The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
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
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
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.
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.
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-
man heroism and consideration for others was beyond any words. Yet I wrote, as best I could:
A special personal factor added to the unforgettableness of that tragedy for me. On the very day before it
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
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:
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