This Day In History: October 31

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It’s Halloween 1963 in Indianapolis, and hundreds of spectators are gathered at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum for the “Holiday on Ice” skating exhibition. Then, just after 11 pm, a propane gas explosion from the concession area rips through the Coliseum and shoots a 40-foot orange flame through the south-side seats.

The explosion killed 54 people on site, and at least 20 more later died of their injuries. Nearly 400 additional people were injured in the horrific explosion, which started from a leaking, rusty propane tank in the concession area. The gas met an electric popcorn machine during the skating finale, which ignited the explosion that sent concrete chunks, chairs, and people into the air. Some spectators landed on the ice floor, while others were buried beneath giant slabs of concrete.

“You walked into a nightmare,” reported Richard R. Roberts in the Indianapolis Star. “This is the worst thing I have seen since combat in World War II.”

Roberts described graphic details like a red satin slipper on the ice, just three feet away from a pool of blood.

“The fairgrounds itself was almost like a battleground, the surrounding streets thick with police and the edges of the streets jammed with crowds like war refugees, slowing the movement of ambulances and fire engines,” he reported.

The Coliseum explosion was considered by many to be the largest single disaster in Indiana history.

Indianapolis News reporter Bill Roberts was attending the event with his wife, and he described the horrific moments following the explosion.

“For a few seconds, no one cried out,” Roberts reported. “Then, there were screams and cries of agony and the audience jumped from their seats as if in unison and started rushing for the exits. … My wife was drawn to a small blonde girl with her mother. The child’s blue coat was soaked in blood. They were looking for the father.”

Hundreds of rescuers—including police, firefighters, and Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers—flooded the Coliseum to find survivors. They used buses, ambulances, and private cars to transport victims to Indianapolis-area hospitals. They established a temporary hospital in the cattle barn at the fairgrounds, and the coroner’s office set up a temporary morgue on the ice floor, where bodies were covered and lined up.

Years of litigation followed the explosion, with more than 400 lawsuits for amounts totaling $70 million against various insurance companies and the State of Indiana. A grand jury also indicted several people on criminal charges, including the state fire marshal, the Indianapolis fire chief, the general manager and concessions manager of the Indianapolis Coliseum Corporation, and several officers from the gas supplier. There was only one conviction—Edward J. Franger, president of Discount Gas Corporation—for assault and battery, although the Indiana Supreme Court later reversed the conviction. All charges against the others were dropped.

As for the Coliseum, it was repaired. In 1991, it got a sponsorship and was renamed the Pepsi Coliseum; when that expired, the venue became the Indiana Farmers Coliseum. The venue underwent a $63 million renovation that was completed in 2014. Since the mid-‘90s, the venue has hosted the Safe Night Halloween event for kids and parents every October 31.