Metro-East Living

60 years ago, a toilet exploded in Belleville. And that was just the start.

Belleville’s West End experienced explosions and fires on July 24, 1958.

After propane gas was accidentally introduced into the water lines, Belleville’s West End experienced a half dozen explosions and house fires on July 24, 1958.
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After propane gas was accidentally introduced into the water lines, Belleville’s West End experienced a half dozen explosions and house fires on July 24, 1958.

This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.

The community’s daily routine was shattered on July 24, 1958, in Belleville when propane gas began coming out of water pipes in homes. Multiple explosions and fires took place between Sixth and 20th Streets, along West Main Street and then south to the city limits.

Melvin Klotz, 40, of Belleville, flushed the toilet and was “literally blown out of the bathroom,” according to Belleville News-Democrat stories at the time. In addition to toilets, water heaters and clothes-washing machines exploded.

Bradford Kronenberger, 18 months old, was burned when the water heater exploded in the basement where he was playing.

Alice Hasenstab, 26 at the time and a resident of South 20th Street, was taken to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to be treated for burns to her face, neck and arms when her washing machine exploded while she was doing laundry.

In a recent interview with the News-Democrat, Hasenstab recalled a house exploding farther down the street before her own mishap. “I took the kids and walked down to the corner to see what was going on,” Hasenstab said.

“In the meantime, I was doing laundry in the basement,” Hasenstab said. “The kids were outside playing. I went down to check the load of laundry and I could hear that something was wrong.”

The water was trickling into the machine, rather than the usual flow.

“I lifted the lid to see what was going on,” Hasenstab said. “There was a spark and it ignited the gas that was in the water, and it blew up in my face.”

Hasenstab remembers her left arm being the most injured. She believes her glasses protected her eyes from the flames.

“It didn’t leave any scars or anything. I was very lucky,” Hasenstab said.

The Dr. Pepper Bottling Company plant on West Main Street had to temporarily shut down when the bottles began filling with gas instead of water.

The BND reported another Belleville resident, the wife of Carl Shannon, whose first name was not recorded, survived an explosion that “seemed to come from everywhere in the house at once.” The blast was so forceful it shattered the windows and blew the back door of her house off, over the heads of two children who were playing in the yard.

The worst damage was at the vacant home of Steve Renneker on West Main Street. Mattresses in every room caught fire, a large hole was “blasted” through the back of the home and nearly every window and door was blown open.

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Belleville firemen stand outside the home of Steve Renneker on West Main Street, Belleville. The windows and doors were blown out of the house and its contents were set on fire after propane gas entered the water supply in July 1958. The home was vacant at the time of the explosion. Belleville News-Democrat

Authorities evacuated 3,000 to 4,000 Belleville residents when they realized the explosions were connected rather than isolated incidents. The BND reported, “The mass exodus was one of the most dramatic in the city’s history.”

“I remember they wanted the people in our area to evacuate their houses,” Hasenstab said. “We stayed where we were.”

Only four people were burned, two with minor injuries. Despite extensive damage to multiple homes, no one died.

Hasenstab said, “It was not as bad as it sounded.”

Once the all-clear was sounded, residents remained “jumpy” and called in every suspicious smell. Fire hydrants and backyard water tanks were drained in an effort to prevent further explosions.

A Belleville News-Democrat editorial read, “It was, some consider, a miracle that the toll was not a great deal worse.”

Mystery solved

Authorities immediately began searching for the source of the gas. Belleville Fire Chief John H. Wade said, “I’d surely like to know where in the hell it’s coming from.”

Wade told the BND in 1958, “When one of the firemen told me gas was coming out of the water line, I thought he was out of his mind.”

At first, authorities believed natural gas lines in town had experienced a “major rupture” and gas was being introduced into the pipes of homes through the sewer lines or water mains.

However, a Belleville Police investigation revealed the source was Commercial Transport Inc. at 304 S. 20th St., Belleville. The business supplied fuel tankers to make deliveries between refineries and distributors.

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All available emergency equipment in the area was called to the properties between 1600 and 2000 West Main Street, Belleville, during the July 1958 gas explosions and fires. Pictured: Abend’s Malt Shop at 16th and Main Streets had “considerable damage.” Belleville News-Democrat

The accident happened when workers at the business were using water to clean out an empty, damaged tanker, to make needed repairs. The pressure inside the tanker was estimated at 100 pounds per square inch, and the pressure in the water main was approximately 45 pounds per square inch.

Wade said, “Instead of putting water into the tanker, the workers were actually pushing the gas into the water line under a higher pressure.”

Even though there was explosive gas in the water, L.D. Hudson, a representative of the State Department of Public Health, said the water was safe for drinking the entire time.

In 1958, representatives of the Liquid Petroleum Gas Dealers in the greater St. Louis area told the BND, “Unfortunately freak accidents do happen and can create fear in the minds of people and can be damaging to our public reputation.”

“When handled properly, LP Gas is a faithful, silent servant and a boon to mankind,” representatives said.

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