Historic Indiana Event: The Indianapolis Halloween Explosion of 1963…
By Mary Giorgio
On Halloween night in 1963, an explosion tore through the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in what would become one of the worst tragedies in Indiana history. Approximately 4,300 spectators had gathered to watch a ‘Holiday on Ice’ skating exhibition. Around 11 PM, just as the finale was about to begin, a massive explosion rocked the arena.
The explosion originated on the southeast corner of the Coliseum around aisle 13. It caused extensive damage, injury, and death. People sitting in an area comprising 700 square feet around the blast area flew onto the ice and into other parts of the coliseum. Debris, including seats, steel bits, and chunks of concrete, scattered everywhere.
A 50-ft. crater opened in the floor around the blast area, and those unfortunate souls who fell into the crater were incinerated by a fireball following the blast. Survivors filed out of the arena in stunned silence as emergency crews poured in.
Emergency response to the disaster was quick, but responders were quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster. With such an overwhelming body count, Indianapolis officials converted the coliseum’s ice rink into a temporary morgue. A makeshift hospital opened in the nearby cattle barn. In all, 74 people were killed and around 400 injured.
The cause of this tragic Indiana event? Investigators determined the explosion’s culprit to be poorly-maintained propane tanks used to heat popcorn poppers in the concession area underneath the south side seats.
Upon inspection, they discovered these propane tanks lacked safety caps and at least one tank had a rusty value. This valve leaked propane into the air, which ignited when it contacted the popcorn poppers.
Marion County Prosecutor Noble R. Pearcy convened a grand jury to investigate the explosion. The grand jury concluded that the propane tanks should not have been allowed into the building. Seven people were indicted. Manslaughter charges were filed against three officers from Discount Gas Company (the tank’s owners) and two employees of the Indiana Coliseum Corps (the building owners). The fire marshal and Indianapolis fire chief were also charged. However, public ire quickly faded in the wake of the tragedy.
Only one individual, the president of the gas company, was convicted for assault and battery. That charge was eventually overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court. Another gas employee was found not guilty. For the five remaining defendants, charges were dropped prior to trial. Multiple lawsuits ensued in the coming years, and victims eventually collected around $4.6 million in settlements.
Six weeks after the incident, the Coliseum re-opened with a Polled Hereford Cattle Show. A year later, in September 1964, the Beatles performed on stage. In November, Holiday on Ice returned with crowds as large as 5,000.
The Coliseum went on to host musical legends including the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, and Indianapolis Pacers played there from 1967 to 1973. Life in Indianapolis moved on. Soon, the disaster was all but forgotten by the public. Survivors and relatives of the deceased, however, faced a lifetime of haunting memories of that deadly Halloween night.