Paratroopers, giraffes, and freighters are among those who got caught up in Mother Nature — and lost — in journalist and author Neil Zurcher’s new book “Ten Ohio Disasters: Stories of Tragedy and Courage that Should Not Be Forgotten.” The idea for the book came about in the 1970s when he rode an elephant to Richfield Coliseum as part of a promotion for Ringling Bros. Circus.
“I have a rather old gnarled elephant keeper who walks beside me,” he said. ‘Suddenly he looked up and said, ‘Do you know about the story about the great circus fire?’ And I went, ‘What circus fire?’”
The seed was planted, but it wasn’t until Zurcher retired in 2017 after six decades of storytelling in Northeast Ohio. The circus fire is the first chapter of the book.
‘A friendly face…’ for elephants
Zurcher follows each disaster with not only the details of what happened, but also the heroes who emerged after a tragedy. One of these was Chester Koch, who in 1942 was the Coordinator of Patriotic Activities for the City of Cleveland. He happened to be standing in front of City Hall on August 4 of that year, just after a fire broke out in one of the Ringling Brothers animal tents.
“He suddenly saw a herd of elephants running from the circus grounds to Lakeside Ave,” Zurcher said. “He ran out into the street, pulled out a whistle…and yelled, ‘Stop!’ And the elephants stopped. Everyone said, ‘Why did they stop for him?’ And they said, ‘They were just looking for a friendly face.’”
Writing the book was also a learning experience for Zurcher. He made a request to go to Cincinnati on December 3, 1979, to report on the aftermath of a Who concert that kicked 11 people to death. His editor rejected the idea, but he had always remained curious about what happened.
“I had an experience several years before, trying to beat the Beatles, where I got stuck in a mafia scene, where I literally feared for my life and thought we were going to be trampled,” he said. “So I knew what it felt like… to be caught in a situation like that. And that was one of the reasons I chose that story [for the book]: I wanted to know more about what happened. I was wondering if the Who had ever returned to Cincinnati to play again.”
And actually they only did that earlier this year. For decades, Cincinnati banned seating at festivals to avoid a similar disaster.
A safer world?
Legislation was also enacted after the fire at the Fitchville nursing home, which killed dozens of people in 1963. In those cases — and several others in the book — modern technology and regulations could have saved lives. But Zurcher isn’t sure if the world has gotten any safer.
“They haven’t banned anyone in Cincinnati from having seats at festivals for 25 years,” he said. “Now they’ve changed… because some artists who tried to get them complained that they like festival seats, they’re getting it in other cities. I don’t know if we learn from this [tragedies] or not.”
Zurcher has written numerous books in his career, but he said this may be his last because of his blurring eyesight. Still, there are two stories that he said he hoped to eventually print. The first concerns the shooting on May 4, 1970 at Kent State University. Zurcher was actually in Elyria that day, covering a fire in a garden nursery. Then he got the call to cross the Kent – and just as quickly a call to change direction.
“They called me back on the radio and said, ‘You have to go to the hospital because you’ve been exposed to arsenic smoke,’ he said. “Apparently they had a lot of firefighters who collapsed in the fire after I left, and we were exposed to it too. I was, I think, in the hospital for two hours before they finally released me and said I was fine.
It was evening before Zurcher reached the site where four people were killed and nine others injured by National Guard soldiers.
“CBS News’ Bill Plante covered the network,” he said. “I remember him and I taking a helicopter ride to Cleveland that night. That was the part of the story I wanted to tell.”
The other story requires some more research to confirm data. Zurcher thinks he may have been the last Cleveland reporter Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. interviewed before his murder in 1968.
“I think he was in town for a secret meeting on Operation PUSH,” he said. “I heard about the meeting, but I couldn’t figure out where it was. So I turned off the airport and I caught up with him just as he was leaving town that night. We have a photo of the interview, but we have lost the date.”
Neil Zurcher and his red convertible were known for scurrying across the state for decades for his “One Tank Trip” series on Fox 8. Yet one of the most popular moments of his career is a story that has remained vivid for nearly 40 years – and is also a chapter in “Ten Disasters in Ohio”.
“[It] comes back to haunt me every September, because it’s on YouTube,” he said, referring to Balloonfest ’86. On September 27, 1986, the United Way set a world record by releasing nearly 1.5 million balloons from downtown Cleveland, destroying the city and even hindering the search for two boaters on Lake Erie. What happened next is detailed in “Ten Disasters in Ohio: Stories of Tragedy and Courage Not To Be Forgotten.”
The 10 disasters in the book are:
Barnum & Bailey Circus Fire (1942)
Nursing home fire from the Golden Age (1963)
Lake Erie skydiving (1967)
Silver bridge collapse (1967)
MV Roger Blough inferno (1971)
Xenia Tornado (1974)
Snowstorm of ’78
The Who concert stampede (1979)
Balloon party ’86
Zanesville Animal Escape (2011)