Leavenworth, KS Gas Explosion, Jan 1979


Leavenworth, Kan. (AP) -- Authorities say a natural gas leak may be responsible for an explosion that leveled on wing of a prison honor farm building, killing five inmates and the farm foreman and injuring four others.
"It looks like it has to be a natural gas buildup to me," Warden Irl Day of the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary said at the scene Tuesday.
Richard P. Seiter, executive assistant to the warden, said today the cause of the explosion had not been determined and would be investigated by prison officials and a special task force from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Seiter said there was no evidence to indicate the explosion was not an accident.
The last three bodies were recovered from the rubble early today by workers using heavy equipment and digging by hand through giant chunks of reinforced concrete and other debris.
Prison officials said one wing of the old brick building collapsed during the explosion, filling the shallow basement of the farm machinery building and creating a pile of rubble 10 feet high.
One body was pulled from the rubble almost immediately after the late-morning explosion Tuesday, the three bodies beneath the concrete were found by firemen who crawled into the rubble shortly after the explosion and two more were dug out late Tuesday night.
David Goings, a 23-year-old fireman from Fort Leavenworth, crawled into the rubble and saw the head and shoulders of one man protruding from broken beicks and concrete.
"There were just little tunnels through there," Goings said. "I followed them as far as I could go."
Two hundred men, including soldiers, prisoners and highway workers, braved a six-inch snowfall and temperatures near zero, hoping to find the last two men alive. But they apparently were killed instantly.
"From the burns on the bodies, I would say that's where the blast originated," said Warden Day after the last two bodies were found. "They were in pretty bad shape."
Lt. Col. Fred Clarke, an engineer from the fort who was directing the digging, said he also believed the explosion was caused by natural gas.
Charles Rhea, the farm's manager, said the only explosives in the building were the natural gas line for the furnace, the gasoline in the fuel tanks of the vehicles and the acetylene for a torch.
He said he did not believe the torch was being used at the time of the late-morning explosion.
Rick Seiter, executive assistant to the warden, said an investigation into the explosion has begun and the cause of the blast would be announced as soon as it is determined. Irl said a team from the federal Bureau of Prisons also would investigate.

Oelwein Daily Register Iowa 1979-01-31

Listing of fatalities:
Guard JOHN COOGAN, 51, Rushville, Mo.
Five Inmates Killed were:
FRANK KENNETH SIMMONS, 34, of Keller, Texas.
JUAN O. SOTO, Mexico.
DONALD F. LETELLIER, 43, Independence, Mo.
CANTRELL BLAIR, 28, Chicago.