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1963 Indy coliseum blast still shapes survivor’s life

 In this Nov. 1 1963 phobodies lie under blankets State Fairgrounds Coliseum Indianapolis. Leaking gas from propane tank near

In this Nov. 1, 1963, photo, bodies lie under blankets at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis. Leaking gas from a propane tank near an electric popcorn warmer in a concession area resulted in an explosion. Of the 4,327 people attending the Hol

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Updated: December 4, 2013 6:21AM



INDIANAPOLIS — Janie White Hensley summoned the courage to walk inside, despite her rising heart rate. And she managed not to cry in front of the janitors cleaning there.

Yet she could not advance from the concourse to the center of the State Fairgrounds Coliseum. On that day there was ice on the rink.

She was a grandmother now. She could manage a lot — she was here, wasn’t she? That proved something — didn’t it?

But she still wasn’t ready for ice. Not even close.

Halloween, 1963. The family Ford Falcon turned onto 38th Street with Janie none the wiser. But when it pulled into the State Fairgrounds, she saw the sign out front.

Holiday On Ice.

Janie had been begging to go for years. And opening night was tonight, Janie’s 13th birthday.

Whenever she had asked to go in the past, the answer had been no — money was too tight. With her parents paying for her sister’s first year of college, Janie figured there was no chance this was the year. She hadn’t even broached the subject.

Yet after dinner Daddy had said he had to make a delivery for work. Would Janie like to tag along? Janie said yes, and Mommy said she might as well come, too.

At the Fairgrounds, Daddy still wouldn’t admit what he was up to. Alfred and Violet White had kept this a secret since payday on the first of the month, and Al was in the mood to milk it.

You’re taking me to the ice show!

No I’m not. I have to deliver this motor.

Then where are we going?

The manufacturer’s building.

But we’ve already passed the manufacturer’s building!

The tickets finally came out when Daddy parked the car. And for the next couple of hours, Janie’s birthday was about flashy lights and fancy costumes, an opera number and a fairy tale.

Janie sat between her parents. The seats were great, too. Sixth row — sixth row! When her mother and father sprung for something, they made sure to do it right.

But these sixth-row seats happened to be on the coliseum’s southeastern corner. And on Halloween night in 1963, toward the end of the Holiday On Ice show, that was just about the worst place you could possibly be.

In a storage pit underneath their seats, a propane tank hissed like a tire swiftly losing air. A mist or maybe smoke rose from it.

Several coliseum employees were there. A manager realized something was wrong. He kicked the latched door open, and cried out a warning to his colleagues.

They shuffled out with him, except for one who wanted to see if he could shut off the tank’s valve. He got maybe within 40 feet of it, the fog enveloping him.

With the Holiday On Ice finale set to begin, Janie turned and thanked her parents for bringing her.

Boom!

The force of the first blast pushed upward and outward, catapulting people, seats, concrete and steel into the air. It jarred loose a supporting wall. Part of the flooring caved, forming a crater 50 feet wide down to the storage pit area.

Many of the 4,327 spectators were now casualties. Some had been launched, landing on the ice or in the crater. Some had been crushed or struck by debris, mostly near the blast site but also as far away as the other side of the rink.

And some rushed in to help.

Boom!

A second blast, minutes later, created a fireball that rose as tall as the rafters.

Many of the unscathed filed out quickly, perhaps fearing there was more to come. Emergency personnel swarmed the arena, scrambling to keep pace with the scale of the task.

“There’s a hell of a mess out here,” a firefighter radioed back to dispatch, as he asked for more support.

“How many hurt, do you know?” the dispatcher replied, according to The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1dJ6cFb ).

“Oh hell — I imagine around 50, 75, maybe 100.”

“. . . What caused it, do you know?”

“Gas blowed up,” the firefighter responded. “You got the gas company on the way?”

When Janie awoke she was buried under concrete. A boy, maybe 14 or 15 years old, was buried under her.

Janie looked down at her blue-and-white gingham blouse. Her first thought when she saw the blood was that she was in trouble. A new birthday gift from Grandma, and she had already gone and dirtied it up.

She reached up and touched her hair. More blood. She traced it to the crown of her head. She pushed her thumb down on the cut, and came into direct contact with her own skull.

The boy was doubled over, his torso over his legs in a kind of U-shape. Janie lay prone on his back, her feet out behind her.

Rescuers tried to pull the boy out from under her, or at least into a more upright position. But as they did, they pushed Janie up against a slab of concrete, pressing the air out of her lungs. She began to scream.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

They finally pried the boy out, and set about pulling on her. They didn’t quite get her at first, as her feet were tangled in rubble.

Eventually it was cleared away, and she was free. She was told to go to the hospital.

She wasn’t the type to disobey the orders of adults — she was Al and Violet White’s daughter, after all. But this she could not abide. Again, she was Al and Violet White’s daughter. And they were missing.

I’m not leaving until I find my parents.

A heavy police presence had been on site to snuff out Halloween vandalism. Now, if officers and their many incoming counterparts weren’t extracting the injured from the rubble, they were piling up now-ownerless shoes, purses and jackets. And counting the dead.

The cold of the ice made it a natural choice for a morgue. They covered the bodies with blankets, which weren’t quite big enough to obscure some of the injuries.

Some victims were so badly burned that Indiana State Police Detective Don Carlisle couldn’t tell if they were male or female.

“All their hair was burnt off,” Carlisle said in a recent interview, “and they were burnt black.”

Catholic priests delivered last rites. Authorities set up a clergy section at their makeshift control center so ministers could call next of kin.

News reporters tallied bodies and noted the chairs “scattered like ten-pins” and the concrete chunks “as big as three feet by four feet in size.”

Yet Carlisle and at least one other couldn’t help but notice that the mayhem was also strangely quiet. No one seemed to be crying. No one seemed to be raising voices.

Witnesses suggested it had been that way since soon after the blast. “The survivors,” one account said, “were evidently too stunned to panic.”

A family friend of Janie’s from Tabernacle Presbyterian Church lived near the fairgrounds. Mrs. Goeke had heard the explosion — it shook the china out of her cabinet — and come running. She bumped into Janie by chance.

She, too, urged Janie to go to the hospital. But Janie still said no. Mrs. Goeke sat Janie down in a chair, in the care of a man loading people onto ambulances. Mrs. Goeke went inside.

Janie waited, her eyes scanning the scene. Each person on a gurney or walking out of the building could be Mommy or Daddy.

Finally, Janie gave in, agreed to go to the hospital and sat in the passenger seat of a crammed ambulance.

Doctors poured ice-cold water on her head to clean the wound, and put in stitches. “It felt like they were sewing two pieces of leather together,” Janie said.

X-rays didn’t show any broken bones, so it was time for Janie to go home. By then, Mrs. Goeke had come by to find her again.

Janie asked Mrs. Goeke if they had found her mother and father. Mrs. Goeke said no. Janie spent the night on Mrs. Goeke’s fold-out living room couch, able to sleep with the help of whatever they had given her at the hospital.

The church minister came by the next morning. Her parents were gone.

Janie’s sister, Anne, had been calling home from school in Kansas since the night before, first to wish Janie a happy birthday but now because she had heard about the explosions on the radio. She didn’t get through, so she called her father’s office. The secretary told her what happened.

The White family doctor had identified Al and Violet, perhaps at the morgue-on-ice. When he visited later in the day, Janie asked him one question: Did they die instantly?

As far as the doctor could tell, yes.

Janie definitely did cry that day. And when Anne returned from college, the sisters hugged, though not for long because Janie’s ribs were still sore.

But more than anything, Janie felt numb.

Looking back now, she says it was all too much to process. And besides, there were too many logistics to take care of. What clothes would her parents be buried in? Who would look after her? Where would she live?

Janie stayed with the Goekes a while longer. At one point, Mrs. Goeke noticed Janie had been looking out the window as dump trucks went by, hauling some of the broken coliseum concrete.

Mrs. Goeke closed the curtains.

By the morning after, the newspapers reported this was the worst disaster in city and very possibly state history. At least 65 were dead, a number that would eventually rise to 74, according to some reports, and 81, according to the 1968 book, “Disaster in Aisle 13.” Hundreds were injured.

Figuring out what happened was easy enough. Gas had leaked from at least one of five propane tanks. It had combined with a heat source and ignited.

In the hours and days after the explosions, the more urgent question was, who could have possibly let this happen? The pressure to find answers began to build.

“Is it against the code to have liquid gas inside a public building?” a reporter asked State Fire Marshal Ira J. Anderson hours after the blast, in an exchange broadcast by WISH-8 and later reproduced in “Disaster in Aisle 13.”

“Yes, sir,” Anderson responded.

“Then apparently there is some kind of violation here somewhere?”

“I would think so,” the fire marshal said. “It indicates that at least.”

Marion County Prosecutor Noble R. Pearcy convened a grand jury to get to the bottom of it. Five weeks later, it announced its findings.

The tanks weren’t legally allowed in the building, the grand jury said, and they lacked the recommended safety caps. Had state and local officials inspected the building properly, they might have averted the disaster.

The jury had heard testimony from 32 people. Witnesses, the report said, “almost without exception passed the responsibility over to some other agency or person.”

Jurors were not forgiving.

“Explosions do not just happen,” the report said, “they are caused.”

Seven people were indicted.

Three were from the company that owned the propane tanks, Discount Gas Corporation, and two worked for the building’s owners, the Indiana Coliseum Corp. They faced involuntary manslaughter charges.

Fire Marshal Anderson and Indianapolis Fire Chief Arnold W. Phillips were not spared. The jury charged them with misdemeanors.

The choice for Janie was Virginia or California. She was around the same age as her cousins out West, but she knew her mother’s brother in Richmond better. So after talking about it with her older sister, Janie decided that was where to go.

The numbness stayed with her as she settled in with Aunt Frankie and Uncle Doug.

It stayed as she came back to Indianapolis during the holidays to clean out the house on Central Court. It stayed as she started at a new school, and repeated part of seventh grade.

It didn’t truly wash away until the spring of 1964. Janie was home sick from school.

She went to sleep, and woke up screaming. Aunt Frankie came in and sat with her, rocking her — not something that, until that point, Janie knew her to do.

Around that time the nightmares started — at least the first ones she truly remembered. They would last for decades, taking on different shapes and forms, but the image that would wake her up stayed the same: an older lady in a pool of blood — on the ice.

Early on, people wondered what would become of the coliseum — when it would reopen, whether the public would consider it truly safe, whether people would come back. But that would fade quickly.

Six weeks after the explosions, the coliseum was back: a two-day Polled Hereford cattle show.

Then came September 1964, and the coliseum was packed: a band called the Beatles.

On Oct. 30, 1964, the last of the injured returned home from the hospital. The next day, a memorial service for the victims was held.

Less than two weeks after that, Holiday On Ice returned to the coliseum once more. About 5,000 people attended — more than the night of the explosions.

The grand jury’s wrath would also fade. One gas company employee was convicted, and that was of the lesser crime of assault and battery.

A jury found another gas company employee not guilty. For the rest, including Fire Marshal Anderson and Fire Chief Phillips, charges were dropped before trial.

Janie, the pre-teen who had lived in the same city her whole life, became a teenager uprooted, bouncing back and forth between homes and schools.

Uncle Doug got a job transfer to the suburbs of Chicago. He and Aunt Frankie were good to her — Doug made a point of making her birthday feel as normal as possible — but Janie couldn’t quite adjust.

Al and Violet White certainly had been strict — Janie describes Al as “authoritarian” — but you also knew precisely where you stood and what you were supposed to do.

Her new guardians were much more live-and-let-live, and Janie felt a little lost. The solution, they all decided, was Tudor Hall in Indianapolis. It offered boarding facilities.

She graduated in 1969, and shipped off to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Growing up, her parents had pronounced that she would attend college. And when freshman year didn’t go her way, she had only her memory of them to guide her.

That left no room to negotiate with them, no room to explain how all these mandatory classes had nothing to do with her interior design major and didn’t make much sense.

Not that Al White was much for negotiating, anyway.

She dropped out, taking her guilt with her to Indianapolis. She enrolled at Indiana Business College, and paid for her apartment and living expenses with a charge card allowance from her parents’ estate.

Then she met a man, and added Hensley to her name. Soon, she dropped out of school once more. This time it was to get married — surely Mommy and Daddy would have approved of that.

Yet Janie’s 38-year-old daughter, Jenny, can’t help but wonder. Would Jenny even exist if her grandparents had survived? Jenny’s father was divorced when he met Janie. That may well have been a non-starter in the White household.

Janie doesn’t necessarily disagree. But more than the marriage, it was her own divorce, years after moving to Knoxville, Tenn., and having two children together, that made Janie’s mind return to her parents.

To Janie, Al and Violet White were the picture of a perfect marriage. There was no question they adored each other.

Janie had let them down, in her mind at least, when she dropped out of school. Now she was kind of letting them down again.

Janie didn’t start to come to terms with it all — not properly, at least — until nearly three decades after the explosions.

By then, she was a decade divorced and still living in Knoxville. Her oldest daughter was in her late teens and dating a guy Janie didn’t like.

In many of the screaming matches with daughter Reneé, Janie was the one acting irrationally. At some point, Janie realized she needed help.

She had seen a counselor when she was having marital problems and figured maybe it would help this time, too.

It hadn’t really crossed her mind that her parents’ death might be the source of her troubles.

But after three or four weeks of sessions, the counselor caught on and started to draw Janie out. She can’t quite remember exactly what question opened the floodgates, but once she started talking about it, she couldn’t really stop.

“I was 38 years old,” she says now, “grieving as a 13-year-old kid.”

The fights with Renee were easy enough to decipher. Abandoned by her parents, Janie was afraid of her daughter leaving her, too.

But there was something else, something more fundamental that she needed to come to grips with. The fact that they never would have been at the coliseum if not for her.

“For a very, very, very long time,” Janie said, “I thought it was my fault they died.”

Janie finished her sessions after six or seven months. They were certainly a triumph. But the counselor warned that down the road she might find much she still needed to conquer.

Janie never had any trouble with Halloween itself. The sight of trick-or-treaters at her door never triggered any haunting memories.

Some birthdays were spent sad — when she turned 26, and realized she had lived half her life without them, or when she turned 47 and was older than her mother had been. She’s not sure how she’ll feel this Thursday, the 50th anniversary of the explosions.

But she could always handle — even enjoy — birthday dinners spent with family. What Janie couldn’t ever tolerate was the sight of ice inside a building. As a teen, she had gone skating with friends, but only outdoors. When they wanted to go to an indoor arena, she declined without a second thought.

It wasn’t an ice rink’s cold air, or its smell. It wasn’t that it would bring about flashbacks. It was just sort of an innate knot-in-the-stomach kind of a thing that she could never kick. The coliseum was a no-go, too. She had been back once, for the graduation of a dear friend. She drove there that day with the friend’s boyfriend, and stood outside.

As the friend prepared to take the stage, the boyfriend came out and signaled to Janie. She rushed in, watched her accept her diploma, and hurried right back outside. That was about as much as she could take.

For a while Janie didn’t go back to Indianapolis at all. Not for more than a decade, perhaps. But in 2009, she had some money saved up, and it was her 40th reunion at Tudor Hall.

By then, she had begun to feel a bit silly about her fear of the coliseum. And now that she was close to it in town, it was a fear she wanted to vanquish.

She did call ahead to see if there was ice, though. She was told no, but when she arrived she learned that the Indiana Ice hockey team had made the playoffs that year, lengthening their season. The ice was there.

“I walked in the door,” Janie says now, “and I thought, ‘OK, you can do this.’ “

She started to take a few pictures. The feeling came back, and began to overwhelm her.

“Nope, can’t do this.”

Janie went back outside, having seen the plaque bearing her parents’ names, but avoided the seating area completely. Less than 10 minutes after she went in, she was back in her car, crying.

She returned to Tennessee having confronted the beast, but not quite tamed it, and that’s the way it would stay for another three years. Then, her sister Anne had a reunion of her own in Indianapolis. Janie started planning. She needed another shot.

Anne had her own pressure points — for years, she could never bring herself to call Janie on Oct. 31, usually waiting until the day after to wish her happy birthday.

But she wasn’t one for reflection the way Janie was, and she certainly wasn’t fazed by the idea of seeing where it all happened.

So as they drove toward the fairgrounds, Anne was much more aware of Janie’s nerves than her own. “Janie was terrified.”

They made chitchat, keeping the conversation away from what they were about to do. “That was a Daddy thing,” Anne said. If you’re scared, you do your best not to show it.

Janie had psyched herself up for this. It helped that she had already made it into the building once before, by herself. “I knew that I could stand in there,” she says now, “and not fall apart like a baby.”

Anne’s presence provided an added incentive. Maybe she’d tear up, sure, but she was not going to allow her sister to see her become a blubbering mess.

It was a hot summer morning, unlike the rainy fall night decades ago. Janie was at the steering wheel this time, and the car was a rental.

She turned onto 38th Street, and then into the fairgrounds. She pointed out where the manufacturer’s building had been — where Daddy had claimed they were going even after Janie had figured out the surprise.

She parked, and they walked inside together. Through the corridor and into the arena. No ice on the ground this time, at least. A horse show had left the floor covered in dirt.

Janie showed Anne where they had been sitting, where she had woken up, where she had waited to be taken to the hospital. A coliseum employee showed them what it would all look like after renovations were complete.

She was managing. It was even a little bit exciting, seeing the renovation plans at least.

But the feeling that it was time to go came quickly. Anne kept asking questions of the employee. “I’m like, OK — we can go outside and talk,” Janie said.

Soon enough, they were back on the road.

They didn’t talk about it much as they drove away. But Anne could see Janie was at ease now. It was time to get on with the rest of the trip.



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