Rising From the Flames

The world was breathing a little easier at the end of 1945.

For the past several years, the Second World War had raged across the globe. Towns and cities had been razed throughout the Pacific and across Europe. Millions had lost their lives during the course of the conflict. Now, the war was finally over. America and the rest of the world were eager to welcome their soldiers’ home and settle down in peacetime.

The town of DeWitt was no exception.

Located on the eastern edge of Iowa, DeWitt was the second largest city in Clinton County. Surrounded by farmland, DeWitt wasn’t as big as the county seat, Clinton, or the nearby cities of Davenport or Dubuque. But it also wasn’t as small as some of the one-street towns that were so common across Iowa.

In the early 1840’s, DeWitt had been the seat of Clinton County. Although that had been relocated to Clinton in 1869, DeWitt had enjoyed a boost of growth from those days that it had carried along with it to the 1940’s. Several businesses thrived there, including the illustrious Hotel Dell, a multi-story hotel that lay along the main street.

On August 30, 1945, William Galitz was just another working man making a buck at the F.L. Implement Store in DeWitt, Iowa. The day had been uneventful, and all was well. That was when the explosion happened.

From where they were, it didn’t seem to be overly large, but was still enough to make Galitz and his co-worker, Elmer Grover, start walking from their workplace down to investigate. They were sure that the noise had come from the direction of the Yegge Oil Company, a Shell service station on 6th Avenue, the main north/south road through town.

Mrs. Roy Benson was walking near the gas station when she heard the sound of breaking glass. She stopped and looked around, scanning the surrounding homes and cars for broken glass. Seeing nothing unusual, Benson continued along her way, putting the incident out of her mind.

As they walked to the gas station, Galitz and Grover ran into a man named Ed Anderson and his son Donald, who were also curious about the explosion. After a short conversation, the group continued together toward the shell station.

As they approached, Galitz saw that one of the windows had been broken. He walked up and looked inside, trying to spot any signs of smoke or fire. Shortly, the Anderson’s joined him. They saw nothing out of the ordinary. Grover hung back away from the building.

Meanwhile, Merlyn Krukow and Allen Loltz, a Davenport salesman, were also investigating the explosion. As they walked into the front of the building, the Yegge Oil Company suddenly erupted into a swirling maelstrom of flame, smoke, and broken glass.

Several of them were fine one moment, and then in the next they were burning.

When the explosion hit William Galitz, he was immediately and almost instinctually aware that he had been severely burned. Under his own power and probably by sheer force of will, he ran to a doctor’s office that he knew was nearby, seeking treatment.

Herb Ihrke, who ran the service station, caught fire as he was thrown through a window by the blast. Albert McDonald, yet another individual who had also come to investigate the first explosion, was hit by the blast and collapsed, burning, in a puddle of gasoline.

Nettie Anderson, a 60-year-old woman who lived nearby, had seen what has happening and ran across the street to help. Grabbing McDonald, she dragged him across the street and quickly threw a blanket on him to smother the flames. The owner of the Hotel Dell, Mrs. O.S. Moses, also ran out to render aid, quickly began pulling burning clothing off of the victims. Other locals also ran out to help the burning men.

Yegge on Fire
The Yegge Oil Company after the explosion. Courtesy of the DeWitt Observer

After the fire department arrived, the fire at the gas station was put out relatively quickly. The victims were taken by ambulance to hospitals in Clinton and Davenport. Out of the eight victims of the fire, Herb Ihrke, Allen Loltz, Al McDonald, Ed Anderson, and Charles Mohr died from their injuries. William Galltz, in spite of receiving severe burns to this hands, arms, and face, survived. Elmer Grover, who had stayed away from the building before the second explosion, escaped unharmed.

Five Fire Victims
Victims of the Yegge Oil Company fire. Courtesy of the DeWitt Observer

An investigation of the incident, including a coroner’s inquest, quickly followed. Although at least one person had seen a flame inside the building prior to the second explosion, no official cause was ever determined. Many later testified that the proprietor of the building was very careful and safe in his work practices.

It was a horrible accident, but apparently one without any known cause. No one was found to be at fault for the explosion. It was simply a tragic event, and the best thing for everyone to do would be to move on with their lives. The family was left to mourn their lost loved ones and rebuild in the wake of this sudden and unexpected tragedy.

And yet, the seeds of a question were sown: why didn’t DeWitt have a hospital?

The closest hospitals to DeWitt were around 20 miles to the east or south. If they had been able to get any one of the victims of the explosion to a hospital within 5-10 minutes, instead of 20-30 minutes, would at least some of them been able to survive? Even a few seconds could have meant the difference between life and death.

DeWitt was easily one of the biggest cities in Clinton County. Although it hadn’t experienced as much growth as the county seat, Clinton, had, it was respectable size. More importantly, it was still growing steadily. It definitely had a large enough population to accommodate it, and it would also be providing the needs of the outlying portions of the county.

The need for DeWitt’s hospital had originally been identified in 1939. A group of civic-minded locals, the DeWitt Community Club, wanted to initiate a project that would benefit the entire community. After asking local residents for ideas, the No. 1 answer was to build a hospital.

The group immediately set about checking into the possibility, even going as far as to hire an architect to draw up tentative plans and the get rough cost estimates on the new building. After several months of examining the idea, the Community Club eventually concluded that such a project needed much more planning and thought put into it, and the hospital plans were ultimately shelved.

 

Six years later, everyone who had said they needed a hospital was proven right. Five dead citizens bore mute witness to the fact. A hospital was no longer just a need, but a necessity. They could no longer afford to wait and plan, hoping that another Yegge Oil Company incident didn’t happen.

 

New plans were made and set into motion by the end of 1945.

 

A hospital board was formed and an attorney hired to handle any necessary legalities. The board determined that the hospital would be a non-profit venture, and that fundraisers would cover the $150,000 building cost of a new facility. Through the fundraisers, the board felt that the entire community would have a chance to be part of the venture.

 

Almost immediately, a man named Frank Kearney donated a large plot of land to use for the hospital. Soon after, George M. Smith, the president of the Iowa Mutual Insurance Company, donated $30,000 to the cause. At the beginning of 1946, the board hired a team of architects to draw up new plans for the hospital and determine actual costs for the project. The board also attended a meeting to acquire federal grants to help fund the project.

 

Unfortunately for them, they learned that inflation rates had raised the original $150,000 cost.

 

But the board – along with the rest of the town –   was not going to be deterred. Over the next few years, they persistently sought to raise funds. There were numerous efforts to do so, including asking for donations door to door. While all of this was going on, the board was informed that the federal grant money that they had been promised was finally on its way.

 

The contributions of several people around Clinton County, along with the aid of federal funding, allowed the new 32-bed facility to be built. George M. Smith, who eventually donated $55,000 was probably more pleased than anyone.

 

As he turned that first shovelful of dirt in 1950, Smith was also turning another page of DeWitt history.

 

The town, thanks to a fiery explosion and the persistent dedication of the community, now had a hospital. People living in the outlying areas of Clinton County now had a hospital closer to them. For DeWitt, they had a close place to handle emergencies when they arose.

 

Today, the hospital is still in use. Although it’s grown and expanded over the years, it’s purpose remains the same – to heal and to serve.

 

 

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