Disaster Strikes Nov 25, 1965
On the day before Thanksgiving in 1965, the Swing Ezy Square Dance Club gathered at the National Guard Armory (Company C, 1st Battalion, 113th Armored), for a planned dance that evening. A beginners class was scheduled from 7PM till 9PM with the regular dance starting at 9PM and ending at 11PM. About 60 to 70 people arrived for the event and were dressed in western wear that they often wore to the square dance parties.
At approximately 9:35 there were some two dozen dancers on the floor with other spectators on the sidelines. Some of the children of the dancers were in the basement. From what I have heard, the song ‘King Of The Road’ was playing.
That is when the building erupted in an explosion that will be remembered in Keokuk for a long time. The blast was thought to have originated in the basement from leaking natural gas lines, there was a gas furnace in the basement. It blew the roof off the building in a fiery blaze and then the roof fell back down and collapsed the floor into the basement. Fifty years later it is classified as natural gas explosion but the cause of the explosion will probably never be known, a lit match, a light switch, a spark?
Those who lived close by hurried out of their houses to see a fire and smoke engulfed building and survivors running for their lives with little or no clothes, the blast burned or blew off their clothing. Some of the individuals were on fire and were knocked down and the flames put out by the people arriving on the scene. The building was left with one standing wall, the rest was just a mass of rubble. Police and firefighters were soon on the scene and the massive task of looking for survivors and victims began.
Within a few hours the local hospitals had most of the victims in their care. Initial reports listed 7 dead and 43 injured with burns and broken limbs. The burn victims suffered the most, with burns over most of their bodies. Some of the patients were taken to Quincy, Illinois care centers and also Iowa City.
Over the next few weeks the building was torn completely down, a tank in the building was driven out almost unscathed, just a little scorching of its paint. Finally the ground was clear of all evidence of the disaster that occurred that night and it looked like a graded over patch of earth.
I remember driving out there with Pop and looking the scene over just a couple days later, you could not get too close but the extent of the damage was quite evident. We only lived a mile from the Armory and over the next few years would pass by and see the place where many people lost their lives and many families were torn apart. In the end, 21 people died from the explosion or as a result of the blast.
Work started on a new Armory and in 1969 it was completed along with a plaque monument outside the front door in honor of those who lost their lives that night.
The armory was used by Co. C., 1st battalion, 113th armored. The 100 foot by 100 foot building, built in 1953, contained some small arms and other military equipment, including a tank, said Col. Joseph May, assistant Iowa adjutant general. George Mayer, commissioner of public safety, said, “There was some .22 caliber ammunition in the basement but I don’t believe it had anything to do with the explosion. It may have exploded in the fire.”