The changing of seasons is as different to the ear as to the eye. The flow of traffic in our neighborhood is altered by the beginning of the school year. The hour and the day can almost be determined by sounds of human and motorized activity from early morning to late afternoon. This was the ideal location for us with our three children. Two of them went to North Street school and all three attended Nicklin Elementary, Wilder Junior High, and the high school on College Street. The newest school on Nicklin and Park hasn’t the delightful noise of children playing during recess. I miss those sounds most of all.
When our children were out of school, following their individual pathways, we’d grown accustomed to quiet mornings in our kitchen. The neighborhood sounds were deeply ingrained and largely dependent upon the shouts and laughter during recess. One day, after recess, there was a tremendous, deep, booming sound of an explosion. It came from the school. So shocked, I don’t think I even got off my chair. But RB, on his feet, said, “That was a boiler explosion.” From the school basement!
RB lived his three years in the Navy as a boiler operator, staring at gauges that controlled the pressure of the boilers supplying power to the ship. He may have joined the Navy to see the world, but all he saw were the boiler gauges in the bowels of the wartime transport ship. There were no portholes down there. The boilers were controlled by alternating teams of three sailors, on watch for four-hour periods. The controls were not automatic and required constant evaluation for manual adjustment, depending on the gauge readings. RB said he’d never heard a boiler explode, but he knew one when he heard one. I’m glad he was dressed that morning because he wouldn’t have wasted time to exchange a towel for a pair of jeans. He was out of the house and across the street before I even took a breath and closed my mouth.
No sounds were coming from the school; the silence was terrifying. School doors weren’t locked then and RB, on a full run, burst into the building. In the hall he saw a man wearing a suit and tie, appearing stunned. Assuming he was the principal, RB asked if anyone remained in the building. There had been no time to order evacuation. Everyone was in there! RB shouted, “Get everyone out! NOW!”
Looking for an entry to the basement, he saw a door unlike the classroom doors, instantly identifying the door to the basement. Unable to find a tool he needed, he shouted for the custodian to get a tool box. That poor man was probably in the basement at the moment of the explosion, was uninjured but obviously in a state of shock. The explosion blew out a basement window, ripped two doors from the boiler, and moved it off its base. The gas line was ruptured above the shut-off valve. He manually shut off the oil, which was running over the floor. It was vitally important to shut down the gas; one spark could have finished it all.
Someone notified the fire department and they arrived within minutes later. Chief Bowman joined RB in the basement and saw the immediate situation was under control. The chief tied a rag around the shut-off valve and notified the DP&L to turn off the gas. The firemen maintained safety at the site.
There are those who mistakenly believe that I’m the strength in this union. I just talk more than RB does. He’s never mentioned that day and the only proof is a letter from Duane Bachman, superintendent of Piqua City Schools. Mr. Bachman thanked him for “heroic efforts during the recent gas explosion … quick thinking and action averted a possible second explosion … we are proud and pleased to have such courageous people in our community … willing to offer such courage under difficult circumstances … a very serious time of need.”
RB’s heroic action was detailed on the front page of the PDC, approximately the first of May 1980. If I had a copy, I’d talk about it!
Carolyn Stevens may be contacted via mail at 719 Park Ave., Piqua, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.