TERRE HAUTE —
Robert G. Smith remembers working in the basement of the Home Packing plant the day of the explosion on Jan. 2, 1963.
After an initial escape attempt failed, he believes he passed out, overcome by fumes. “When I came to, I looked up and I could see daylight,” said Smith, now 70. He climbed up through an elevator shaft that had caved in.
Others who worked across a cutting table — his friends — did not survive.
Smith, who lives in Blackhawk, shared his recollections while at the Valley Grille, 2170 N. 3rd St., where people had gathered after a short memorial service marking the 50th anniversary of the explosion, which happened just after 7 a.m. on Jan. 2, 1963.
At 9 a.m. Wednesday, more than 50 people had gathered at First and Chestnut streets, where all that remains of the plant is a cornerstone.
Those who gathered at the Valley Grille included families and friends of those who died or were injured as well as survivors of the explosion.
Smith was one of the lucky ones, although he did sustain injuries that included ammonia burns and injuries to his lungs.
He was joined at the Valley Grille by his wife of 51 years, Carol, who also recalled that tragic day. “I was in bed and my dad came and got me, and he took me to my uncle’s house,” she recalled. “They told me about the explosion and they couldn’t find my husband.”
After about 1 to 11⁄2 hours of agony, “they contacted me … he was alive,” said Carol, as she broke into tears.
The young couple had just lost their first baby in September. “It was hard,” she said.
She remembers her husband’s first words to her after the explosion were, “Wally’s dead.” He had to whisper because of his injuries. Both Wally Hughes and James Buttrey were friends and co-workers who had died in the explosion.
For about 10 years, her husband couldn’t talk about what happened, and he had nightmares about it, Carol said. She believes he felt guilty because he lived —while others didn’t.
Also attending the memorial and the get-together afterward was Jim Rupska, who lost his father, Andrew A. Rupska, in the explosion.
Jim Rupska, who was age 10 at the time, remembers being in school that day and a teacher or some other authority figure telling him, “You need to go home. You’re wanted at home.” Once there, he soon learned his father had died.
“It changes everything,” he said, and it was especially tough going through the teen-age years without a father. The family had seven children — although one had joined the Air Force. He said his mom “was busy raising all of us. … It was pretty hard.”
Rupska, who retired from Eli Lilly and Co., said it was important for him to be at the memorial “to remember all the guys that lost their lives, plus the guys that had been injured in the plant explosion” as well as their families.
And, it was a time to honor his late father.
Rupska was accompanied by other family members at the memorial and at the Valley Grille, including his oldest son, named Andrew in honor of the father and grandfather they lost to the explosion. Also attending was Jim Rupska’s youngest brother, David, who had been just a few months old at the time of the tragedy.
More than 50 years ago, Jim Seprodi and Ron Edington worked together at Home Packing. While Seprodi no longer worked there at the time of the explosion, he remembers what he did after he finished making his bread route in Illinois on Jan. 2, 1963.
He immediately went to the explosion site and looked for his friend, Ron Edington. “He walked up beside me that day,” Seprodi recalled.
On Wednesday, he was looking for Edington once again at the memorial.
What he didn’t realize, until people introduced themselves, was that “Ron was standing right next to me,” Seprodi said.
They sat together at the Valley Grille and reminisced about old times, including how they used to “accidentally” spray water on the nice, crisp uniform of a security guard they didn’t like.
Jeanette Ellingsworth, who helped organize the memorial service along with Richard Maher, said they will continue their efforts to install a memorial plaque near the site of the explosion and that fundraising is under way.
ISU now owns the property and plans to build a new track and field complex there.
The university “would certainly consider any plans for installation of a plaque or other permanent memorial,” ISU spokesman Dave Taylor said recently. ISU will require advance approval of the plaque’s placement and site plans so that it fits with the track’s design.
Anyone interested in contributing to the memorial plaque fund can contact Ellingsworth at 812-201-9758.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.