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Moment of Indiana History

1963 Coliseum Explosion

At the Fairgrounds Coliseum on Halloween night 1963, more than 4,000 spectators watched Holiday on Ice when, during the finale, there was a massive explosion.

Fans know that before Conseco Fieldhouse, the Indiana Pacers called Market Square Arena home. The Indianapolis basketball team played in that downtown location from 1974 to 1999, shortly before the arena was demolished. Before the Pacers joined the NBA, however, their home court was an old coliseum on the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Although the Pacers were a newly formed team, the place they started playing in 1967 had some serious history.

On Halloween night 1963, more than 4,000 spectators were packed into the building for a Holiday on Ice performance when, during the finale, there was a massive explosion. A leak in a valve supplying propane to the popcorn warmer was responsible for a blast that sent bodies flying 60 feet, killing 74 and injuring more than 400 people.

Although more than the usual number of police officers did happen to be on duty–anticipating vandalism that night, along with other Halloween pranks–and the city’s emergency preparedness system mobilized quickly, it was fairly overwhelmed by the catastrophe. The coliseum was set up as a makeshift morgue, the bodies of the victims laid out across the ice and covered in blankets.

As the victims’ families came to identify the corpses the following day, a field team from the Ohio State University Disaster Research Center conducted interviews with members of the twelve organizations involved in the response. The team ultimately published its findings in Disaster in Aisle 13, its first case study. Having examined the chain of events following the 1963 explosion, the team formulated conclusions about notification, mobilization, authority, communication, and coordination in the wake of an emergency that continue to be relevant. In the year following the tragedy, Indianapolis’ inter-hospital communication system was significantly upgraded.

Although a Marion County grand jury indicted fire officials, coliseum managers, and gas company personnel on various charges, a single conviction was handed down, only to be, ultimately, overturned. Victims and survivors were awarded about 4.6 million dollars in settlements.

The site of one of the state’s deadliest disasters was renovated in time to host the Beatles for a sold-out concert in September 1964, when they headlined the Indiana State Fair.  Over the next few years, the venue would boast The Dave Clark Five, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Who before the Pacers arrived for the 1967 season.  The structure was  renamed Pepsi Coliseum in 1991.

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  • I Was There

    I was there that night. Went with my parents, best friend and about 12 visiting and local relatives from New Castle. I remember that the show started about 10 minutes late. The explosion happened during the 10 minutes after the time the show should have been over; when people normally would have been clearing the bleachers heading out the doors. We were in that section midway up, but had moved down to the end of the rink, as there were empty seats there. I was only 9 years old and short/small, so I couldn't see over people's heads. Halfway through the show Dad decided we could move down to the end of the rink where there were seats and not many people who would block my view. My parents, my friend and about half our group moved down there with us. We watched as the Ice Skating finale go going, then heard what sounded like loud firecrackers then a roaring, as if standing next to a fighter jet taking off. We watched as the whole section where we'd been sitting not an hour before – lifted concrete and the people still seated there up into the air, flipped over, and then came down on everything and everyone below. My Dad ran out on the ice to see if he could help save anyone. I ran after him out onto the ice in the confusion. What I saw when I came to my senses from the first panicand shock? Was what you'd only expect to see after a deadly fight on a battlefield. With the dead and dying everywhere around you. I was too young then to sort it through or understand much beyond how awful it was that night. But now I realize that even there among the chaos, fear, screaming and shock? Everyone that night stayed calm, quickly regrouped, started looking for anyone missing, and those who could all ran out onto the ice and into the firestorm to try to help anyone they could. And give comfort for those they couldn't save. Truly, this was a night of Heros amid the destruction there. For me, it is a night I can never forget. And, it taught me at a very young age that life truly has no guarantees. We should treasure the time we have and not ' save' it for some future we have in mind. Today IS what matters.

  • Lisa Ann Klinge

    My Mother was there that night working as well..she was working concessions..and was very lucky..She would had been only 22 at the time..She remembered clearly what had happened that night..She passed away January of this yr..Like you..this was really a night she could had easily passed away…and then I would not be here today as well..this was one of a few close calls she had in life..

  • Jhawke67

    Sorry to hear about your loss Lisa. I stumbled upon this link researching previous Indianapolis state fair disasters after the weekend’s Sugarland disaster. I read the list of the deceased given at the time in 1963, and many were unidentified, including children. Do you know if everyone eventually was identified? I’ve experienced destruction and death through hurricanes growing up in Florida, but cannot fathom an event like that in 1963 which was supposed to be a perfectly safe family outing.

  • Lisa Klinge

    Thank you..I do not know that answer.  Mom just recounted some of that nights horrific events.  She lost a friend/co-worker that night and knew some of the injured.  ..

  • Gloria Martin Squires

    My husband and I were supposed to go that night and decided not to go . we were dating. and our seats were in the area that exploded. I would have been 15 years old two weeks later, on Nov.12 and he had just turned 17 on Oct.2

  • KathyF

    Hey Lisa it’s Kathy from the old neighborhood! Im sorry to hear about your Mom and Dad.

  • Stephen Denney

    I don’t understand how you can say the Pacers were the first significant booking in the coliseum since the explosion. The building was reopened in 1964 in time for the Indiana State Fair, when The Beatles packed the house in August. They also played later that night in front of the grandstand. I would call a sold-out concert a pretty significant event.

  • Patrick

    You are lucky. I was a just turned 14 year old and was there that night. It was horrible. I saw sights no one much less a young teenager should ever have to see. Be glad you weren’t there.

  • Dorian Valles

    I think Debbie Williams was there that night performing with her family the Williams Family…she remembers this night clearly but to this day doesn’t like to talk about it….

  • Gloria Martin Squires

    I remember now why we didn’t go My boyfriend , now husband of 52 years, was asking my dad if he could give me my engagement ring so I took my little brother trick or treating while he talked to my dad. If I had gone we would have never had children , grandchildren and great-grands.

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