in an inevitable death chamber. It was perhaps one of the worst things that has ever happened in America, but that time I only saw the wreckage afterward.

The other I saw with my own eyes. It happened in midafternoon of October 20, 1944. I was to remember

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that date well. I will remember it for the rest of my life.

I was sitting in my office, chatting with a visitor, when suddenly the building shook as if it had been rocked by an earthquake. There was a sharp, splitting crack, followed by a long, thunderous rumble. My visitor and I looked at each other in surprise. For a moment I thought it might be an explosion in our pressroom, and I started up from my chair to see. As I did so my eyes went to the window.

My office faces east. On bright days I can see an expanse of Lake Erie, with the freighters moving majestically past. On this October afternoon, the sky was reasonably clear, with only a few clouds. But as I looked out of the window, I saw a towering column of black smoke begin to rise over great billows of varicolored smoke. It was located, as nearly as I could guess, several miles to the east somewhere along the lakefront. Even as I watched in fascination there was another great explosion -- again shivering our building.

I hurried to the city room. They already had a flash reporting a tremendous explosion, but they didn't know exactly where it was. They knew only that it was in the very heart of a big, residential area off St. Clair Avenue in the general neighborhood of East 55th Street. That would be only a few miles from our office.

It became clear in a few brief moments that this was indeed a disaster. Every piece of equipment available anywhere was dispatched to the scene. Improvised rescue squads were organized and rushed into the area. We too rushed a contingent of reporters out

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there, and I went along. Over the whole area for miles hung an impenetrable pall of smoke over a raging fire.

Word spreads fast in a disaster. Hundreds of relatives and friends pressed against the police barriers. Nobody was permitted in -- for any reason whatever. Only police and firemen could penetrate the great fenced-off territory.

"Stand back, stand back," the order came, repeatedly. "There is danger of another explosion."

Every newspaper reporter is inevitably a witness to tragedy and horror. I had in my time seen a dozen men walk alive into the death chamber at the Ohio Penitentiary and come out dead in wicker baskets after they had been electrocuted in the name of society to pay for their crimes. It was brutal. I almost fainted the first time I saw the executioner throw the switch, saw a man's body jerk convulsively in the dreaded chair, saw the prison physician step forward to examine him with a stethoscope and indicate, perhaps, that another charge of electricity was required. That, I thought at the time, would be the most horrible vision ever to move before my eyes. But it did not match this.

The explosion came -- that one, and another, blowing into the already smoke- and-fire-mottled sky houses and buildings and manhole covers and great chunks of other things. The sky must have resembled the catastrophic effects of the blockbuster bombing then going on in other parts of the world, since the end of World War II was at that time still almost a year away.

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People stood rooted in horrible fascination and dread. They couldn't speak. They could only look, trying to realize that human beings were trapped out there in that vast, devastated, burning, smoking area, where hundreds of homes lay shattered, where bodies lay unreachable, where human suffering must necessarily be fearful and unbelievable. The explosion ripped and rent and wrecked and burned while firemen heroically strove to get into that cauldron of terror.

I stood shivering -- though it was not a cold afternoon and the heat from the wide-burning area blasted incessantly against those of us who were standing there. I shivered from the sheer horror of it all.

Above the firemen's commands, the shouting of police, the cries of relatives, the confusion and chaos, there came the thin cry of a child. It was somewhere nearby. It must be. And yet a sudden concentration of police and firemen in that direction could not track it down. The crowd shuddered in revulsion at the thought of what must be happening to that child whose plaintive call could not be heeded.

Darkness came. The eerie silhouettes of police and firemen, and now (since the restrictions had been lifted) of newspapermen also, including myself, moved through the flickering blazes -- a soul-chilling spectacle.

All through the night the fires burned. All through the night ambulances -- and hearses -- took away the injured and the dead as they were found, twisted or shattered, under the furniture of their homes, under the debris of what they had worked a lifetime to build.

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All through the night the homeless were brought to homes and schools and buildings to be tended by the Red Cross and volunteer groups thrown together in common mercy to help the victims.

That night was the worst I have ever experienced. I spent a good part of it in one schoolhouse in particular. My heart was torn apart many times as I talked for hours with parents whose children were gone, or children who would never again see their parents, heard their cries of anguish and watched the valiant effort of both men and women to comfort them, to give them food and clothes, and everything except what they could never again have.

When dawn came, the sun disclosed the ugly, frightening, devastated area. Streets were upheaved. Manhole covers had been catapulted for miles. Buildings were smashed as if they were matchboxes. Daylight showed, too, the rescuers still at their grim work of searching through the ruins for men and women and children known still to be there, and tears came to the eyes of us all.

Like other newspapermen, I went back to my office when morning came, tired, exhausted, emotionally spent, still horrified. I sat down at a typewriter and wrote a short editorial for the first page of our paper. It was addressed to my "Dear Fellow-Townsmen." It was a phrase I had never before used, and I have never used it since. Somehow that day it was the only phrase I felt appropriate. My sense of tragedy and my admiration for the way people had risen to the heights of hu-

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man heroism and consideration for others was beyond any words. Yet I wrote, as best I could:

For hours I have walked through the East Area struck by our worst disaster. For a long time in East 55th Street's Willson School I sat with the stunned men, women and children whose homes were destroyed, and whose loved ones are either burned to death, or missing.

It stuns the mind, wrenches the heart.

As we stood before the charred remains of houses and factories, they told me a hundred or more bodies will be dug out in the next few days, to be added to the many already recovered.

Only a few days before I was in this very section, talking for the War Chest, in that very building at 1032 East 62nd Street. A little boy and girl were playing in the street. I found myself praying they were safe.

It is not a tragedy just of lost factories and homes.

We can always replace those.

But the hundreds of men, women and children, homes wiped away, life-long belongings destroyed, all that was precious and dear to them -- that's the tragedy.

A greater tragedy is the dead.

The living can be helped -- helped by all of us, by our hearts, by our dollars, by our comfort, our community services, our Red Cross, our War Chest, our Civilian Defense. We will do everything possible for those who have suffered more than most of us will ever suffer.

Let all of us, in one mighty expression of our city's collective great heart of compassion, dedicate this weekend to finding out how we may best help those hundreds of our fellow townspeople who so sorely need our help.


The horror of it so tears a man's heart it is almost impossible for his mind to express his thoughts.

A special personal factor added to the unforgettableness of that tragedy for me. On the very day before it

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happened -- at precisely the same hour -- I had been standing before a group of people making a talk for the community's War Chest in a building that was now completely blown apart by the blast.

With my realization of my own near escape, something dawned on me. It was an old lesson that often needs to be relearned -- the lesson that whatever happens to you at any given time somehow takes on a wholly different importance, no matter how often that same thing has happened to other people. It could happen a million times to a million others, but not until it happens to you do you really appreciate or understand it.

For forty-five years I have been in a business which recounts precisely a variety of personal events and misfortunes -- as they have happened to others. I suppose literally hundreds of such news items have passed through my hands.

But, they were "items." I was dealing with them professionally. They had to do, certainly, with people, their homes, their belongings, their happiness, their lives. And, reading them, I was sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes indignant, and sometimes even critical of the people involved. But, after all, they were "items."

It ceases to be an "item" when we ourselves are involved. I can no longer see the report of some human misfortune without somehow sharing with those who have been the victims all the emotions their experience engenders.

I tried to put something of this into an editorial years afterward, in 1953, when by another of life's

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singularly curious twists my wife was saved from another disaster -- this time not by the full day that I was spared, but by only a few moments.

Just before twilight, a tremendous explosion ripped West 117th Street north and south for miles -- tearing up pavements, crumpling automobiles like accordions, wrecking buildings and homes -- and endangering the lives of all on the street and its nearby tributaries.

It happened at the exact hour of Marion's usual trip home, after her day's work at the Veterans Hospital, over that very street. I realized this the moment I heard of the blast, and my heart twisted within me.

The following morning, I wrote:


Two minutes.

But for this flicker of time today could have been very different for many people -- including me.

Like everyone else I have over the years talked with folks who just missed disasters. Who were "almost" on a plane that cracked up. Or were delayed in getting a train that was wrecked. Or were late getting home and were not there when the tornado smashed their place.

Certainly you were relieved to know they escaped harm. It was good to hear. But it really didn't dig down deep into your being as if it had actually happened to you -- or yours.

Not until, say, yesterday afternoon, when those two minutes meant everything. When you suddenly realized, as never before in life, what the phrase "narrow escape" from harm -- or worse -- stands for, what it really can mean.

The lady got into her car outside Crile Hospital. She had finished her day playing the piano, as a Red Cross Gray Lady, for the veterans there.

It is a little before five. She follows mostly the same

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route home from Crile, and gets into West 117th somewhat above Lorain.

The sun is shining brightly. It is an ideal autumn afternoon. She stops at a grocery store to pick up a nice ripe cantaloupe. She knows it will please her husband for a late evening snack.

It is now a little after five. She gets back into her car. In a few moments she will be home, 17825 Lake Avenue, where she will meet her husband and they will go out together for the evening.

As her car nears the Berea intersection of West 117th Street, she looks at her watch. It is exactly 5:13. The light turns. She proceeds north toward Lake Avenue.

At Nicholson Avenue and Lake Avenue she hears a tremendous explosion.

Two minutes from Berea and West 117th Street to Nicholson and Lake. Two minutes difference. Two minutes that could have made today a very different day than it is.

Two minutes, also, that bring a greater measure than ever before of understanding and sympathetic regard for others who didn't have that two minutes.

So this morning, as you stand at Berea and West 117th Street at 7:30 with a small group, your thoughts, your understanding, your sympathy for those who were hurt, Mrs. Katherine Szabo, who was killed, her family, and those whose cars were smashed and crushed like tin foil -- everything is deeper, and closer, and with much more meaning.

You understand, too, a little better what was meant when a friend said he missed the plane that cracked up, or was late for the train that was wrecked, or didn't get home until after the tornado blew his house to bits. These things you understand, all the better, because of those two minutes -- the two minutes which could have made today a very different day than it is.

I wish that God had granted those two minutes to all.