Marion, SD Catholic Church Explosion, Apr 1949



Marion, S.D. -- This small South Dakota town today planned a mass funeral for the six Holy Week worshippers killed Sunday as a blast demolished St. Mary's Catholic Church.
Bishop William O. Brady of Sioux Falls, diocesan head, tentatively set Wednesday for the mass rites for the elderly victims who died as they knelt in prayer. Forty-seven other persons were injured, several critically.
The mass service will probably be held at 10 a.m., the bishop said. It will be conducted in St. Christina's Church at Parker. Bishop Brady will celebrate Pontifical Requiem High Mass.
A gas leak in an almost new propane gas furnace and an arcing spark from an electrical connection were blamed for the blast Sunday which levelled the brick and wood church just 10 minutes before services were to start and left this Turner County community stunned.
Phil Wachendorf, a parishioner, said "everything blew up" when he threw a furnace switch. Although buried in the wreckage and suffering from injuries and serious burns, Wachendorf was able to free himself and crawl out.
The Rev. Joseph Zimmerman, elderly and ailing pastor of the church, was dressing for the single Palm Sunday service. The palms, traditionally distributed on the Sunday before Easter, lay on a table waiting special prayers and blessings.
Approximately 150 of the expected 150 worshippers were in the church when the blast sent the floor ceilingward, pushed out the thick tile and brick walls and let the heavy roof tumble to the floor.
"I saw a big puff of what looked like steam," said one of the parish members who was driving toward the church. "The roof seemed to lift a little. Then when I looked again it wasn't there."
Only the corner tower, topped by the belfry and the cross, withstood the shock of the explosion.
The cries of the injured and of dazed seeking friends and family members could be heard throughout the neighborhood. The uninjured and persons attracted by the explosion attacked the rubble with bare hands to get at the dead and injured. An hour later the last of the bodies was taken from the wreck but volunteers and the heavy equipment continued the pull at the broken roof and sidewall sections making sure that no one had been overlooked.
And as these efforts went of rumors continued to fly that "there are still people in there. There are two little girls not accounted for."
Most of those killed and injured were seated in their pews when the blast occurred. But at least two of the dead, MR. and MRS. JOHN MARSO, were just entering the church.
Father Zimmerman and four altar boys -- Bud and Bob Lounsbery, Don Wagner and Tom Reding -- were at the front of the church. The former was pinned beneath the debris but the four boys escaped almost without injury.
The priest's housekeeper was just preparing to leave the parish home for the church next door when she felt the concussion of the blast.
"I normally would have been in church early," she explained, "but for some reason today I waited for the second bell. I was just putting on my coat when I felt the concussion and rushed out. I could hear Father calling for help. They reached him and he said 'I'm alright.' The men lifted a section of the wall and got him out."
The housekeeper told of seeing various parish members going into the church. Part of those she watched were dead just a few minutes later.
BILL LAMBERT, life-long resident of Marion, was among those injured. Interviewed in his hospital room his story illustrated the suddeness and stunning force of the tragedy.
"I was seated in the southwest corner of the church, just about three seats from the back," he explained. "The first thing I knew I was going up in the air. I don't think I had been in the church three minutes. That's what I can remember -- going up in the air and falling. I was pinned under some lumber. My brother helped get me out."
LAMBERT, who suffered a broken leg and ankle, said most of the people were in the center toward the back of the church. This section was protected from the crushing weight of the roof which remained anchored to the entrance wasy at the back.
"MRS. JOE FRIEMUTH was sitting just ahead of me," LAMBERT said. "Part of the roof struck her and she was badly hurt. They took me to a house and later brought me to the clinic."
In addition to his broken leg, LAMBERT showed the effects of falling debris with a badly bruised and scraped face.
The emergency calls placed by the telephone switchboard operator immediately following the blast brought doctors, nurses and emergency medical supplies from all surrounding towns and from Mitchell and Sioux Falls.
At one time there were 14 ambulances and four hearses on the scene. No count was ever made of the doctors and hurses present.
With few details of the tragedy available, the Milwaukee railroad sent a special train from Mitchell carrying nurses, doctors, volunteer firemen and emergency medical equipment.
The South Dakota Red Cross set up emergency offices in the telephone building to act as a clearing house for compiling information and for answering inquiries coming from throughout the United States seeking word of relatives and friends who might have been in the church.
By mid-afternoon this Red Cross unit had accounted for most of the injured and missing, labelled this list with the hospitals caring for each individual and was settling down to rechecking.
Salvation Army workers from Sioux Falls were on hand before noon dispensing hot coffee and sandwiches to the volunteers working on the wreckage of the church. The group was offered the use of a kitchen in a private home and served the workers who weren't taking time out for their regular meals.
Shortly before 3:00 o'clock, a call from Sioux Falls sought to locate MRS. CHARLES McGINNIS to inform her that her husband had died. MRS. McGINNIS was undergoing surgery at a Yankton hospital at approximately the same time.
The Red Cross unit was headed by Don Cornish, Sioux Falls, state relations officer; Frank Kinyon of Huron, state safety representative, and Miss Ann Morris, Turner County officer. Many volunteer crews were working under their direction making a house to house canvass for information.
This checking job was further complicated by the fact that St. Mary's served three additional towns -- and the farm communities.
Roads into Marion were jammed throughout the day by motorists seeking to view the scene. By mid-afternoon, cars were parked double along the north and west highways almost a mile in both directions.
Following is a list of those killed:
MR. and MRS. JOHN MARSO. MARSO was killed when the brick gable over the entrance fell on him as he was mounting the church steps. MRS. MARSO has entered the church.
MRS. GEORGE BITTNER, a sister of MRS. MARSO. Killed in the church.
MRS. CAROLINE REDING. Killed in the church.
MRS. PHIL LAKE, who died on arrival at McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls.
CHARLES McGINNIS, who died at McKennan Hospital.
All were in their 60s or 70s. McGINNIS was from Monroe and the others lived in Marion.
Names and conditions of persons, all from Marion or Monroe, injured in the explosion are as follows:
McKennan Hospital, Sioux Falls:
PHIL WACHENDORF, 40, second and third degree burns on face and hands, condition fairly good.
MRS. JOE FRIEMUTH, 32, shock, undetermined injuries, condition improving.
KENNETH LUKE, 25, shock, possible spinal fracture, condition undetermined.
JOHN WILLIAMS, 55, probable spinal fracture, other injuries, condition good.
MRS. JOHN STANGLE, 65, undetermined injuries, under observation, condition satisfactory.
JOHN STANGLE, 68, undetermined injuries, under observation, condition good.
JERRY WACHENDORF, 8, multiple lacerations of the legs, head injuries, condition good.
FRANK BITTNER, 52, fractured spine, cuts and abrasions, condition good.
MRS. ED RENK, 48, two broken legs, injured shoulder, condition good.
ED RENK, 52, broken shoulder, condition good.
PHILLIP LUKE, 77, fractured thigh, multiple lacerations, shock, condition fair.
MRS. J. A. WEILAND, 60, multiple contusions and minor lacerations and abrasions, condition good.
MISS CLARA WEILAND, 57, Minor contusions, lacerations and abrasions, sprained back, condition good.
MILFORD SCHMITTEN, 21, severe lacerations of face and leg, shock, fractured nose, condition good.
St. Joseph's Hospital, Mitchell:
MRS. W. W. BRADY, 64, compound fractures of leg, severe shock, condition critical.
W. W. BRADY, 64, chest injuries, shock, condition undetermined but not critical.
JOSEPH WACHENDORF, bruises, condition fair.
PETER LUKE, broken rib, bruises, condition fair.
ROGER WACHENDORF, treated for bruises, minor cuts, dismissed.
THOMAS WACHENDORF, treated for bruises, minor cuts, dismissed.
Sacred Heart Hospital, Yankton:
MRS. JOSEPHINE McGINNIS, 78, spinal injury, nature of whichnot fully determined. Condition described as "very serious" by hospital attendants.
MRS. BABETTE PANKRATZ, 63, head injuries and broken arm, "Not especially serious."
CLARA LAMBERTZ, 51, head injuries, extent unknown and injured knee, condition fair.
Clinic At Marion:
WILLIAM LAMBERTZ, about 60, fractured ankle, head cuts, condition fairly good.
Others who received medical attention in their homes, as compiled by the Red Cross:
The Rev. J. C. ZIMMERMAN, 73, pastor of St. Mary's.
AUGUST LUKES' four children.

Daily Republic Mitchell South Dakota 1949-04-11


Marion, SD Catholic Church Explosioin, Apr 1949

My father, Dr. Arthur Reding, was the first doctor on the scene of the church explosion. He and my mother were late for church that morning and Dad was standing at the kitchen sink where the windows above the sink faced the church about one half block away. Dad witnessed the explosion grabbed his medical bag and ran to the church. My Mother immediately grabbed blankets and also went to the church.

Dad said he looked for his mother Caroline Reding and saw that she had been crushed by a beam and he knew she was deceased. My brother, Tom Reding, was one of the alter boys and narrowly escaped being crushed by the altar. Dad administered pain medications to the injured and treated others for shock.

Dad did not talk much about that Palm Sunday until the 50th anniversary of the explosion when he was interviewed by the Argus Leader.