The horrific plant explosion that ripped apart the small town of West in Texas on Wednesday night has rekindled memories of a tragic day in Barberton nearly a century ago.
Steve Kelleher, president of the Barberton Historical Society, said the Summit County city was rocked by its own large plant explosion on June 22, 1922.
Kelleher said the explosion happened “at exactly 7:20 a.m.” at the Diamond Match Co.
Kelleher explained that authorities were able to pinpoint the time, because clocks near the blast site all froze at the same time.
A small explosion at the factory, he said, marked the start of a long and tragic day. Over the span of 15 minutes, the city and surrounding communities would be rocked by a series of three explosions — each about five minutes apart.
“The first explosion caused the fire, and the Barberton Fire Department responded from the No. 1 Fire House within about three minutes,” according to historical accounts.
“As soon as the fire department got set up and started to pour water on the fire, the second explosion occurred. This was the worst explosion of the three.”
The explosions created “panic” in the city as residents emerged from damaged homes and businesses.
The blasts were heard as far away as Massillon and Doylestown.
“Fearing the worst, the people of Barberton flocked down to the Diamond Match plant to look for their relatives,” according to an account of the day published in a book by the historical society. “This flood of humanity added to the pandemonium and blocked the rescue effort.”
Several people were injured. Officials said the casualty count was relatively low because there was a shift change at the factory at the time of the first explosion, so workers were able to quickly flee.
The sole fatality was a Barberton firefighter, Walter Steele, who remains the only firefighter to ever die in the line of duty in the city.
Steele was standing near a potash storage facility when the second blast occurred.
“He was covered with molten potash,” according to a newspaper account that day. “The hot composition seared the flesh from his bones before assistance could be rendered, and although he was rushed to the Citizen’s Hospital it was known that he would not survive the day.”
Firefighters were busy putting out a fire across the street from then Citizen’s Hospital on Wooster Road North when Steele died.
Hospital officials had to break the news to the firefighters while they were still fighting the fire.