Remembering the Rochester Explosion

It was one of those events that had people asking, “Where were you when…?” Twenty-five years have passed, but those who were in Rochester at the time can tell you – as if it happened yesterday – where they were and what they were doing when they heard the explosion on May 20, 1992.

It was a warm, late-spring Wednesday afternoon in downtown Rochester. The evening rush hour was underway when, at 5:20 p.m., a blast erupted, leveling the northernmost two-thirds of the Crissman building at the southeast corner of Main and University Drive. In the aftermath, a thick cloud of dust hovered over Main Street. Broken glass was everywhere. Car alarms triggered by the pressure wave pierced the air even before the sirens of first responders were heard.

Crissman Building Explosion in Downtown Rochester - Photo by Harold L. Mowat

Crissman Building Explosion in Downtown Rochester – Photo by Harold L. Mowat

George Heller was in his jewelry store across the street and down the block, preparing to close for the day. He recalls hearing a heavy “boom,” and thinking that his air conditioning service man might have fallen on the roof above him. Then he looked outside, saw a dust cloud rolling down Main Street, and realized that something devastating had happened.

About 20 minutes earlier, a construction crew working on a streetscape improvement project at Main and University had apparently struck a gas line. Realizing the line was charged and leaking, they notified the gas company, and began evacuating the Crissman building and the surrounding area. Before the gas company emergency crew could reach the scene, the building exploded.

Crissman Building Explosion in Downtown Rochester - Photo by Harold L. Mowat

Crissman Building Explosion in Downtown Rochester – Photo by Harold L. Mowat

Originally built in 1901 by hotelman James W. Smith, the block was the home of the popular Crissman family drug store from 1915 to 1966. In 1992, it housed several businesses including Kimberly Travel Agency, A Bird’s Eye View, and Paul Haig’s jewelry store. Mrs. Beryl Crissman owned the building. Her son, John Crissman, did not hear the explosion at his office on South Hill and learned about it in a telephone call from his sister. Leaving his office immediately, Crissman looked toward downtown and saw nothing but a sea of emergency flashers. Traveling a route to avoid Main Street, which by then was closed, he walked up to the building from the east side.

The sight that greeted him was surreal. Two-thirds of the building had collapsed. Paper floated and fluttered in the air like a ticker-tape parade. Bricks and debris were everywhere.

Crissman Building Explosion in Downtown Rochester - Photo by Harold L. Mowat

Crissman Building Explosion in Downtown Rochester – Photo by Harold L. Mowat

Richard Lantzy and his business partner, Norma Cribbs, operated one of the locations of the Kimberly Travel Agency in the Crissman building. Lantzy learned of the explosion in a phone call from his partner, who had earlier informed him that the building was being evacuated due to a gas leak. When he arrived at the scene, he saw paper – much of it his business records – scattered everywhere. Later that evening, he and a group of young men tried to gather as many of the travel documents, cancelled checks and brochures as possible.

Tragically, the explosion caused the death of Jim Nelson, an engineer for Hubbell, Roth & Clark. The engineering firm was consulting on the streetscape project, and Nelson regularly stopped downtown to check on the progress of the work. On that day, he arrived just after the construction workers had discovered the gas line and sounded the alarm. He helped the crew to clear people out of the area but was caught in the blast and fatally injured.

Crissman Building Explosion in Downtown Rochester - Photo by Harold L. Mowat

Crissman Building Explosion in Downtown Rochester – Photo by Harold L. Mowat

The efforts of Nelson and the construction crew doubtless prevented many other deaths and injuries. The businesses on the lower level of the building and the five apartments on the upper level were all evacuated in time. Nobody was caught on the second floor, which was completely pancaked by the explosion.

In all, 17 bystanders and passing motorists were injured and taken to hospitals, most with lacerations and bruises from flying glass and debris. Rochester reeled in shock, and a crowd of stunned townspeople gathered at Main and University. As the evening wore on, residents did what needed to be done. Storeowners swept up broken glass and boarded up shattered windows. John Crissman stayed at the corner until he could locate and connect with each of his mother’s tenants to verify that they were safe. After finding that all of his own staff was safe, Richard Lantzy went to work on a recovery plan for his business.

In the wake of the disaster, Rochester proved resilient. The devastating circumstances brought out the best in people, Crissman remembers. “The community really pulled together to help the businesses, and they helped our apartment tenants, who had lost everything and needed a place to live,” he said. Richard Lantzy recalled how hard his staff worked to get the travel office up and running again in temporary quarters down the street. “From what I witnessed, every one of our Kimberly Travel people seemed to take a lot of pride in getting through what happened to us,” he commented recently. “Looking back, I still find it hard to believe we were ready to reopen within a month of the explosion.”

Crissman Building Overlay Image of a 1907 photo and a 2017 photo

Crissman Building Overlay Image of a 1907 photo and a 2017 photo

The Crissman family knew immediately, without question, that they would rebuild. The building was not only intricately woven into the history of Rochester; it was also an important part of the family’s history. “We’d lost it, we were going to get it back,” John Crissman said. He met with Roy Rewold and the two men began to plan a rebuild, with the goal of restoring the Main Street elevation as closely as possible to the original. The southernmost portion of the building had survived the blast, and the rebuilt portion duplicates its ornamental brickwork. Crissman credits Rewold with marshalling the resources that brought the building back. “That building wouldn’t have gone back up without Roy Rewold,” he says.

In the lobby of the rebuilt structure, a sculpture of a phoenix rising from the ashes pays tribute to the rebirth of the Crissman building. The new building was opened in November 1993, eighteen months after the explosion.

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About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen is the assistant director and local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She is active in the Macomb County and Rochester-Avon historical societies, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Donald Worrell says:

    Another highly engaging article by Ms. Larsen!

  2. Barbara Vandewater says:

    We were in the Kimberly Travel Agency, the day before the blast. We smelled gas at that time and told the travel agent, As far asI know they all got out safely.

  3. Not much to write about?

  4. Linda McGregor says:

    Barbara Vandewater says:
    May 16, 2017 at 4:43 pm
    We were in the Kimberly Travel Agency, the day before the blast. We smelled gas at that time and told the travel agent, As far asI know they all got out safely.
    ———–
    Update from the investigation:
    * The construction company DID NOT cause the explosion.
    ** The construction company had not begun digging when Megan smelled the gas the day before the explosion.
    *** One of the tenants admitted to having illegally hooked up to the gas line, bypassing the regulator. THAT’S what caused the explosion.
    **** The construction company DID NOT break the gas line.

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