I was browsing through the old newspapers, looking for ideas for this week’s column, when I ran across an account of the 1963 disaster at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum (currently known as the Indiana Farmers Coliseum) on the front page of the November 1, 1963 Noblesville Daily Ledger.
That jolted me a bit — partly because the Ledger managed to find so many local people who were there that night and were willing to share their experiences, and partly because I came too darn close to being one of them.
That particular year my mother decided to treat me and one of my friends to a performance of the 19th edition of the ice skating extravaganza, “Holiday on Ice.”
Luckily, our tickets were for Thursday, November 1 — the evening AFTER the tragedy.
The Halloween performance was actually the troupe’s opening night, which might explain why the show was late getting started by about 15 minutes — 15 minutes that may have made a huge difference. It’s been noted that, had the acts begun on time, many of the 4,300-plus spectators would have been headed toward the exits when the explosions occurred.
As it was, most spectators were still in their seats watching the grand finale when propane gas leaking from a tank under the south stands was ignited by an electric popcorn machine.
At that moment, according to Westfield electrical contractor Thomas C. Hughes, “the bodies of more than a dozen people hurled 40 to 50 feet through the air onto the shimmering ice.”
Hughes and his wife had been seated almost directly across the area from the explosion. Recognizing the danger, they headed for an exit. Just as they reached it, a second explosion occurred.
Hughes looked back to see enormous chunks of concrete flying upward . . . “flames shot as high as the roof, past the ‘No Smoking’ sign hanging below the roof girders.”
The couple stayed until after 3 a.m., pitching in to help.
Dr. Ray Shanks and his family were in the fourth row of some temporary seats, in what turned out to be the edge of the blast area.
Dr. Shanks noted that “Chairs, concrete and debris blew past us with cyclone force.” A piece of a steel girder grazed his arm and struck his wife on the throat, but she escaped with only bruises.
They were extremely fortunate. The man behind Dr. Shanks was killed and two women beside the man were seriously injured.
Noblesville businessman William Hall, his wife, daughter Jackie and Ann Heath had seats in the middle of the blast zone, but were miraculously uninjured. (Ann was the daughter of businessman Irving Heath, who’s popped up in this column several times.)
Hall noted that cannons, fireworks and shots had been heard throughout the performance, leading them to believe initially that the explosion was part of the show. He said he realized it was a true disaster when the bodies of the people in the box seats below them went flying through the air “like rag dolls.”
John Fulton, Morgan Smith and Robert Crandall had escorted a group of Noblesville Job’s Daughters and Demolay members to the show. Although the 58 youths were shocked by what they witnessed, no one was hurt and Fulton proudly noted that none of them panicked.
Those are just some of the local residents mentioned in the Ledger article.
When all was said and done, 74 people died as a result of the explosions — 54 at the Coliseum and the rest in area hospitals — and nearly 400 were injured.
No one from this county was among the dead, but there was a Hamilton County connection — county probation officer Terry Everett lost an aunt and an uncle.

Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears each Wednesday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com