TERRE HAUTE —
On a bitterly cold morning, with temperatures in the single digits, more than 50 people gathered at First and Chestnut streets to pray, sing and most of all, to remember.
They gathered — for just a few minutes — to remember the 17 men killed and more than 50 injured in the Home Packing Co. explosion that had occurred 50 years earlier — on Jan. 2, 1963.
The blast — which occurred just after 7 a.m. that day — imploded one-third of the large, two-story brick meat processing plant at 400 N. First St., crumbling walls and transforming machine parts into missiles.
All that remains is a stark, lonely cornerstone.
The memorial event was organized by Jeanette Ellingsworth, who lost her then 23-year-old brother, Joe Callahan, in the blast, and Richard Maher, who lost several friends in the blast, including Callahan and David Kahl. The families grew up together at St. Mary-of-the-Woods Village.
On Wednesday, at 9 a.m., as the memorial got under way, friends, family and survivors bundled in warm coats, hats and gloves formed a circle and held hands.
“Merciful God, we feel your presence as we gather here this morning to remember,” read Sister Joan Slobig. “To remember the tragic event that took place here 50 years ago today. To remember in a very special way those who lost their lives in the explosion. To remember those who were injured that day.
“To remember those whose jobs were taken from them that day. To remember the families whose lives were changed forever. To remember a community stunned by such an unthinkable tragedy.”
The sun shone despite the cold, and cars that drove by on First Street occasionally drowned out the words of those who spoke, emotionally, of those they had loved and those they had lost on that cold, winter morning 50 years ago.
Slobig continued, asking that God “teach us how to create systems that keep our community safe” and “comfort us as a family brought together through suffering and loss.
“We make this prayer in your name, with confidence that good will continue to come as a result of this tragedy. Amen.”
As the memorial continued, Beth West — Ellingsworth’s niece — sang “Christ in the Rubble,” written after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Then, the group sang one verse of “Amazing Grace.”
Those attending were asked to introduce themselves and their connection to the Home Packing disaster — whether they lost a loved one, a good friend or survived the explosion. At varying times, 17 people released blue and white balloons with the names of those who died.
Two men who had once worked side by side at Home Packing, Jim Seprodi and Ron Edington — discovered they were standing side by side at the memorial event.
One woman described how her father landed on a conveyor belt during the blast, “and it saved his life.”
Carl Bender released a balloon in honor of his father, who died in the explosion. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long … It’s humbling to think that it has been,” he said.
Jackie Hagan held a photo of her late father, Al Hagan, who had worked at Home Packing and was injured, but survived, the explosion. He later worked at the Terre Haute Transit Utility.
Jackie was age 7 when it happened. Her father broke an arm, leg and wrist and his lungs, throat and eyes were burned. She said it was important for her to attend on behalf of her father, who has since passed away.
She held and released a balloon in honor of Donald W. Scott. “My dad always talked about Don Scott, and I got his balloon,” Hagan said.
Mary Ann Brunette Sedletzeck was just 8 years old when the disaster occurred. Fortunately, her father, Ed Brunette, survived the blast. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. Her dad, a foreman on the morning shift, was 42 at the time.
“They came and got us out of school and told us my dad had been in the explosion,” she said after the memorial concluded. “I can remember being in the living room and waiting — just waiting, waiting, waiting forever and ever. He had stayed to try and rescue his friends.
“I can remember when the car pulled in the driveway and my mom falling to her knees; she easily could have been a widow with six children,” said Sedletzeck, now a teacher in Paris, Ill.
Her father was not physically hurt, but he couldn’t escape the emotional wounds.
Also, he lost his job in the explosion and struggled as he sought new employment to support his family.
After he came home, much to his family’s relief, he gave his wife a hug and then told her, “I have to go back,” Sedletzeck said. He continued to try and help rescue co-workers. “They didn’t have the rescue equipment we have now.”
As a result of what happened, Sedletzeck’s brother pursued a career in occupational safety and health.
Ellingsworth said after the memorial, “It was good to know there’s so many people that remembered, that I wasn’t the only one feeling those things. The whole community was feeling those things.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.