Merrill, WI Business Section Explosion, July 1960




Merrill -- A violent explosion at the J.C. Penney Co. department store here Monday afternoon killed eight persons and injured at least 13 others.
Rescue crewmen continued sifting through the rubble today to determine whether other bodies might be hidden in the wreckage as I. S. STATZ and JOHN McHALE of the State Industrial Commission began an investigation into the cause of the blast.
The known dead were EINAR SEGER, 55, a customer in the store and former Merrill city clerk; MRS. LOUIS HAMILTON, MRS. GERALDINE WISSEN and MRS. LAWRENCE BORCHARDT, all employes; MRS. GEORGE ERICKSON and her mother, MRS AMANDA EVANS, and MRS. CARL YORDE and her 12-year-old son, all customers from Merrill.
JOHN PORTER, 42, a Madison attorney who was shopping in the store, was one of the injured. He escaped with cuts and bruises.
The blast occured on the same site where an explosion ripped through an A & P food store July 12, 1952, permanently crippling the building owner.
The 1952 explosion was blamed on an accumulation of gas in an adjoining building. Officials of the Merrill city gas utility said the Penney explosion Monday "could not possibly" have been caused by a gas leak. They said none of their pipes are connected to the building.
An insurance adjuster, however, said he was told gas leaks were found under the street nearby.
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.
Some 50 rescue crewmen searched the hot rubble through the night.
Fire Chief ARNOLD WESSEL 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 today was slowed by six feet of water in the basement of the building.
The explosion pushed out the walls of the store, caved in the roof and plunged the store's first floor into the basement.
A searing fire broke out about five or ten minutes later. The explosion blew debris in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse across the street and left pieces of clothing hanging from telephone lines.
Rescue workers pulled a dozen persons from the wreckage before the fire broke out. After that, dense smoke and heat forced the rescuerers back.
DICK WILSON, 25, and ROBERT KJELL, 35, both of Merrill, were across the street when the explosion occurred.
"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, clawed at the wreckage with his hands but the broken beams and bricks were jammed.
Atty. PORTER was inside the store, he said, "The next thing I knew, I was in the basement and the roof came crashing down."
He said, "screams of persons trapped inside" could be heard as rescue workers fought the flames. PORTER managed to climb up a pile of wreckage and make his way to safety.
LeROY O. JOHNSON, 38, Merrill, store manager was the most seriously injured of those in the hospital today. He received burns over 70 per cent of his body and was in "very critical" condition.
Police from Merrill and nearby communities blocked off traffic on Highway 51 which runs a block east of the scene. National Guardsmen were called in and an Army tank was used to pull apart the collapsed roof of the building.
Firemen from Merrill, Wausau, Rhinelander and Tomahawk kept the fire from spreading to the seven other stores in the sam block. They poured tons of water on a 1,000 gallon fuel tank in the basement to avert a second explosion.
The explosion showered bricks onto nearby parked cars and scattered clothing to utility poles and television antennas as much as half a block away.
One of the first to reach the store after the blast was Dist. Atty. RALPH NIENOW, whose office is across the street. He found a four year old boy trapped in one of the cars parked outside, his foot wedged in the jammed door.
NIENOW freed the boy by cutting off the canvas shoe, then raced into the rear of the building where at least five others were pulled to safety.
The first persons pulled from the building had cuts and bruises. Those saved later had their clothing in flames. The heat of the fire halted all rescue efforts until the flames were brought under control three hours after the 2 p.m. blast.
The dead were taken to the National Guard armory where relatives identified their shattered bodies from jewelry and bits of clothing.
ROGER ENGLISH, assistant store manager who was at home when the explosion took place, said the damage was worst on the balcony, where bookkeepers were at work, and in the basement.
ENGLISH said four of the victims were "blown to pieces" by the force of the explosion. Most of the dead were found in a corner of the store basement. Only a portion of the building's front wall remained standing today. The roof and remaining walls were scattered in a six-foot high pile of charred debris.

The Dead:
EINAR SEGER, 55, Merrill, customer.
MRS. LOUIS HAMILTON, Merrill, employe.
MRS. GERALDINE WISSEN, Merrill, employe.
MRS. LAWRENCE BORCHARDT, Merrill, employe.
MRS. GEORGE ERICKSON, Merrill, customer.
MRS. AMANDA EVANS, Merrill, customer.
MRS. CARL YORDE, Merrill, customer.
MRS. YORDE'S 12-year-old son.
The Injured:
JOHN T. PORTER, 42, of 2221 Rowley Ave., Madison, customer.
EARL ORIEL, 67, Ramona, Fla., customer.
MRS. HAZEL POST, 40, Grand Rapids, Mich., passerby.
WILLIAM KRUCKENBERG, 36, Palatine, Ill., customer.
MRS. FRANKLIN BRANDENBURG, 39, Merrill, employe.
MRS. HARRY WEBER, 57, Merrill, customer.
MRS. HAROLD LAMBRECHT, 57, Merrill, customer.
LE ROY JOHNSON, 38, Merrill, store manager.
MRS. GALEN ROSSITER, 42, Merrill, employe.
JAMES KOEBE, 17, Merrill, employe.
MRS. WILLIAM KLEINSCHMIDT, 36, Merrill, customer.
MRS. CATHERINE ORIEL, 66, Ramona, Fla., customer.

The Capital Times Madison Wisconsin 1960-07-19