Engineering Disasters: Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion (1944)

  • The Cleveland East Ohio gas explosion was the perfect storm, the creation of a lethal cocktail of gases and a direct route to every home, office and school in the area.
  • Manhole covers landing miles from their original location, a fireball the likes of which we have never seen before and hundreds of properties flattened in seconds.
  • Thankfully lessons have been learned from the Cleveland East Ohio disaster but ultimately many paid the price.
Cleveland Gas Explosion

Credit Cleveland Press Collection

The Cleveland East Ohio tragedy occurred on Friday, October 20, 1944. At 2:30 p.m., laboratory workers at the East Ohio Gas Company spotted white vapour coming out of above-ground storage tank number 4, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) tank at the gas company’s Lake Erie tank farm. Gas was flowing from the tank and wind from Lake Erie began to push the vapours towards the city sewer system.

A lethal mix of gases

The confined space of the city sewer system saw the creation of a lethal concoction of gases. As the liquefied natural gas and sewer gases mixed together this created an explosive cocktail which ignited with devastating effect. Jets of fire burst from the underground sewer as manhole covers were launched into the air, some landing several miles away. There were reports of homes being burned to the ground in seconds.

The fire department initially seemed to have the fire under control and people began returning to their homes. However, a half hour after the first tank explosion a second tank exploded, levelling the tank farm. The fires and explosions continued to trap people in their homes as the conflagration travelled through the sewers and up the drain lines into houses.

The gas leak, explosion and fires killed 130 people and destroyed a large area of Cleveland’s east side. It is estimated that in excess of 100 million gallons of liquefied natural gas exploded on this fateful day, a day which Cleveland’s east side will never forget.

It could have been so much worse

This disaster is one which has haunted the region and while 130 people died on that fateful day, 600 were left homeless and numerous factories and homes were burnt to the ground, it could have been so much worse. Officials believe that had the explosions occurred later in the day, after local schools had closed and people were returning from work the death toll would have been significantly greater.

Lessons have been learned

Thankfully changes have been made to the way in which liquefied natural gas is stored and it is safer today than it ever has been. Underground storage is now the norm for the industry and while there will always be dangers in storing potential explosive gases many of these have been mitigated. This disaster could be filed under the infamous “perfect storm” scenario the like of which is unlikely to ever be repeated again.

What are the chances that these lethal gas vapours would be blown towards the city’s sewer system which in itself houses extremely explosive gases? This lethal concoction ignited the city’s entire sewage system which was connected to every building in the area. No matter how unlikely this scenario was to re-occur in the future something had to be done and thankfully the authorities and the gas storage sector came together.

About: William Tyrell

Mr. Tyrrell has over 40 years of project management, design and engineering experience in industries as diverse as ports, bulk handling facilities, offshore production and drilling, petrochemical and refineries, bauxite and nickel mining, mineral concentrators, pressure vessel fabrication, wood products, pulp and paper, microelectronics, and food processing.

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