The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 9, 2012

Odd Tales of Ashtabula County

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

By CARL E. FEATHER - cfeather@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

— 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.



Fireball

It was 7:10 p.m. when the fireball ripped through the restaurant. Ray Carr, the village constable, described it as a “bubble of fire that illuminated the entire square.” It was accompanied by a “deafening roar that scared the wits out of everybody.”

Theodore Bodine of Cuyahoga Falls was in the square when the blast hit. “It’s as though you took a matchbox and squeezed it,” he told a reporter. “The sides went out and the top crumbled.”

Myron French was thrown from the building and tossed across the street into the law office of Joseph West. James and Edward Surman Sr. landed in a puddle of water in the street; timbers crashed down upon them. The Surman boy was not as fortunate; the building collapsed on him. Others scrambled from the rumble dazed and injured.

Charles Dotta, Baumgardner Furniture Store employee, watched in horror as he saw his wife, Dolores, 27, blown from the sidewalk into the street.

Lackey’s shoe was blown from his foot as he sat at the booth. He awoke in the hospital, bruised and stunned, but he had escaped serious injury.

The blast broke out the back windows of the Walter Brown home, about 500 feet from the store. Mrs. Brown told a reporter that “it was God’s will” that her children, Gloria and Roger James, had left the day before the explosion.

Herbert Sweezy, who operated a garage at the opposite end of the square, heard the explosion and ran onto the square to see what had happened. He saw Lloyd Gibbs and instructed him to run to the New York Central tower and sound an alarm.

Firefighters returning from the Wayne Township fire saw the black smoke as they headed up Route 7 from Williamsfield. Harold Roach, president of the department, thought the funnel-shaped cloud was a tornado. A tower of flames rising two stores from the rubble told them otherwise.

“When I pulled into the square, we were confronted by bodies lying in the street,” Roach told reporters. “We had to go the wrong way around the square to get to the fire.”

The only way to call for outside help was to use the New York Central telephone and telegraph lines. Calls went out to surrounding communities for emergency assistance. Between 30 and 40 fire and police departments responded.

Residents and vacationers gathered in the square and watched in horror as fire consumed the dairy store and restaurant. Freddy’s Shoe Store, the Hughes Furnace Company building and Ohio Edison offices fell victim, but the thick, brick walls of the Ohio Edison building kept the fire from spreading to the remainder of the block.

In the apartment above Ohio Edison, Mrs. Thompson quickly dressed her three children as the flames roared toward their windows. She handed her children to rescue workers on an adjacent roof. As she passed off the last child to safety, Mrs. Thompson saw her stove and refrigerator fall through the floor. Then she collapsed.

When Correne Cutlip arrived in Andover to pick up her daughters from work, the entire square was a scene of mayhem. A half-block section of the town had been leveled and was burning. As much as she did not want to think of it, Correne knew that her twin daughters probably were in the inferno.

As emergency workers removed corpses from the smoldering ruins, they placed a sheet across each body and assigned a number to it. Correne’s twins were numbers two and nine. Eddie Surman, age 9, was number seven.

A temporary morgue was established in a building behind the Baumgardner Funeral Home that night. The charred remains and personal possessions that were found near each victim were laid in piles on the floor.

Out-of-town motorists and tourists caught in the death trap were identified by matching car keys in their pockets to unclaimed vehicles. Personal papers on their bodies and missing person reports helped trace out-of-towners to the disaster site. Relatives were asked to identify the bodies of many Andover-area victims. In the case of Arlene and Darlene Cutlip, the task fell upon their father.

“He hadn’t realized it had happened until (a neighbor) brought me home,” Correne Cutlip said in a newspaper interview. The neighbor took her husband back to the square, where he identified his daughters by their shoes.

Martial law was declared and 70 U.S. Air Force members were brought in from Youngstown to guard the site. Reporters descended upon the village to cover one of the biggest domestic stories of 1955.

When the final body was pulled from the site, the tally was 21 dead, 19 injured and $500,000 in property damage. One of the injured, Ruby Shellito, 17, died later, bringing the death toll to 22.

As to the cause of the disaster, a smell of gasoline had been noticed by persons near the building in the seconds before the explosion. Underground gasoline storage tanks were suspected, and at least 26 different law suits, seeking more than $2 million in damages, were filed.

“We could smell gasoline down there when we went down into the basement,” said a firefighter who responded to the scene. “We had to be damn careful about sparks.”