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Neil Zurcher on tragedy and heroism in his book 'Ten Ohio Disasters'

Neil Zurcher's new book looks back at disasters including the Xenia tornado, the Ringling Bros. Circus fire, and the Who's 1979 Cincinnati concert.
Gray & Co.
Neil Zurcher's new book looks back at disasters including the Xenia tornado, the Ringling Bros. Circus fire, and the Who's 1979 Cincinnati concert.

Parachutists, giraffes and freightliners are among those that tangled with Mother Nature – and lost – in the new book “Ten Ohio Disasters: Stories of Tragedy and Courage that Should Not Be Forgotten” by journalist and author Neil Zurcher. The idea for the book originated in the 1970s, while he was riding an elephant to Richfield Coliseum as part of a promotion for Ringling Bros. Circus.

“I've got this rather old gnarly keeper of the elephants walking beside me,” he said. “Suddenly, he looked up and says, 'You know about the story about 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. The circus fire is the first chapter in the book.

'A friendly face...' for elephants

Zurcher follows each disaster with not only the details of what happened, but the heroes who emerged in the face of tragedy. One of them was Chester Koch, who in 1942 was the City of Cleveland’s coordinator of patriotic activities. He happened to be standing outside City Hall on August 4 of that year, just after a fire broke out in one of Ringling Brothers’ animal tents.

“He suddenly saw this herd of elephants running wild from the circus grounds heading down Lakeside Ave.,” said Zurcher. “He ran into the street, pulled out a whistle… and yelled, ‘Stop!’ And the elephants stopped. Everybody 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 Zurcher. He made a request to go to Cincinnati on December 3, 1979, to cover the aftermath of a concert by the Who where 11 people were trampled to death. His editor nixed the idea, but he’d always stayed curious about what happened.

“I had an experience several years earlier, while trying to cover the Beatles where I got trapped in a mob scene, where I literally feared for my life and thought we were going to get trampled to death,” he said. “So, I knew what it felt like… to be caught in a situation like that. And that was one of the reasons I picked that story [for the book]: I wanted to learn more about what happened. I was curious whether the Who had ever come back to Cincinnati to play again.”

And in fact, they didn’t until earlier this year. For decades, Cincinnati banned festival seating to prevent a similar disaster from occurring.

A safer world?

Legislation was also enacted after the Fitchville nursing home fire, which killed dozens of people in 1963. In those cases – and several others in the book – modern technology and regulations might have saved lives. But Zurcher isn’t sure if the world has gotten any safer.

“They prohibited anybody in Cincinnati from having festival seating for 25 years,” he said. “Now they've changed… because some of the artists they were trying to get were complaining that they like festival seating, they get it in other cities. I don't know if we learn from these [tragedies] or not.”

Zurcher has written numerous books in his career, but he said this may be the last due to his fading eyesight. Still, there are two stories he said he hopes to eventually commit to print. The first involves the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State University. Zurcher was actually in Elyria that day covering a fire at a garden nursery. Then he got the call to head over the Kent – and just as quickly, a call to change direction.

“They called me back on the radio and said, ‘You've got to go to the hospital because you were exposed to arsenic smoke,” he said. “Apparently, they had a lot of firemen collapse at the fire after I left, and we also got exposed to it. I was at the hospital for, I think, two hours till they finally cleared me and said I was okay.”

It was evening before Zurcher made it to the site where four people were killed and nine others wounded by National Guardsmen.

“Bill Plante of CBS News was there covering for the network,” he said. “I remember he and I shared a helicopter ride back to Cleveland that night. That was the part of the story that I wanted to tell.”

The other story still requires some research to confirm dates. Zurcher believes he may have been the last Cleveland reporter to interview Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 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 find out where it was. So, I staked out the airport, and I caught up with him just as he was leaving town that evening. We have a photo from the interview, but we've lost the date.”

Neil Zurcher and his red convertible were known for puttering around the state for decades for his “One Tank Trip” series on Fox 8. Yet one of the most popular moments from his career is a story that has stayed buoyant for almost 40 years – and is also a chapter in “Ten Ohio Disasters.”

“[It] comes back to haunt me every September, because it's on YouTube,” he said, referring to Balloonfest ’86. On September 27, 1986, the United Way set a world record by releasing almost 1.5 million balloons from Downtown Cleveland wreaking havoc on the city and even hindering the search for two boaters on Lake Erie. What happened next is detailed in “Ten Ohio Disasters: Stories of Tragedy and Courage that Should Not Be Forgotten.”

The 10 disasters in the book are:

Barnum & Bailey circus fire (1942)

Golden Age Nursing Home fire (1963)

Lake Erie parachute jump (1967)

Silver Bridge Collapse (1967)

MV Roger Blough inferno (1971)

Xenia tornado (1974)

Blizzard of '78

The Who concert stampede (1979)

Balloonfest '86

Zanesville animal escape (2011)

Copyright 2022 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

Kabir Bhatia joined WKSU as a Reporter/Producer and weekend host in 2010. A graduate of Hudson High School, he received his Bachelor's from Kent State University. While a Kent student, Bhatia served as a WKSU student assistant, working in the newsroom and for production.