The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Currents

December 9, 2012

Odd Tales of Ashtabula County

Andover fire and explosion claimed 22 lives, including those of Cutlip twins

Twins were pretty rare in Williamsfield Township, so when Correne Cutlip delivered twin girls on April 22, 1939, her husband, Bob, started calling neighbors and relatives with the good news and a plea for help: they would need twice as much of everything.

The girls were named Arlene and Darlene, and their features were as much alike as their names. Only their mother could tell them apart – Darlene’s face was rounder, her front teeth a little longer than Arlene’s. And Arlene had a wart on her knee.

Hairstyles and personalities would eventually set apart the girls, yet they were always seen together. They even got a job at the same Andover Village business, the Gateway Restaurant and Isaly’s ice cream parlor on the square.

And it was there, on Aug. 10, 1955, they died together.

“They came into the world together, they played together, went to school together, worked together and went together,” Correne said in a 1998 interview with the Star Beacon. “So we buried them together.”

The explosion and fire that ripped through the restaurant that Wednesday evening is one of Ashtabula County’s greatest tragedies. Twenty-two lives were snuffed out indiscriminately: children eating sundaes, vacationers making plans for the evening, motorists pausing for their dinner and pedestrians seeking shelter from the downpour.

Six restaurant employees were among the victims. Darlene and Arlene, who were waitresses on opposite sides of the building. Forest Biesterveld, Jr., 16; Barbara Offutt, 18; Ruby Shellito, 17; Helen Jones, 34; and Tom Brown, 33.

For Arlene and Darlene, the restaurant job was a way to earn money for school clothes and books. Their brother, Harry, also worked in Andover, but at the drive-in theater. Correne was the taxi driver who made sure they got to work on time.

It was around 7 p.m. when Correne delivered Harry to the drive-in and then headed north on Route 7 to pick up the twins at the end of their shift. A fierce thunderstorm had pounded the Andover area in the early evening and left the town without telephone service. Debris littered the streets and yards; rain pelted the community.

A lightning strike at Don Dillon’s farm in Wayne Township had diverted many of Andover’s firefighters to the township. Don Thompson was among the volunteers called to fight the barn fire. He, his wife and three children lived above the Ohio Edison office on Andover Square. The building was in the same block as the Gateway Restaurant. While Don fought the blaze, his wife and children rode out the storm, presumably safe in their apartment.

About four dozen patrons and workers watched the storm through the windows of Isaly’s and the Gateway Restaurant. The businesses shared the same building, with a partition delineating the dairy and restaurant sides. Patrons passed between the enterprises through an arched doorway.

Shortly after 7 p.m., the dairy door banged shut as Roger James Brown, 7, and his sister, Gloria, 5, seized the opportunity to make a dash for home during a break in the rain. Frank Lackey of Massillon, who was settled into a booth on the restaurant side, glanced up from reading the menu. Lackey had been doing silo maintenance work in the area and a hot meal was just what he needed.

Also in the restaurant were Pittsburgh residents Thomas Kanell, 45, and his daughter, Shirley Schroeder, 23, and her husband, George, 24, and their son, George Jr., 2. So were Russel Alfred Kerkham, 36, of Engram, Pa., and his children, John Russell, 13, and Margie, 8. The Fellows family, from Cleveland, also was there: Frank, 64; Barbara, 48, Richard, 8, and Richard’s friend, Donald Koces. They had been swimming at Conneaut Lake Park and drove to Andover for dinner.

Also eating in the restaurant that night were Edward Surman Jr., 9, and his father, James, and uncle, Edward. The Cleveland-area men had spent the day at Pymatuning and stopped for dinner before heading home. Other patrons included Cecil Poindexter, 33, of Massillon, and Evelyn Labus, 40, of North Ridgeville.

Managers of the stores that night were Nancy Mock and Myron French, co-owners. A third owner, Luke Flannery, had the day off.

Fate had assembled the crew and customers alike for the tragedy.

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