Junction City, OH Penitentiary Fire, Oct 1928
SEARCH DEBRIS FOR CONVICTS BODIES.
RECOVER CHARRED BODIES OF FIFTEEN MEN, FIVE ARE STILL MISSING.
Junction City, O., Oct. 9. -- Workmen today resumed the grim task of digging for the bodies of convicts buried or trampled to death when fire destroyed a dormitory of the state prison brick plant here early yesterday.
The charred or hopelessly mangled bodies of 15 convicts have been recovered and five are still missing. Whether they are under the smouldering ruins or whether the missing men scaled the plant wall and escaped, remained in doubt.
With resumption of the search, state officials began an investigation by which they hope to ascertain the cause of the blaze -- whether defective wiring was responsible or whether several convicts, plotting a sensational delivery, ignited the building.
More than 85 prisoners were in the penitentiary hospital at Columbus today, some of them in a critical condition from burns or injuries received in the fire and incidental panic.
Prison officials said they believed at least two additional bodies would be found, and possibly five, although at least three of the men were believed to have escaped.
Of the injured, JOHN PABLOCK, 23, of Cleveland, was in the most serious condition.
State Welfare Director John E. Harper and C. H. Sisson, Governor Vic Donahey's personal representative, were investigating origin of the blaze. Each was conducting separate inquiries.
A third inquiry was launched by Warden P. E. Thomas who was in Kansas City when the fire occurred.
While seeking the cause of the blaze, the investigators also will attempt to verify charges that guards were reticent in releasing convicts trapped in the burning building.
There were 288 prisoners -- most of them long term convicts -- in the dormitory when the cry of fire went up. In the frantic scramble to escape, all exits were jammed and men were trampled underfoot.
A picture of the fire and resultant panic arose slowly from the ruins today.
The dormitory, was a semi-fireproof building 250 feet long and 85 feet wide. It was a story and a half structure erected of brick and sheet iron exterior with a double wooden floor. At one end there was what might be called a basement containing a clothes room and commissary.
It is believed the fire started there, perhaps from defective wiring, although the incendiarism theory was not wholly scouted.
When guard VAL BROOKMEYER discovered the blaze he opened a door and spread the alarm. The convicts sleeping inside on double docked beds rushed to the doors at the other end from the fire which had now burst into a roaring inferno. The construction of the building caused it to act like a furnace under powerful draft.
The death-bearing flames rushed up the floor, the entire length of the building, almost instantly. The fear-crazed prisoners were stampeded save for those few who dropped back into their bunks pulling their blankets over their heads to keep out the smoke. These died there.
As the convicts rushed at the doors which the guards were unlocking they massed and perhaps some fell to die where they lay. No one knows. Prisoner O'MALLEY of Cleveland had been working in the bakery at the opposite end from where the fire started. The trapped convicts were rushing the door into the bakery to escape that way in such numbers, and with such force that they jammed.
Here O'MALLEY stood outside the door and by bracking his feet on the side of the door was able to break up the jam several times. His eyes are still red and singed from his heroic efforts to save his fellow prisoners as he heard the floor creaking beneath their feet.
Tales of heroism such as O'MALLEY displayed were not uncommon but there was difficulty in identifiying the heroes.
O'MALLEY saved perhaps scores of lives.
Another convict saved a dog and another went to his death with a companion in his arms when the floor caved in.
A prisoner named WHITING died in the commissary where he worked. He rushed back there after having escpaed from the dormitory. His body was found.
The convicts also tell of "DAD" an aged colored prisoner who clung to a window sash making a tragic silhouette until his old hands, burned to a crisp, failed and he fell into the inferno below.
After the fire there were whispers among some of the prisoners that guards threatened to shoot them if they attempted to leave the burning building.
None of these statements could be verified by the more reliable and the majority of prisoners.
Harper investigated the rumors to his satisfaction, including the questioning of one negro who said a guard hit him with a rifle.
The ruins today were still a smouldering mass of embers.
Fairly definite identification on the charred torsos was made thru prisoners who say they remembered about where they last saw the missing men.
The work of recovery of the bodies was hampered by the heat retained hours after the fire. The searchers were equipped with shovels and pans to accomplish their gruesome task.
Chronicle Telegram Elyria Ohio 1928-10-09