Merrill, WI Department Store Explosion, July 1960



Merrill, Wis. (AP) -- A violent explosion turned the J. C. Penney Co. department store into a pile of twisted, charred debris Monday. Eight persons were killed and 13 injured.
"We don't know what caused it," said Mayor Ralph Voight. "It's a terrible thing for us."
H. L. Wright of Minneapolis, zone manager for the Penney Co., inspected the damage today and set the monetary loss at one-half million dollars.
The identified dead were ELNAR SEGER, 55, a customer in the store and former clerk for this city of 10,000 in northern Wisconsin; MRS. LOUIS HAMILTON; MRS. GERALDINE WISSEN; and MRS. LAWRENCE BORCHARDT, all employes; MRS. GEORGE ERICKSON and her mother, MRS. AMANDA EVANS, shoppers; MRS. CARL YORDE and her son, 12.
I. S. Stats and John McHale, of the State Industrial Commission, began an investigation into the cause of the blast.
The on-story modern building was located on the same site where an A&P supermarket was destroyed by an explosion July 12, 1951. The blast was then blamed on the accumulation of gas in an adjoining building. Officials of the Merrill City Gas Utility said the Penney explosion
"could not possibly" have been caused by a gas leak. They said none of their pipes are connected to the building.
SEGER died shortly after he was admitted to Holy Cross Hospital. The bodies of the others were taken from the ruins to an emergency morgue set up in the National Guard armory. The bodies of the women were so badly burned it took hours to establish their identity.
Powerful searchlights were erected as darkness closed in to aid rescue workers in their search for other possible victims. A huge crane was used to lift away the wreckage.
Fire Chief Arnold Wessel of Merrill said his men would not rest until every inch of the building was covered to eliminate any chance of overlooking anyone who might have been trapped. The work was slowed by six feet of water in the basement of the building.
DICK WILSON, 25, and ROBERT KJELL, 35, were nearby when the explosion pushed out the walls and the roof crashed down, plunging the store's street floor with it into the basement.
"The fire didn't come right away," WILSON said.
"That was about five or ten minutes later. We climbed onto the roof and carried a woman and her little girl to safety. I could hear the other women inside crying for help. I looked down and I saw two of them. They were bleeding. We started for them but then the fire came. We couldn't do it. We couldn't get to them. We had to go."
KJELL said he clawed at the wreckage with his hands but the broken beams and bricks were jammed.
"I tried to get to them and so did others," KJELL said. "I think the people trapped inside could see the fire coming at them before we did."
JOHN PORTER, 42, of Madison, a survivor who was shopping in the store when the blast came, escaped with cuts and bruises.
"The nex thing I knew, I was in the basement, and the roof came crashing down," PORTER said. He climbed up a pile of wreckage and made his way to safety.
Firemen from Merrill, Wausau, Tomahawk and Rhinelander fought the flames and prevented them from bursting through a basement fire wall that shielded a tank of fuel oil. A National Guard tank was put into action during the early fire fighting stages to push back flaming timbers. Only a portion of the building's front wall remained standing.

Merrill (AP) -- The list of known dead and injured in Monday's explosion and fire that demolished the J. C. Penny Co. department store here. All victims were of Merrill unless otherwise noted.
The dead:
MRS. LOUIS HAMILTON, store employe.
MRS. GERALDINE WISSEN, store employe.
MRS. GEORGE ERICKSON and her mother, MRS. AMANDA EVANS, shoppers in the store.
MRS. CARL YORDE and her 12 year old son.
The injured:
L. O. JOHNSON, 38, store manager.
MRS. GALEN ROSSITER, 42, employe.
JAMES KOEBE, 17, employe.
JOHN PORTER, 42, Madison.
EARL ORIEL, 67, Limona, Fla., and his wife CATHERINE, 66.
MRS. WILLIAM KLEINSCHMIDT, 36, and her daughter, KRISTINE, 12.
Two men who suffered cuts and were treated at a hospital and released were not identified.

Sheboygan Daily Press Wisconsin 1960-07-19


Penny's Explosion

I was 4 1/2 years old. My mother and my friend Noreen were shopping downtown. We stopped in to Peterman's where my grandfather gave my friend and a a dime and like any little kids we had to spend our dime before we went to get thread. We were out of the dime store and on our way to Penny's when the store explored. My grandfather was worried sick because he knew we were on the way there. My friend's parents must have been very worried too, because they knew we were shopping. At 4 1/2 you don't remember much unless it is told to you, but I can remember people being carried out of the bldg. and we couldn't get to our car.

Penney's explosion 1960.

I was 4 1/2 years old and my mother and I and my brother were walking downtown to go to the Penney's store that day. We were about 5 blocks away when the explosion occurred. I remember that all the adults were upset and my father was worried that we were there. He worked across the street from the store. I didn't remember that so many people were killed. Did they ever decide what the cause was?

Mrs Erickson & Amanda Evans

Mrs Erickson & Amanda Evans were my grandmother & great grandmother. The day of the explosion was the day before my mothers 10th birthday. My grandfather refused to take the ring from the body they thought to be my grandmother's because he couldn't be sure it was hers and he didn't want to take something that didn't belong to him. We still have newspaper clippings from this day.