TERRE HAUTE —
Carl Bender was just 16 and a Schulte High School student on Jan. 2, 1963, the day a massive explosion at Home Packing Co. forever changed his life.
The blast — which occurred just after 7 a.m. — imploded one-third of the large, two-story brick meat processing plant at 400 N. First St., crumbling its walls and transforming machine parts into missiles. Seventeen employees died and more than 50 were injured.
Students had just returned to school from Christmas break, and Bender — who later spent 30 years working at the Terre Haute Tribune and Tribune-Star — remembers working in the Schulte bookstore, where he might have heard some talk about an explosion.
His dad, also named Carl Bender, worked at Home Packing in the shipping department. Initially, the 16-year-old wasn’t too worried. “I had this vision of my father being the person helping rescue people,” he recalled last week.
Later, School Principal Father Joseph V. Beechem pulled Bender out of class and told him there had been an accident at the plant and that he was going home.
Bender and his family eventually learned that his father had died in the explosion.
“It was devastating,” he said, especially for his mother, Louise, who grieved for many years.
According to an article written by historian Mike McCormick for the 40-year anniversary of the tragedy, workers returned to the plant after a four-day holiday layoff when the explosion occurred just after 7 a.m.
The explosion caused the roof and ceilings to collapse, burying many of the 200 employees who had reported for duty only minutes before, he wrote.
Rene Verpleatse, a foreman at Lovelace Trucking Co., 425 N. Second St., across the street from the plant, watched in awe, according to McCormick’s article.
“I was dumbfounded,” Verpleatse said. “The building just crumbled, like the bottom fell out of it. There was really no noise. It just fell like an earthquake. Bricks were flying everywhere.”
Most employees inside the building heard the explosion, variously described as “a door slam,” “a large gush of wind,” “a dull thud” or “a rumbling.”
Lights flickered for a moment before everything went black. The roof collapsed and then each floor below caved in. Several men were entombed in basement coolers under brick, concrete and steel debris, which blocked the doors to rescue crews.
Efforts to reach victims were impaired by scalding hot steam from cracked boilers and ammonia fumes escaping from damaged refrigeration equipment, McCormick wrote.
An emergency first aid station was based in the Vigo County highway garage at Second and Ohio streets. According to hospital records, the first victim was pronounced dead a 10:40 a.m.
Mine personnel helped shore up the wrecked building to prevent collapse during rescue operations. Cranes, bulldozers, drag lines and trucks furnished by private companies supplemented city street department equipment.
In the weeks following the tragedy, 64 lawsuits were initiated against the Terre Haute Gas Corp. by injured employees and the families of those killed.
Investigators associated the explosion with several leaks in gas mains surrounding the plant, according to McCormick’s article.
The focal point of the blast, it was concluded, was under the loading docks. There was evidence that leaking natural gas may have accumulated for several days under frozen top soil and, during the four-day New Year’s holiday shutdown, seeped into the closed building.
The plant, which had covered about two city blocks and employed about 300 people, did not resume operations, citing financial losses caused by the tragedy.
Home Packing & Ice Co., which had opened in 1907, processed and distributed Dependable brand hams, bacon and lard.
Plans for a 50-year memorial service
Jan. 2, 2013, will mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster.
Jeanette Ellingsworth and Richard Maher have planned a short memorial service at the site to remember those who lost their lives, including Ellingsworth’s brother, Joe Callahan, who also was Maher’s good friend.
Maher, who had worked at the company for about two years, quit about six months prior to the explosion. He knew many people at the plant and was close friends with some of those who had died, including Callahan and David Kahl; the three had grown up together at St. Mary-of-the-Woods village.
“It had a big impact,” Maher said. “When you lose real close friends, it’s like losing family.”
Maher had been in Lafayette when the explosion occurred, but quickly returned to Terre Haute. When he saw the site, “It was like someone dropped a bomb,” he recalled.
This coming Jan. 2, the short, 50-year memorial ceremony will be at 9 a.m. at the cornerstone, located at First and Chestnut streets. Sister Joan Slobig will say a prayer, while Beth West, Ellingsworth’s niece, will sing a song. Afterward, those attending will gather at the Valley Grill, 2170 N. 3rd St.
While Maher has been the force behind the effort, he has had serious health problems the past year, and so Ellingsworth is now taking on the responsibility. She hopes that families and friends of victims, as well as those who formerly worked there, will attend. The Home Packing plant explosion “affected a lot of people,” she said.
The public is welcome to attend. “We just want to gather, talk about old times and remember,” she said.
ISU has given permission for the memorial service.
Maher, 72, believes it’s important to have the memorial service because “it’s too easy to forget.” Seventeen people died, and more than 50 were injured. The plant never re-opened, so those who worked there lost their jobs. “It devastated the community,” he said.
About two years ago, Maher gathered a petition to ask that a memorial plaque be installed at the foundation cornerstone of the old Home Packing Co. building. Indiana State University now owns the property. Maher estimates he obtained a few hundred signatures.
The accompanying letter states, in part, “It is not an underestimation to say that nearly everyone in the Wabash Valley was affected in some way by this horrific accident.” A memorial plaque would pay tribute to and name those who died.
Maher still hopes to see the plaque reach fruition, although he has not been able to actively pursue it this past year because of health problems. Also, he lost much of his paperwork when a bad storm in May 2011 destroyed his Collett Park home, which had to be rebuilt.
The university plans to build a new track and field facility at the site of the former Home Packing Co., according to ISU spokesman Dave Taylor.
“The university would certainly consider any plans for installation of a plaque or other permanent memorial,” Taylor said. ISU would require advance approval of the plaque’s placement and site plans so that it would fit in with the planned track currently under design.
Ellingsworth was 20 when the explosion occurred; her brother, Joe Callahan, was 23 and went to work at the meat-packing plant after serving in the Navy.
She watched her three younger brothers at their home in St. Mary-of-the-Woods village while her parents went to a site near the explosion to learn the fate of their oldest son.
It was a long day for the family. “It was just wait and see, wait and see. Is he alive? Is he dead?” she remembered.
There were no cell phones, and communicating with her parents was difficult.
“They didn’t find my brother until 5 to 5:30 that night,” Ellingsworth recalled.
She remembers the family’s front yard was full of reporters — including national media — and her dad eventually asked them to leave. “They were all over the front yard and the front porch,” she said.
The day before the explosion, the family had celebrated New Year’s Day, and Joe went to bed early that night to get up early for work the next day.
“Who would have known that would be the last time I would see him?” she said. She described him as “tall and handsome, with a flat-top, big smile and good personality.”
He graduated from Concannon High School in 1957 and then served in the Navy four years on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific.
He was going to have a double wedding with his good friend, David Kahl. “Our families were really close,” Ellingsworth said.
Instead of a double wedding, the two shared a funeral service at St. Mary’s Village Church, which was so full that windows were left open in January so people outside could listen.
Callahan and Kahl were buried next to each other at Calvary Cemetery, Ellingsworth said.
Two weeks prior to the explosion, her mother dreamed that Callahan had drowned. In that dream, “When they didn’t find him, they just brought his billfold to her. … She said that’s exactly what they did at Home Packing,” Ellingsworth recounted.
The disaster drew national attention, and packing houses all over the country sent flowers and letters.
Whenever she sees tragedies in the news — including the recent school shootings in Newtown, Conn., — Ellingsworth thinks back to the disaster that hit too close to home.
“I guess it’s made me a better person,” she said. “It just makes you reach out to other people who have gone through something like this and try to make them feel better.”
She adds, “When I have a bad day, I try to find someone who’s having a worse day.”
While she enjoys the holidays, it’s also a time to reflect back about the Home Packing tragedy and the brother she lost. “It’s something you’ll never forget,” she said.
For more information about the memorial ceremony or plaque, contact Ellingsworth at 812-201-9758.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-31-4235 or email@example.com.
• The following are the names of the 17 men who lost their lives in a gas explosion at the Home Packing Co. plant:
John Joseph Callahan
Henry James Cottrell
Larry Lee Crum
Darl Gene Garred
Jack Raymond Hayes
Wallace V. Hughes
John A. Joseph Sr.
George David Kahl
Andrew A Rupska
Donald W. Scott
James Trosper Jr.