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7 die in fire at McGregor - 1936


Posted By: Reid R. Johnson (email)
Date: 4/3/2014 at 19:13:07

Mason City Globe Gazette, Tuesday, 8 December 1936.

Fire Destroys 2 Room House Of WPA Worker.
Father, Mother and Five Children Dead; One Girl Survives.

McGregor-- Seven members of a family of eight which occupied a two room home here of a WPA worker lost their lives Tuesday when a fire caused by a kerosene explosion leveled the building, trapping all the victims except the lone survivor.

The dead are:

Jay Anderson, 48, the father; his wife, 37; Betty Belle, 10; Stanley, 4; Richard, 2; Erwin, 6; and Alice, 15.

The parents, Bette Belle, Stanley and Richard perished before help reached the scene, while Erwin died at 12:20 o'clock and his sister, Alice at 12:50 o'clock.

The lone survivor is Gertrude, 13, the only person to be able to flee from the burning structure. She is suffering mostly from shock and minor burns, it was said at the hospital. Physicians indicated that she is clearly out of danger.

The explosion and ultimate fire was said to have occurred at about 7 o'clock Tuesday morning, with the mother the only occupant of the home who was dressed at the time.

A ninth member of the family, Cleophus, 18, the oldest child, does not live at home. He is working at the Henry Samek farm near here as a hired hand and it is there that he makes his home.

The tragedy is believed to have occurred when the mother attempted to start a fire in a small coal stove by pouring kerosene on some kindling wood which she had previously ignited but which had failed to burn rapidly. An explosion followed and the rest of the family, all of whom were occupying beds in the small structure, were trapped when the building was engulfed in flames. Only Gertrude, who was just leaving her bed at the time the blast occurred, was able to escape.

Neighbors living nearby heard the explosion and saw the fire which immediately followed, but before help could reach the scene, the parents and three of their children were burned to death. Two neighbors, Frank Curiel and C. O. Gerndt, were credited with having rescued Alice and Erwin. The two men, it was said, managed to reach the burning structure in time to remove Alice and Erwin through a window before the intense heat prevented their going closer for additional rescues.

Curiel rescued Alice as she was standing crying near a window, according to Gertrude's story. Gerndt, who is Curiel's step-father, was said to have risked his life by reaching through a window to grab Erwin from a bed on which he was lying unconscious.

A short time after the two children were removed from the building, the fire sealed the fate of the five persons still in the building.

Curiel, it was reported, ran to the nearby home of Otto Duball where he sounded the alarm for the fire department, but before firemen arrived the home was a mass of flames and no one could enter because of the intense heat.

Firemen waited several hours for the debris to cool before attempting to remove the bodies from the pit. Coroner Leslie Oelke of Elkader supervised the removal. He said he was certain an inquest would be held, "Just for the records". He agreed that the tragedy was the result of an explosion caused by Mrs. Anderson pouring kerosene on a fire which she had previously started.

The father was a World War veteran. He had been employed lately as a woodcutter on a WPA project near here. Previous to that time, he had worked at odd jobs for several years, barely making enough money to support his large family, close friends of the family said.

From her hospital bed, Gertrude, the lone survivor of the tragedy, told the following story:

"I was just about ready to get up, I should say it was about 7 o'clock. Mother was building a fire in the kitchen stove. I saw her pour kerosene on the wood and then the explosion came. The room was a mass of flames and when I jumped out of bed, I could here my mother screaming in the next room but I couldn't see her because of the flames and smoke.

"In a short time, the other room was on fire and I could hear screaming from all sides. It was terrible. My nightclothes caught on fire while I was trying to find my way around in the smoky room. The flames got hotter all the time and I couldn't hardly stand it any longer where I was so I ran outside and rolled in the snow. I didn't know what to do then after I had put out the fire on my clothes but I wanted to do something to get everybody out of the building before they would be burned to death.

"I returned closer to the house and then I heard my father say to someone inside 'get a blanket, quick.' Then there was a lot of screaming inside and I could hear my sister Alice crying 'help me' but I couldn't see her any place because of the smoke.

"Then two neighbors, (Frank Curiel, 20, and his step-father, C. O. Gerndt, 40), came running up into the yard. They were the first ones I saw. Then they pulled Alice and Erwin through a window but it was to hot and the smoke was getting so thick that they couldn't get any closer. Then Frank ran to the Duballs' where he called the fire department.

"While he was gone, the screaming kept on for a while but by the time Frank got back after calling the firemen, all I could hear was the fire. I knew then that Alice, Erwin and myself were the only ones to get out alive. And here I am now."

----- ----- -----

Contributors notes:

1930 Federal Census, McGregor, Mendon Township, Clayton Co., Iowa.

John E. Anderson, Head, Age 34, Born MI, Father born Swe., Mother born PA., was a machinist.
Lydia Anderson, Wife, Age 30, Born IA., Father born Eng., Mother born PA.
Cleofus Anderson, Son, Age 10.
Alice Mae Anderson, Dau., Age 8.
Gertrude Anderson, Dau., Age 6.
Betty Anderson, Dau., Age 5.
Erwin Anderson, Son, Age 3.

All children Born IA, Father born MI, Mother born IA.


WPA records show Jay E. and Lydia B. Anderson as buried in Pleasant Grove cemetery. More than likely their children are also buried there.

----- ----- -----

Photo captions:
photo on left: This picture of Mr. and Mrs. Jay Anderson, taken several years ago, shows two of the victims of the fire which cost weven lives at McGregor, Ia., Tuesday morning. Besides the parents, five of their seven children are dead. Of the two survivors, Gertrude, 13, who is a patient at a McGregor hospital, suffering from shock and minor burns, was the only one to escape death when the explosion set fire to the two-room home. The other surivor, Cleophus, 18, is engaged as a farm hand and was not at home when the tragedy occurred.

photo on right: Here is Gertrude Anderson, 13, only survivor of a family of eight in a dingy two-room home at McGregor, Ia., which was leveled by an explosion and fire early Tuesday morning. "It was terrible," she said in discussing what had happened at the home. "After mother had poured the kerosene on the wood fire in an attempt to get it going better, the explosion caused everyone in the house to scream. Luckily, I managed to escape but the flames and smoke beat me back when I attempted to enter the home to help my family."


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