A number of people noticed the odor of natural gas on South Sierra Street near the Truckee River during that bright Tuesday morning in 1957. Yet none called the fire department or the power company, initially. Then, the power company sent an inspector who toured the lower level of Gray Reid Wright’s store at West First and Sierra Streets, and charged the odor off as that of paint.
The first two calls to the fire department came almost simultaneously at 12:53 p.m., from Spina’s shoe store, and Paterson’s Men’s Store, next door to Spina’s – both businesses on the west side of South Sierra Street between the Truckee and West First. While those calls were arriving, Elks Club manager J. C. Kumle – aware that something was amiss – was quickly breaking up card games and post-lunch chatter, marshaling members out of the Elks building across Sierra Street from Spina’s, if necessary without their jackets – it was a relatively warm day for early February – February 5th, to be exact.
It was 12:59 p.m. as the first fire truck pulled up from the old firehouse on Commercial Row, a short four blocks away, and as it stopped in front of Spina’s Nevada Shoe Factory, a violent explosion blew windows out of buildings for blocks around and scattered dust and wood and metal and bricks into the air, reverting the area into darkness. At the Reno High campus on Booth Street, we felt it before we heard it. The concussion that followed was unbelievable, a full mile up the river from the blast.
A second explosion followed, rivaling the first; a third was smaller. The smoke visible almost immediately over town and the wail of sirens signaled that this was no dress rehearsal. We didn’t know what, but something big had blown higher than a kite.
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Downtown workers and shoppers scattered, while emergency equipment from the Reno police and fire department and Sierra Pacific Power converged on the scene. Fire quickly broke out in the three-story Elks Home; by evening it would be reduced to a few partial brick walls and twisted steel beams and columns.
Across Sierra Street the three buildings lining the street from West First to the river – Paterson’s on the corner, then the building housing Spina’s Nevada Shoe Factory, Cambar Fabrics, Tait’s Shoes and Slingerland Insurance Agency facing West First Street. Finally the Biltz building, housing the Sanford law firm, Realtor Ben Edwards, and the Kaylene clothing shop on the street level – all caught fire, almost simultaneously, and were gutted by late afternoon.
That’s four buildings gone by a little past 5 p.m.– the fifth building involved was the Gray Reid’s department store on the southeast corner of West First and Sierra Street. That well-built old building put up a valiant battle, as did the firefighters struggling to save it. And so they did, although it was later necessary to remove the third (top) floor. The surviving structure later became part of the Granada Theater. And recalling the Granada, that building was spared, thanks to a deluge of water from Reno firemen, who were joined in mid-afternoon by the Sparks, Stead AFB, Carson City and Virginia City fire departments, Nevada National Guard personnel to augment the Reno police, and the Red Cross, who set up canteens to feed emergency workers. (I should note, to forestall any confusion, that the Granada itself had been gutted by fire and rebuilt four years earlier.)
A point of confusion for the past 40 years has been the retail building on the northeast corner of Sierra and West First, that I identified in an earlier column as housing Murdock’s, the Vanity, Morgan Smith Jewelers and the Town House, and a few more that I didn’t include. Here’s the straight scoop: That building had already been torn down and the new J.C. Penney’s was being built on the corner at the time the blast occurred. The older building did not burn with its neighbors in the fire – it had already been razed.
Two people died instantly that day. Adeline DuPratt was 57 years old and was struck by flying debris while crossing West First at Sierra. Frank Spina, 48, owned Nevada Shoe Factory at mid-block, and was found under a crushed automobile in front of his store several hours after the explosion. (A broken gas pipe attributed by some as the cause of the blast was discovered almost in front of that shoe store, three feet below the pavement.)
Over a hundred physicians grouped at Washoe Medical Center and St. Mary’s Hospital, and dealt late into the night with scores of firemen, store employees and shoppers injured by flying glass, smoke and splinters. Kumle, the executive secretary of the Elks Club, was lauded in the papers for his efforts — somewhat assertive, according to some accounts — in getting the lunch-crowd diners out of the club, for that was the largest concentration of people in the vicinity of the blast. The Elks later named the street that their replacement building was built on for him (Kumle Lane, across from the Convention Center.)
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I acknowledge reader Darla Potter’s inspiration to get this story written, and archives of the Reno Fire Department and the Hartford Insurance Group and February 6 – 13, 1957 issues of the Reno Evening Gazette and the Nevada State Journal.
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Hark, a letter followed:
Of Parakeets and Fires
The Homefinders’ recollections about the 1957 fire/explosion column are still coming in and will doubtless result in a follow-up one of these weekends, but this one is too good to wait: Helen Teglia fondly tells the story of her father Joe Girola, who owned the building on the west side of Sierra Street that housed his business – American Credit – and Cambar Fabrics, Tait’s Shoe Store and the Nevada Shoe Factory. Seems that Joe, during the fateful morning we wrote of, February 5th of 1957, thought he smelled gas in his building. He went down to the basement, and lacking a tweety-bird like the Comstock miners used to warn of explosive gases, performed the next natural test for natural gas: he struck a match.
“So Joe blew up downtown??” I asked Helen. No, Helen replied, for whatever reason nothing happened, so he miraculously returned to street level and went outside. His brother Henry was not as lucky. Seconds later when the explosion finally hit, Henry was incapacitated in the now-burning building’s office. Helen credits quickly-arriving Air National Guardsmen Pat Rippingham and guard chaplain father leo mcfadden – lower case intentional – for pulling Henry to safety. He was taken to a hospital and treated for burns and bruises.
Henry and Joe Girola have since passed away, as has Pat Rippingham, who drowned in a fishing accident at Pyramid Lake. [and monsignor mcfadden, lower case still intentional] leo mcfadden became a legendary columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal, without ever once using a capital letter.]
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Now, as I update this for a WordPress yarn in January of 2014, several notes: One, that I once wrote of monsignor mcfadden and the RGJ editor kindly uppercased his name. He called me, raising hell with great authority as only a monsignor can, and chastised me for using capitals. I told him I didn’t; I knew better. Some youthful RGJ editor did me that favor. leo told me that the only guy that gets His name capitalized was his boss. 2019 update: Monsingor leo mcfadden passed away a couple years ago.
Two: You think I could find a picture of one of the biggest fires in downtown Reno in my boxes of stuff. Naaah. I did find a couple pictures of fire trucks to get the reader into the mood. The first has a special meaning for me because the City of Reno bought it when I was about seven years old and I rode my bike down to the old station on Commercial Row and got to sit in it.
The other picture, of “Reno South,” was taken in what’s now Jack Bacon’s and Starbucks’ parking lot at the dead end of California Avenue.
I’ll end this as I ended all my columns after 9/11: God bless America!
photo credits: Reno Firefighters Local 731 publication, photographer(s) unknown
column text © Reno Gazette-Journal 2001