Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sioux City, IA, packing plant explosion, 1949

On December 14, 1949, the Swift & Company packing plant in Sioux City, Iowa, exploded, killing 21 people and injuring more than 90, many of them seriously. It was a natural gas leak, apparently, though no one ever determined why.

My mother worked in the office there. She'd just returned from her honeymoon and gone back to work two days previously.

I know I'm a little late for an anniversary retrospective, but I was just talking to her about it. Her cousin had told her she'd been mentioned in their small hometown newspaper - which surprised her, since she'd left town 72 years before. Yup, it was their retrospective. 65 years previously, Mom had been listed as seriously injured in the explosion.

I've known about this for years, though she didn't talk about it much. (I think I found some old newspaper clippings, one time.) Until today, I hadn't even realized it happened in 1949, less than three weeks after my parents married. They'd taken a honeymoon to the Grand Canyon (and Bryce Canyon, which especially impressed them). Mom returned to work on Monday, and on Wednesday, the office blew up.

Mom was struck by flying glass and was cut from head to toe. She tells me that one of the women she worked with turned to her afterwards and started screaming uncontrollably, over and over again, since Mom was such a bloody mess. Luckily, all of the glass missed her eyes, though just barely.

One thing she used to say to us kids - and she repeated today - is that you never know how people will behave in an emergency until it happens. Of course, they were all in shock, but some people completely fell apart. Some, though injured themselves, immediately began to help others. One man just walked back and forth, praying continuously. Others tried to stem the blood loss and carried her outside.

She knew many of those killed or crippled by the explosion, and she knew she'd been very lucky, herself. My dad was out of town, driving a truck for a grocery wholesaler. Someone got in contact with him and told him to get back to Sioux City fast, because his wife might not survive long. As I say, they'd only returned from their honeymoon a few days previously.

At the hospital, they painstakingly picked glass out of her skin. Shaved bald, she must have been quite a sight. She says she was dizzy for a long time afterwards. But she recovered completely, unlike some of her co-workers.

Here's an excerpt from a city history:
The blast blew out parts of the west wall of the building and shattered all the windows. Floors and walls collapsed. The account in the Sioux City Journal declared, "Heavy steel doors and equipment throughout the structure were blown about like matchwood." The blast left a nightmare of twisted steel and tangled debris. Twenty-one people died and more than 90 people were injured. ...

The six-story building housed the main offices of Swift and Company along with other operations. Offices in the building received the full force of the blast. The room from which meat shipments were made was on the first floor. The third, fourth and fifth floors housed the sausage plant and smoke house. Offices, including those of the superintendent, were demolished. Hardest hit was the main floor and basement. The floor over the basement collapsed. Slaughtering houses located in the north end of the plant were not damaged as much.

Witnesses said that employees in the main office ran from the building with their clothes in tatters. Many of them were bleeding from wounds. Others suffered from ammonia burns. ...

The Fire Department was first to arrive. Fortunately, there was little fire, and fireman quickly joined the volunteers in the search for survivors. Nearly all of the available firemen and policemen were called to the scene. All ambulances were called to duty, but there were not enough of them. Many of the injured were brought to hospitals in private vehicles. Governor Beardsley authorized the mobilization of the National Guard to help in the disaster. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross set up canteen stations to serve coffee and sandwiches to the victims and rescuers.

Ammonia and gas fumes spread through the area, creating fear of another explosion. The police used loudspeakers to warn rescuers and bystanders not to smoke. Some rescuers wore gas masks to prevent being overcome by the fumes. Swift and Company mechanics attacked the wreckage with hacksaws in the effort to clear the way for rescuers. They were afraid that the use of torches could spark another blast. Automobile wreckers and a huge airplane wrecker from the Air National Guard were brought in to help clear the heavy steel girders.

Say what you will about Sioux City, IA - and growing up across the river from the city, I was never a fan - Sioux City tends to perform well in emergencies. Remember the crash of the United Airlines flight 232? Sioux City was rightly praised for its response to that, too.

The company, the packing plant, and my mom all survived the explosion. Swift & Company was bought out by a Brazilian corporation, JBS S.A., in 2007. The building was finally torn down in 2010. Mom is still going strong. :)


Gregg said...

I didn't realize until just now that she'd only been back a couple of days when the explosion happened, although I knew they hadn't been married long.

Great post, Bill!

patrideskell said...

My mother, Marianna (Sardeson) Cunningham, also worked in the office at Swift and was present during the explosion. She pointed out the ladder in the photo on which she escaped the second floor. Her first husband, Arnold Sardeson, was also seriously injured. He was later killed in Korea. My mom just recently passed away on 5/31/15. Patrick

WCG said...

Thanks, Patrick. I asked Mom, and she remembers your mother very well. She said her sister also worked there?

She said she remembered Arnold Sardeson, too, but not very well. She couldn't picture him. But she definitely remembered your mother, and asked about her.

I'm sorry to hear she passed away. Well, it's a long time ago, now. Thanks again for the comment.

Anonymous said...

My grandpa (Lewis A Jones) was one of the employee's who died. My dad was 7 at the time and my aunt was only one month old. I have heard many stories about this day from my dad and from looking at old newspaper articles. My grandma talked about it some but it was really hard for her.

WCG said...

Yes, I'll bet it was hard for her. It wasn't easy for my mom, either, because she lost friends. But I think it's easier now, after all this time.

Thanks for the comment!