Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Swift Explosion, Iowa, 1949

On Friday, December 16, 1949, the American flag flew at half staff at the Swift and Company packing plant, 2001 Leech Avenue, in Sioux City, Iowa. Flags at the Woodbury County courthouse, the city hall and the United States post office also flew at half staff.

The city was in shock and mourning after a devastating natural gas explosion killed 22, injured 92, and laid waste to the building they worked in. 1   The deadly destruction of twisted steel rods, broken machinery, shattered glass and collapsed floors crushed hope as employees struggled to get out of the six-story building. Cars damaged by the explosion became obstacles as rescue workers scrambled to find survivors (archive photos of 19 killed below).

“Down the street bulldozers groaned as street crews removed wreckage," Wes Petersen wrote for the Sioux City Journal-Tribune in 1949, "while huge automobile wreckers strained to pull away ruined steel girders on the south side of the building and to tear away the remains of the loading dock on the east side."

That is where Henry Louis Babcock died  making a delivery for the Sioux Transportation Company.  According to the Sioux City Museum archive, he had just entered the building when the explosion ripped the plant apart Wednesday, December 14,1949, at 11:33 A.M.  He was looking for someone to sign for a small package destined to a food processing area.  He was unsuccessful.

"It was like a big puff," an employee said.  "I don't remember much."

In the "basement," which was actually the first floor of the building, cucumbers were cleaned and prepared as sweet pickles.  Meat was washed and hung also.  Up above, on the fourth, fifth and sixth floors, where smoked meats were among some of the products processed, there was no activity, according to Pedersen.

"(The rooms) were dim and deserted," he said, "with the meats hanging unappetizingly from racks or laying on tables, speckled with debris.  One man, busy roping of the elevator on the sixth floor, said bitterly, 'This use to be the most modern sausage room in the country, now look at it.' "

Indeed, the destruction was ugly and depressing.  The death too.  One man hung on a meat hook.  A photograph taken by the Associated Press documented the horror of a man in a smock hanging from what was left of the second floor.

Many who survived were taken to hospitals or their homes in makeshift ambulances.  Six or eight people were taken downtown in a beer truck, according to Pedersen.  Private cars were also commandeered to help transport victims.

At 1:30 P.M. the first bodies were taken to the naval reserve training center armory on Jones Street a mile away.  Anxious relatives examined the bodies to help identify victims, fearing the worst,  Many had just come from Saint Vincent's Hospital on the hill across the street. Unfortunately. there were so many bodies, Thomas Munson, the museum's archival clerk said, officials had to erect a quonset hut on the roof of the armory.  Simply stated, it was one of the most horrific disasters the city had ever faced.

E,B. White, a city building inspector, and supervising engineer when Swift's structure was built, told a reporter that there was no question the explosion came from the basement.  And although it was never determined who was responsible, at least $1,270,000 was paid to claimants, including $325,000 to Swift and Company for damages caused by the blast.

The figures were compiled from district court records, statements by attorneys and from reports of several of the claimants.  The companies sued were Swift and Company, the Iowa Public Service Company and the Northern Natural Gas Company.  Robert Nagey published his story March 28, 1952.  The archive did not list the name of the publication.

"Forty-three suits were filed in district and federal courts here," Nagey said in his article, "by those who were injured and the next of kin of those who died in the explosion.  Sixty-five other claims were settled without the benefit of court procedures.

"Not one case was tried in district or federal court."

Muriel L. Parker, in Muriel L. Parker vs. Iowa Public Service Company, and The Northern Natural Gas Company, for example, filed one last time in Woodbury District Court, "herein by her counsel," that the controversy over her husband's death (No. 67540 Law) having been settled out of court, should be dismissed.

It was.

Nagey suggested that because of the payment of $325,000 to Swift and Company by insurance companies for the two gas firms (which seems to have gone mostly to family members) the meat packer was not to blame for what happened.  However, the two gas firms, prior to the Parker dismissal, filed a motion against Swift and Company as cross-defendant.

Joyce DeLaughter sued for damages also, and although Swift and Company had not been named in the suit originally, The Honorable L.B. Forsling agreed they should be.  The final ruling (No. 67702 Law) was recorded March 16, 1951 (the same as what appears to have happened in Parker vs. Iowa Public Service.  Swift and Company was brought in as a cross-defendant for an out-of-court settlement).

The only certainty, however, was that someone or something — a worn part, a poorly tightened fitting — let natural gas escape. People died horribly when it ignited.

Others, who escaped death, suffered terribly.  Arno Ristau, for example, suffered a debilitating brain injury and had to live in a mental institution, Nagey said.  And Kenneth Townsend could not work because of his injuries.  It was a terrible tragedy, and many families still have their scrapbooks to prove it was horrible.

1 Robert Nagey reported this number, which is one too many on each count according to many earlier reports, in his article "More Than a Million Dollars Has Been Paid in Damage Claims from Swift Plant Disaster."

Editor’s Note: This information is in the public domain. Photos are from the scrapbook of an employee, and most likely from the Journal-Tribune December 14, 1949.  Contact the