WHSV Special Report : 75 years since the Masters Building explosion in downtown Harrisonburg
HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Friday marks 75 years since the Masters Building in downtown Harrisonburg exploded. Ultimately the incident took the lives of 11 people and injured many others.
Survivors say that Tuesday started off as a normal day.
“I had just started to work at the hospital,” Juanita Taylor explained. Taylor had just gotten a new job at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, in the medical records department.
Houston Lynch was eight years old at the time. His family had just moved to Harrisonburg from Lexington after his father got a job at the Virginia Craftsman Factory.
“He [his father] came home for lunch late and we ate lunch and he rushed back to work and my brother and I were washing the dishes,” Lynch explained.
Retired Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett was just one year old at the time but has done extensive research on the event.
“We have not had a large loss incident of this type since this incident occurred,” Shifflett said.
According to Shifflett’s findings, public records and Daily News Record articles, On the day of the explosion, workmen had been shoveling coal into the basement of the Masters Building and while the men were on a break...
“One of them struck a match to light a cigarette. The flame from the match ignited gas that had leaked into the basement from corroded pipe that fed a water heater,” the retired chief explained.
At 2:10 PM, the building exploded.
“All of a sudden the sirens started blowing. We heard the blast,” Taylor said.
She watched from the upper floors of the hospital. All of it happening just a few steps away from the Lynch family home.
“The side of the wall that we had eaten in was blown in. Where the table had been, was five or six feet deep in rubble,” Lynch said.
There were a couple of businesses and shops in the Masters Building but most of those hurt and killed were inside Pauline’s Beauty Shop.
A common meeting place in the community was a pile of debris in just a few moments.
“As soon as you struck the match, the explosion would have occurred and the structural damage would have occurred just within seconds,” Shifflett said.
Taylor’s husband was a volunteer firefighter for the city. News quickly traveled a fireman had been hurt.
“I got really upset because I knew where he would have gone right away,” she explained. “Somebody in our office checked and found out he was not the fireman who was hurt.”
Though her husband was able to come home that night... the unknown agonizing for many.
“There was just chaos. Back in those days we did not have organized rescue squads,” Lynch said.
“The ambulances that would have been used to take the people to the hospital would have been ambulances from local funeral homes who came in and transported people,” Shifflett added.
“People were running around,” Lynch said. “One memory I have is one citizen running through the backyard with our aluminum water pitcher. He got it somehow out of the house, hollering for ‘water, we need water we need water’. It was just amateurs trying to do what they could.”
Beds crowed the only two rooms of the emergency department at the hospital.
“They started cleaning out what was the cafeteria of the hospital and getting the tables and chairs out of one side of the area so they had room for stretchers,” Taylor said.
The incident changed the way the city maintained gas lines.
Weeks later state officials recommended the city adopt ordinances and regulations for gas companies in the area.
The 1947 explosion would be a story many elders in the city passed on to their children and grandchildren. Decades later those younger generations would experience a Harrisonburg blast of their own, just a few miles away on Miller Circle.
“What happened here could very well happen today,” Shifflett said. “There is a safety message here. People should lean from this. It is important to keep this type of equipment all types of mechanical equipment functioning properly and to make sure that it is maintained in the proper condition.”
There is a section of the Harrisonburg fire museum dedicated to the 1947 explosion created by retired Chief Shifflett. Everyone is welcome to visit during business hours. For more information on how to visit the museum, click here.
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