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Published: Friday, 6/10/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

50 YEARS AGO: ANTHONY WAYNE TRAIL FIRE

Lethal inferno seared into Toledo's memory

4 firefighters killed in blaze that hurt 71

BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A trailer of a Standard Oil tanker truck carrying 7,900 gallons of gasoline, burns after overturning on the Trail near Vinton Street in South Toledo on June 10, 1961. A trailer of a Standard Oil tanker truck carrying 7,900 gallons of gasoline, burns after overturning on the Trail near Vinton Street in South Toledo on June 10, 1961.
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Only 13 years old on June 10, 1961, Raymond Mercurio was lying in a makeshift emergency room with burns on his arms, the back of his neck, and his ears.

A man, a Toledo firefighter, who lay on the hospital bed next to him, shielded only by a curtain, was screaming.

"'I can't breathe, I can't breathe,' " Mr. Mercurio, now 63, recalled the firefighter yelling.

Days later, the firefighter died.

Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Anthony Wayne Trail fire and explosion that injured 71 people -- 38 of whom were children -- and eventually claimed the lives of four Toledo firefighters.

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At noon in Chub DeWolfe Park, in front of station No. 1 on Huron Street, the fire department will host a memorial service to remember the lives lost in the blaze and other firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Raymond Mercurio, 13 at the time, was among the 71 people, including 38 children, injured. He can hardly believe 50 years have passed. 'Those firemen, they were heroes, just like they are today,' Mr. Mercurio says. Raymond Mercurio, 13 at the time, was among the 71 people, including 38 children, injured. He can hardly believe 50 years have passed. 'Those firemen, they were heroes, just like they are today,' Mr. Mercurio says.
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It was a hot spring day. Mr. Mercurio and his buddies were going to play sandlot baseball on a triangular-shaped plot of land they turned into their field of dreams.

They hadn't been there long when they heard a scraping sound. A trailer of a Standard Oil tanker truck toting 7,900 gallons of gasoline crashed on the Trail near Vinton Street.

There was a crunch and a thud. Nothing dramatic, Mr. Mercurio said.

Then the truck was enveloped in black smoke.

"Ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding-ding."

The first fire alarm from fire box 223, at Erie and Logan streets, sounded at 10:56 a.m.

"It just came in as a box alarm," said retired firefighter John Repp, Sr., 85. Mr. Repp is now the curator of the Toledo Firefighters Museum. "We didn't know what it was."

Station 5, at Broadway and Logan Street, was called in first -- then two more alarms came in. The second sounded at 11 a.m., the third at 11:08.

In all, 57 firefighters responded to the blaze.

The truck, driven by Edward Baum, 49, of Swanton, was mangled, and it burned for about 15 minutes. Accounts of the crash suggest that thousands of people gathered around to watch. People living in homes nearby stood in their yards, people were in shock watching from bridges, and the boys, like Mr. Mercurio, watched in awe.

"It was getting hotter," Mr. Mercurio said.

He told his friends they should probably leave and head back home. The boys turned to walk away.

Mr. Repp was told by his station's Deputy Chief Ewald Bode to check on a pumper that was headed to the scene and to help those firefighters lay down hose.

Mr. Repp and Mr. Mercurio recalled hearing the same sound.

"Wooh, wooh, wooh."

There was a small explosion followed by a massive blast that destroyed several nearby homes. Firefighters, police officers, and spectators were pushed back by the heat.

Firefighters from the Toledo Fire Department stand along the side of the Anthony Wayne Trail to fight the blaze. In all, 57 firefighters responded. The truck, driven by Edward Baum, 49, of Swanton, was mangled. Part of it overturned and part of it stayed on its wheels. Firefighters from the Toledo Fire Department stand along the side of the Anthony Wayne Trail to fight the blaze. In all, 57 firefighters responded. The truck, driven by Edward Baum, 49, of Swanton, was mangled. Part of it overturned and part of it stayed on its wheels.
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"Several guys were caught in it. Some were thrown backward," fire Lt. William Bondy told The Blade in 1961. "Others were running. At least four of them were completely ablaze. We grabbed them, tore off their coats, and rolled them in the grass.

"Spectators were screaming and falling back from the flames. A short time later, first aid arrived."

Mr. Mercurio's mother came running to where the boys played ball. Her son walked toward her, holding his arms bowed out at his sides, telling her he was burned.

"It was like a gel," he said, "and it burned."

He and his mother got into a police car and were driven to then-St. Vincent's Hospital, where he spent several hours in the emergency room. He was one of 71 peopled injured in the blast -- 38 were children, 10 listed as critical. Eleven of the injured were firefighters battling the blazes.

"All you saw was a ball of fire," Mr. Repp said. Mr. Repp was working with other firefighters to extinguish the fires that were destroying homes.

Accounts suggest that thousands of people gathered to watch the blaze. The  massive blast destroyed several nearby homes, and firefighters, police officers, and onlookers were pushed back by the heat. Accounts suggest that thousands of people gathered to watch the blaze. The massive blast destroyed several nearby homes, and firefighters, police officers, and onlookers were pushed back by the heat.
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On June 15, Robert Harrison, a firefighter from Station 5, died from his burns.

Glenn Carter, also from Station 5, died on June 23, also of burns.

William Genson, from Mr. Repp's squad, died from burns exactly one month after the initial blast on July 10.

Deputy Chief Bode, who was not wearing fire gear, died from his burns on July 28.

No other fire in the city's history has claimed the lives of more firefighters.

"The chief who died -- he told me to walk away," Mr. Repp said. "He saved my life."

Mr. Mercurio was in bandages for weeks after the fire. The scars faded over time and, now, are hardly visible.

Standard Oil gave him a settlement of about $300, which he used to buy his first drum set.

The drums changed the direction of his life, he said. He went on to teach drum lessons and play music all over. He played with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra for a time, making a name for himself in the jazz scene.

John Repp, Sr., now the curator of the Toledo Firefighters Museum, said only 17 of the men who responded to the fire are still alive. John Repp, Sr., now the curator of the Toledo Firefighters Museum, said only 17 of the men who responded to the fire are still alive.
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Mr. Mercurio can hardly believe 50 years have passed.

"Those firemen -- they were heroes, just like they are today," he said.

He said he wants to attend the memorial too.

Mr. Repp, who joined the department at 27 years old, retired in 1981.

"Looking back, I'd go home and start weeping," he said, adding that back then, counseling services were generally not available, as they are now.

He said only 17 of the men who responded to the fire are still alive -- some who were very badly burned.

They have all been invited to attend the memorial, which Mr. Repp will attend.

He'll remember the men he worked with who gave their lives, and the chief who saved his.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@theblade.com or 419-724-6054.



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