Umbrellas, giraffes, and cargo ships are among those intertwined with Mother Nature—and those lost—in the new book.Ten Disasters in Ohio: Stories of Tragedy and Courage Not to ForgetBy journalist and writer Neil Zurcher. The idea for the book originated in the 1970s, while he was riding an elephant to Richfield Stadium as part of a promotion for Ringling Bros. Circus.
“I have this old guard of elephants walking beside me,” he said. Suddenly, he looked up and said, ‘Do you know the story of the great circus fire? And I went, “What circus fire?”
The seed was planted, but it took until Zurcher retired in 2017 after six decades of covering stories in Northeast Ohio. Circus Fire is the first chapter in the book.
“Friendly face…” of elephants
Zürcher follows each disaster not only with the details of what happened, but with the heroes who emerged in the face of the tragedy. One of them was Chester Koch, who in 1942 was the Cleveland City Coordinator of National Activities. He happened to be standing outside City Hall on August 4 of that year, after a fire broke out in one of the Ringling Brothers’ animal tents.
“Suddenly he saw this herd of elephants running in the wilderness from the circus arenas to Lakeside Avenue,” said Zurcher. He ran into the street, whistled… and shouted, ‘Stop! And the elephants stopped. Everyone was saying, ‘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 Zürcher. He applied to go to Cincinnati on December 3, 1979, to cover the aftermath of a Who concert in which 11 people were trampled to death. His editor dismissed the idea, but he always remained curious about what happened.
“I had an experience several years ago, while trying to cover the Beatles where I got caught up in a mob scene, where I literally feared for my life and thought we were going to be trampled to death,” he said. “So, I knew how it felt… to be trapped in a situation like this. And that was one of the reasons why I chose that story.” [for the book]: I wanted to know more about what happened. I was curious to see if whoever came back to Cincinnati to play again.”
In fact, they didn’t do so until earlier this year. For decades, Cincinnati banned festival seating to prevent a similar disaster.
A safer world?
The legislation was also enacted after the Fitchville nursing home fire, which killed dozens of people in 1963. In those — and many others in the book — modern technology and regulations may have saved lives. But Zürcher isn’t sure if the world has become any safer.
“They banned anyone in Cincinnati from sitting at the festival for 25 years,” he said. “Now they have changed…because some of the artists they were trying to get were complaining that they like sitting at festivals, they get it in other cities. I don’t know if we learn from those [tragedies] or not.”
Zurcher has He wrote many books in his career, but said this could be his last due to his fading eyesight. However, there are a couple of stories he said he hopes to stick to printing them eventually. The first includes May 4, 1970 shooting at Kent State University. Zurcher was actually in Illyria that day covering a nursery fire in the garden. Then he got the call to head to Kent—and quickly, a call to change direction.
He said, “They called me again on the radio and said, ‘You should go to the hospital because you were exposed to arsenic smoke.’ I was in the hospital, I think, for two hours until they finally let me out and said I was fine.”
It was the evening before Zurcher reached the site, where four people were killed and nine others wounded by National Guard personnel.
“Bill Blunt from CBS News was there covering the network,” he said. “I remember him sharing a helicopter ride with him to Cleveland that night. That was the part of the story I wanted to tell.”
The other story still requires some research to confirm the dates. Zürcher believes he may have been the last Cleveland reporter to interview Dr. Martin Luther King before his assassination in 1968.
“I think he was in town for a secret meeting on Operation PUSH,” he said. “I learned about the meeting, but I couldn’t figure out where it was. So, I made a trip to the airport, and I caught up with him as he was leaving town that evening. We have a picture from the interview, but we’ve lost the date.”
Neil Zurcher and his red convertible have been known to drive around the state for decades due to Fox 8’s “One Tank Journey” series. However, one of the most famous moments of his career is the story that has been thriving for nearly 40 years – and he, too, Chapter on “Ten Ohio Disasters”.
“[It] It comes back to haunt me every September, because it’s on YouTube,” he said, referring to Balloonfest ’86. On September 27, 1986, United Way set a world record by releasing nearly 1.5 million balloons from downtown Cleveland causing chaos in the city and even Hindering the Search for Sectarian Boating on Lake Erie What happened next is detailed in “Ten Ohio Disasters: Stories of Tragedy and Courage Not to Forget.”
The ten disasters in the book are:
Barnum and Bailey Circus Fire (1942)
The Golden Age Nursing Home Fire (1963)
Skydiving in Lake Erie (1967)
Silver Bridge Collapse (1967)
MV Roger Blow Inferno (1971)
Xenia Tornado (1974)
Blizzard year 78
Party Stampede It (1979)
Balloon Festival 86
Zansville Animal Escape (2011)