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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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