A look back: Tragedy strikes Purdue
It's been six decades, yet those that were around will never forget the bleacher crash in the Purdue Fieldhouse on Feb. 24, 1947.
One of the great tragedies in the history of Purdue University occurred at halftime of the Wisconsin game 60 years ago Saturday.
"I recall it being a very festive atmosphere at the game that night," said Bill Berberian earlier this week from his home in Arizona. Berberian was a starting guard for the Boilermakers who later became a team captain.
"I don't know if it was all the veterans returning from the war, or what, but it was very noisy," he said. "We hadn't lost at home that year, and we were ready for the challenge of playing that night."
The Boilermakers, thanks to 11 points by three-time All-American Paul Hoffman, led the league-leading Badgers 34-33 in front of an overflow crowd of 11,000 at the Purdue Fieldhouse (now called Lambert Fieldhouse). The home fans were cheering wildly as Coach Mel Taube's squad made their way to the locker room.
"I remember before the game announcement over the public address system for fans to move closer together in the stands," Berberian said. "People just kept moving closer together."
Less than a minute into the intermission, something went wrong in the east stands, where the bleachers were about 30 feet high. In the aftermath, students Roger Gelhausen and William Feldman lay mortally wounded at the scene, with Theodore Nordquist dying in a local hospital two days later of injuries sustained in the accident. All told, some 300 fans were admitted to local hospitals.
The Fieldhouse was sealed off to everyone and the players were instructed to leave the building. A 14-member investigating committee, formed by Indiana Governor Ralph Gates, concluded that structural failure was to blame.
Because the game had bearing on the league championship, the two teams traveled to Evanston Township High two weeks later to play the second half. The Badgers ended up winning the game 72-60, marking the last time Wisconsin won the conference championship.
"Our hearts weren't in to that game," Berberian said.
The following is an eyewitness account by George Owen, a former student at West Lafayette High School, and the impact that this event still has on those who experienced it 60 years ago.
"Young people talk about the future because they have no past. Old people talk about the past because they have no future."
As a 15-year-old faculty brat growing up in West Lafayette, Ind., I had season tickets to all Purdue athletic events. So the basketball game against Wisconsin Feb. 24, 1947, was just another game save the fact that the Badgers were gunning for a Big Nine championship and the Boilers were in a "spoiler" role.
The tragedy that took place that night has been well chronicled and the facts hashed and rehashed. At this juncture let me relive specific vivid memories that I still hold.
The Purdue Fieldhouse had a composition dirt and sawdust floor. The wooden basketball floor, running north and south, was raised 12-18 inches above the composition floor.
Wooden A-frame bleachers along the west side of the court extended up to the metal balcony section which encompassed three sides of the floor. There was about a nine-foot space between the floor and the first row of seats.
The east side of the floor also had wooden A-frame bleachers, although these were 40 or 50 rows high, built to seat 3,000-3,500 people.
Reserved seating was limited to the metal balcony section.
There were no aisles in the bleachers and seating was what is now referred to as "first come, first serve." With this in mind, I always arrived at the east doors 15 minutes before the gates opened at 6 p.m. to be assured a seat in the front row for a 7:30 p.m. tip-off.
The nature of the student body played a very significant role in the events as they occurred. Many of the students were mature World War II veterans, some with combat experience, who knew how to react in an emergency.
I recall hearing the public address announcer, Jim Miles, prior to the game repeatedly asking people to move closer together in the stands. The game had generated a great deal of interest and there were a lot more fans than expected.
At halftime I started to go get a pop when I heard a commotion behind me. I ran to the center of the playing floor along with about 5,000 people only to see fans in the west stands motioning us not to come any further.
The first sounds as the bleachers collapsed were moans, then shouts, yells and screams of terror as the crowd realized that a major tragedy was developing before their eyes.
After, I could see the bleachers had collapsed in a wave-like motion and the front row had catapulted against the court, pinning people between the bleachers and the floor.
The ensuing panic and confusion was quickly assuaged as Miles requested calm and the mature veteran student body swung into action.
They immediately started rescue procedures. With arms linked they formed a corridor to expedite the injured out through the east doors to the emergency vehicles which were already waiting along Northwestern Avenue. The precise evacuation of the injured was directly attributed to the veterans, who were also dispatching the vehicles and directing traffic on Northwestern Avenue.
The limited number of emergency vehicles soon gave way to taxi cabs, then Graves Bakery panel trucks and private vehicles.
On a personal note, my older sister and father were also attending the game and my mother was at home listening to the game on WBAA. It was John DeCamp, the "Voice of Purdue," on WBAA who recognized the enormity of the tragedy and immediately made an on-air request for emergency vehicles.
I raced down Evergreen Street (the east-west street directly across from the Fieldhouse) thinking I would call home from the first house I could, only to find several people already waiting at every house to use the phone. I ran the rest of the way home and to my relief, my father and sister were waiting for me.
My sister was near the top row and "rode the bleachers down like an elevator." My father was in the north metal balcony stands and witnessed the whole tragedy as it evolved.
We all grew up a little bit that night.
Owen's account first appeared in Gold & Black Illustrated during the 50-year anniversary of the tragedy in 1997. Not surprisingly, Owen, who still lives in West Lafayette with his wife Mary, has never forgotten the horrific experience.
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