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Friday, May 6, 2016

Explosion in West Plains a real tragedy

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The terrible echo of the greatest disaster to strike south Missouri is fading away.

The tragedy, a dance hall explosion, struck Friday night, April 13, 1928, in West Plains.

Called, the West Plains explosion by people of my youth, a very small percentage of people are still around that could remember the event.

But the story will no doubt be handed down because so many people were touched by the loss that evening.

The explosion, felt and heard for miles (one report said it was heard in Thayer), took place in the second floor of Bond Hall on East Main Street.

Forty persons died and a dozen others were injured, some seriously. Nineteen were so seriously burned their identity could not be established.

A lively crowd had just reconvened following the intermission, while some still loitered outside the hall an hour before midnight. A three-piece dance orchestra with Dimple Martin at the piano played peppy fox trots and romantic waltzes among the gayety. Witnesses said that at first a rumbling sound was heard, followed by a loud thundering explosion which blew the entire building high into the air. Then fire broke out all over as shrieks of the dying penetrated the air in an unbelievable holocaust. Several buildings were destroyed and all the windows of the courthouse, a block away, were blown out and the building subsequently condemned.

A coroner's jury was called the following day. They sat for four days and heard the testimony of 62 witnesses, but adjourned without fixing the cause or blame. Dick Green was prosecuting attorney at that time. There were conflicting reports and stories of mystery men having been in the area and other testimony revealed that the owner of the garage situated underneath the dance hall was in financial trouble and tried to tie the explosion to his operations, but he died in the blast and could not tell why he was at the place of the explosion that night.

A mass memorial service was held on April 17 with 20 gray caskets lined up in two rows. Burial was in Oak Lawn cemetery. The townspeople placed a marble monument on the lot in memoriam to the unidentified.

Of all the stories that emanated about the explosion, Bob Neathery of West Plains may have come up with a plausible answer as to how the explosion could have been so powerful. Some years ago, he tracked down a man, living in Kansas, who worked in the garage (for the owner T. M. Wiser) at the time of the explosion. According to what the man told Mr. Neathery, his friend was in town driving a truck and asked if he could park the vehicle inside in the dry that night and was permitted to do so. Somehow, conjecture is that someone set a fire and the truck was hauling dynamite and caps. The mechanic thinks that is what exploded.