The moment I read the essay, I knew I had to write a book about the return of LeBron James to the Cavaliers.
The essay was written with Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated. Some people told me they thought Jenkins really wrote it, and that he basically put the words in LeBron’s mouth.
But most people told me, “I read it and I cried.”
I’m talking about guys.
I’m talking about fans who were outraged when LeBron left the Cavs in 2010 for Miami, announcing it during the infamous “The Decision” show on ESPN.
I’m talking about people who said they’d never forgive LeBron for what he did to the Cavs and Northeast Ohio.
Not all of them were so open, so forgiving.
But most were, because they sensed the same thing that I did — LeBron was sincere.
“Who am I to hold a grudge?” LeBron wrote.
He was discussing his meeting with Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert and how they worked out their differences, setting up his return to the Cavs in the summer of 2014.
I quickly realized there has never been a story quite like this in the history of sports — at least, not Cleveland sports.
Here’s the greatest player of his sport at the time. And the player is from Northeast Ohio — from Akron. And he had left home to work elsewhere — like so many Northeast Ohio adults have done.
But part of him longed to go home.
Part of many people from Northeast Ohio longs to come home. I know. They write me . . . a lot. Email after email about Cleveland sports. They talk about how stories online make them feel at home.
People from the rest of country don’t get it. They never will.
Why would LeBron want to go home? Why would he want to return to a team that had the worst record in the NBA in the four years when he was gone? Why would he want to play for an owner who ripped him in an inflammatory email? Why would he want to live and work in Northeast Ohio when he can live and work somewhere else?
But we know why.
We know the hold Northeast Ohio has on us.
We know something else — the team that wins a title in this town will be legendary.
LeBron knew it, too.
As a kid, he said he was a Dallas Cowboys fan. He wore a New York Yankees cap. He insisted he was from Akron, not Cleveland — and said there was a huge difference.
But as he aged, LeBron began to understand. He never sold his house in Bath after signing to play for the Miami Heat. In the offseason, his home base remained home — Northeast Ohio.
He owns houses in different parts of the country, but this would always be home.
And there was something else.
It’s become a cliche . . . so many times, so many players supposedly have “unfinished business.”
But that was reality for LeBron James and Northeast Ohio.
Even if he never won a title, it was going to be a remarkable story.
While I’m not on the Cavaliers beat for the Plain Dealer, I write about them a lot in my job as a columnist. Nearly every Sunday, there are two pages of “Terry’s Talkin’ ” notes in the Plain Dealer. They cover all three teams. I talk to officials from each team virtually every week for notes.
I develop relationships. I interview people for on-the-record stories from the Plain Dealer.
Not long after LeBron returned, I began collecting material for a book — and saving interviews.
By the middle of the 2014–15 season, I started writing a few chapters. When LeBron carried a battered Cavs team into the 2015 NBA Finals, I seriously began to research and outline a book.
So this is not a quick book that began with the Victory Parade to celebrate the Cavs’ title. The actual writing was over a period of 18 months.
In fact, when the Cavs were tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals with Toronto, I asked a few friends, “If they lose this series, what should I do about my book? Maybe I should hold it for another year.”
But the Cavs came back to win that series. And they came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. And suddenly, I had to finish the book because I had the ending of all endings . . . one I always wondered if I’d ever have a chance to write.
A Cleveland team won a title in my lifetime as this became the comeback story of all comeback stories in the history of Cleveland sports.
[This excerpt begins in the late afternoon on Monday, May 6, 2013, after Charles Ramsey left his local McDonald’s at West 32nd Street and Clark Avenue and headed to his home at 2203 Seymour Avenue, next door to Ariel Castro.]
I rolled up on my house and parked my bike on my porch. I went in the house, took a seat on my couch, and took a bite into that juicy Big Mac. Life was tough, but it was good.
And then something happened that would change the lives of so many people in so many ways . . .
Sitting there, burger in hand, I heard a sudden banging from next door. At first I didn’t know what to make of it, and I wanted my sandwich. But the banging continued. It got louder. Then I heard a woman’s scream—the blood-curdling scream that you would hear if a kid got run over by a car.
Children playing on the street froze. Then more cries for help. I thought I’d seen Ariel go off to work, so I had not a clue as to what was going on. I looked outside and saw this Dominican dude, Angel Cordero, run across the street and onto the sidewalk. Without putting down my sandwich I ran to the sidewalk where Angel was standing.
BANG BANG BANG.
“Who the fuck is that?” I asked Angel.
“I don’t know,” Angel said, “but I’m not going up there.”
I knew that Angel and Ariel didn’t like each other, not for anything specific other than Angel was Dominican and Ariel was Puerto Rican. I guess that made them something like natural enemies within the Hispanic world, I don’t know.
“Ok, I’m gonna check it out,” I said. “You watch my back.”
Big Mac still in hand, I ran up to Ariel’s porch while Angel stayed behind. There was this young, attractive white woman, wearing a white tank top, clutching a child, lodged behind the storm door, banging and screaming.
“Get me out of here! Get me the fuck out of here!” she shrieked.
I was stunned. I had believed all this time that Ariel lived alone. I had never seen anyone over there other than him, other than the little girl I thought was his granddaughter. I figured this was some sort of domestic violence thing, a situation I was all too familiar with.
I stood on the porch. “How the hell did you get in there?” I asked this frantic woman. She had squeezed her left arm out from behind the storm door and was in no mood for a conversation.
“Just get me outta here!” she yelled.
I grabbed the storm door handle and yanked. Then I noticed the door was locked shut from the inside. I gave a couple more yanks, but that door wasn’t going to budge. The girl gave the bottom panel a few meager kicks.
“Get the fuck back, bitch,” I yelled. “I’m gonna kick the door in.”
So I kicked that bottom panel with everything I had. Nothing. I picked my leg up and kicked it again, beating in the bottom panel of the aluminum door but not all the way. In my mind I knew I better act fast—not because it was time to be a hero, but because I was taking my own life into my hands. What do you think would have happened to me if a neighborhood of Puerto Ricans saw a scary-looking black dude trying to kick down the door of one of their fellow countrymen? I gave it one more size 13 kick and the panel broke inward. The girl crawled out and onto the porch, where I reached down to help her up. She got up, clutched onto me, then turned around and reached back through the busted bottom panel. The child was crying hysterically. The woman then pulled the diapered child through the bashed-in storm door. It was a little girl about six years old. She was screaming in terror.
But I recognized her! It was the little girl I had always believed was Ariel’s granddaughter.
Ariel spent a fair amount of time working on his cars and motorcycles in his backyard. He never cleaned up the oil or antifreeze that leaked all over the place. This little girl played with two oily dogs, a Chihuahua and a small white poodle, in Ariel’s grimy back yard. I had always wondered why I only saw the little girl and never her mother or father.
“Can you shut this kid up?” I said, more annoyed than anything.
“She just wants her daddy,” the girl said.
“Well then call the motherfucker!” I yelled.
“Ariel is her daddy,” she said.
Now I was really confused. Ariel had a kid? And who was this pretty little white girl and how did she get here? Nothing made sense.
The girl turns to me and says, “Call 911. I’m Amanda Berry.” At first, the name didn’t ring a bell. It sounded like she said Linda something. My cell phone was sitting in my living room, so I told her to follow me. We stepped inside my house, and I spotted my phone. I picked it up and handed it to her.
Amanda looked at the phone in bewilderment. Little did I know she had been locked down in there for 10 years. Little did she know how to operate a touch-screen cell phone.
“I don’t know how to work this,” she said, still panicked, her daughter still screaming. I took the phone and punched in the three numbers, putting through a call that would literally be heard around the world. My language was coarse, but in a panic situation like this I didn’t have time to refine my King’s English.
The 911 operator answered, and I let it fly.
“I’m at 2207 Seymour, West 25th. Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald’s, right? I’m on my porch, eating my li’l food, right? This broad is tryin’ to break out the fuckin’ house next door to me. So, it’s a bunch of people on the street right now and shit, so we like well, what’s wrong? What’s the problem? She like, ‘This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter and we been in this bitch.’ She said her name was Linda Berry or some shit, I don’t know who the fuck that is. I just moved over here, bro.”
“Sir, sir, sir, sir. You have to calm down and slow down,” the dispatcher said. “Is she still in the street?” Sorry to say this, but that operator was a fuckin’ moron. I wasn’t yelling or screaming or talking over him.
“Yeah, I’m lookin’ at her. She callin’ y’all. She on another phone.”
I had told Amanda to call 911 herself because I was convinced that the police were going to think I was some screwball crazyass, especially after dealing with that moronic operator.
“Is she black, white, or Hispanic?”
“Uh, she white. But the baby look Hispanic.”
“Okay, what is she wearing?”
“Uh, white tank top, light blue, uh, sweatpants. Like a wife-beater.”
“Do you know the address next door? That she said she was in?”
“Yeah, 2207. I’m lookin’ at it!”
“OK, I thought that was your address.”
“Nah, I’m smarter than that, bro. I’m telling you where the crime was.”
(At this point, the dispatcher asked for my name and phone number. When the Cleveland Police first released the 911 tape, this part was not edited out. Later, after the world had already heard it, most media outlets bleeped that out.)
“And the people she said that did this? Do you know if they still in the house?”
“I don’t have a fuckin’ clue, bro. I’m just standing here with my McDonald’s.”
The dispatcher asked if she needed an ambulance. I asked Amanda, and she said to send everything.
“She in a panic, bro. I think she been kidnapped so, you know, put yourself in her shoes.”
“We’ll send the police out.”
“There you go!”
I’m gonna say this here once and only once. There have been several people on the news and on the Internet who said Angel Cordero ran up to the door and kicked it in. Others said this lady Aurora Marti, who lived across the street, ran up to the porch. They’re all mistaken or fuckin’ liars. Their motivation? Hard to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some were trying to weasel in on reward money. If anyone has any question, just ask Amanda Berry: Who kicked in your door, the Dominican guy or the black guy? In fact, Cleveland Police detective Andrew Harasimchuk asked Amanda that very question. Here’s what he said later, at Ariel’s sentencing hearing in August:
“She was able to open the main door of the home, then the storm door. The screen door was locked and she couldn’t open it.
“She began banging on the glass and calling for help. At this time a man and a woman from across the street came to Ariel Castro’s yard and while there in the yard, a man from next door also came over and was up on the porch and began telling Amanda to kick out the bottom panel of the door.”
Twenty five years ago this week Amy Mihaljevic disappeared from Bay Village, Ohio, but investigative journalist James Renner hasn’t stopped trying to solve the mystery behind her murder. He believes that someone may have information that can solve the puzzle and they may not even know it. In this sample chapter from his 2006 book Amy: My Search For Her Killer, Renner breaks down the final hours of Amy’s life before she is last seen in a parking lot across from the Bay Village police department. He believes that details such as these may encourage someone to provide the information that investigators may need to solve the crime.
Minute by Minute
The day Amy was taken, Bay Village was enjoying an Indian summer. Though it was late October, a balmy breeze cut off Lake Erie. It was the last breath of summer warmth before the world fell cold again until spring.
A little after 6 a.m., Amy awoke and dressed herself. Sweats again. She picked out green pants and a pale green sweatshirt with lavender trim. She brushed her hair and slipped on her favorite earrings, silhouettes of horse heads rendered in turquoise, mounted on gold studs.
On the way out the door, Amy put on a white windbreaker; it was still a little chilly first thing in the morning. She slipped on a pair of black riding boots, laced up the front. She slung a blue denim book bag with red piping around her shoulders, having recently grown too old for that silly koala backpack.
Outside, she climbed onto her blue antique bike and met up with Kristen Balas and Katy from down the road. Together, they pedaled to the middle school.
Amy sat at her desk in Ms. Stewart’s classroom before the 7:50 a.m. bell.
The students’ schedules were abbreviated that day thanks to an assembly at the nearby high school. Amy and her friends climbed onto buses for the short ride. Olivia Masiak, who was new to Bay Village but had become fast friends with Amy, sat alone as the other students stepped inside.
“I remember you, you’re Liv! I haven’t seen you in such a long time!” Amy shouted, pretending that they had just been reunited after twenty years. Amy was always play-acting with her friends. She slid into the empty seat next to Olivia. They sat next to each other at the assembly and listened to officer Mark Spaetzel talk about the dangers of strangers. (Masiak and several other students remembered the talk taking place at the high school assembly; Spaetzel, though, recalls giving it in Amy’s classroom at the middle school.)
Later, Amy ate spaghetti for lunch in the school cafeteria.
For many of her classmates, the school day was nothing special. Events meshed together with the days and years that came before. It’s hard for most of them to recall when they last saw Amy alive.
Renee Moran later told a reporter that she thought Amy had been oddly quiet the whole week. Elizabeth Jeffers remembers talking to Amy near her locker sometime on Friday, though she cannot pinpoint a specific time. Kristy Sabo recalls passing the door to Amy’s classroom and seeing her friend scribbling on a piece of paper.
Classes let out that day at 2:10 p.m. for the fifth-graders. Normally, Amy would reclaim her bike from the rack, but this day she left it behind.
“Can I walk with you?” she asked Olivia Masiak, as she jogged up beside her.
“You never walk this way,” said Olivia. (Amy would normally have been on her bike.)
“I’m meeting someone,” Amy answered. “I’m meeting a friend.”
A few minutes later, they crossed in front of the shopping plaza.
“This is where I’m at,” Amy said.
A classmate named Haley Pritchard, walking a few steps behind them, watched Amy dart over to a black van. It looked like Amy knew the owner of the vehicle. But then, Amy stepped away and walked toward Baskin-Robbins. She did not go into the ice cream shop. She stood outside, swinging around a pole, keeping her head down, apparently lost in thought.
Across the street, almost every cop in Bay Village was assembled for a weekly staff meeting called by Chief William Gareau. A few patrol cars remained on duty. Around 2:30 p.m., one of those cruisers pulled into the plaza.
Outside Bay Lanes, a group of older kids nervously watched the officer approach. Dan Monnett, Nicky Kline, Jill Prochaska, and Dave Kotinsley were skipping last period, enjoying the last perfect afternoon of the year. The cruiser stopped in front of the gang, and the officer stepped out to give them a stern talking-to. Avoiding the cop’s eyes, Dan looked over to the girl in front of the ice cream shop and watched her swing around in lazy circles.
Less than twenty feet from Amy, Jim Kapucinski loitered outside his barbershop, surveying the parking lot. Not that there was much to see. His business was empty, as was everyone else’s, practically. There were only five vehicles parked there, and those probably belonged to the employees of the other various shops. He casually monitored the teens standing by Bay Lanes.
A fifth-grader named Julius Holinek was in the plaza, too. He was the second eyewitness that Maddie did not want to name. And he also watched Amy twirl around. However, it’s hard to say exactly where he was standing. Though he witnessed Amy’s abduction, he has remained silent about the crime. As of this writing, he was living in Florida, having graduated college as a star football player. He did not respond to repeated interview requests. His parents said the experience was too troubling for him to remember. But he was, after all, able to live his life.
It was around 2:45 p.m. when Maddie approached Baskin-Robbins.
“Amy!” Holinek called out. It sounded like a taunt to Maddie, so she watched him to see if he might bother Amy. And she watched as a well-dressed man in a beige jacket walked up to her instead. He leaned forward and whispered something in Amy’s ear. He put his arm around her and led Amy away.
Must be her dad, Maddie thought.
Ten minutes after 3 p.m., Amy’s brother Jason arrived home. He called Margaret’s desk at Tradin’ Times and told her Amy was not there.
A few minutes later, Margaret’s phone rang again. It was Amy. Margaret assumed Amy was calling from home. Amy told her mother she had stayed after school for choir auditions. But she seemed odd, as if she was rushing the conversation along. It so unnerved Margaret that she packed up her things for the weekend and left work early.
Margaret pulled into the driveway on Lindford Drive at around 4 p.m. Jason was there. She soon realized Amy had never been home. She also realized Amy must have lied to her, though she couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t like her. Maternal instinct kicking in, she rushed to the middle school. Amy’s bike was still in the rack. It was a detail that terrified Margaret. It seemed to suggest something terrible. Things were off-kilter. This was not routine, not normal. She had never known Amy to lie.
Later, Margaret would learn it was only the promise of surprising her with a present that caused Amy to make a series of poor choices that day.
From school, Margaret drove to the police station and relayed her feelings to Officer Barbara Slepecky. Slepecky did not waste time treating Amy as a runaway, which is standard protocol. She believed in Margaret’s instincts. Somehow she knew this was the real deal.
A call went out to officers in surrounding towns at 5:58 p.m. The call included an incomplete description of Amy.
Mark Mihaljevic, unaware of the growing storm that would batter his life, arrived home from work at 6:30 to find his family fractured. He spent the rest of the evening scouring Bay Village with a friend. He drove his car down every street between his house and Holly Hill Farms, between the school and Huntington Park. He trampled through ravines and woods, calling his daughter’s name in all directions.
At 11 p.m., thanks to the efforts of Jeanne Silver—then Jeanne Sabo—Amy’s face was broadcast on the local news channels. Ohio was introduced to Amy Mihaljevic for the first time.
For the book, Bellamy writes about what made summer special for Cleveland kids in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. She also invited dozens of Northeast Ohioans to share their own childhood stories including these great memories of baseball in Cleveland. Here are just a few:
Before the Indians game, my Dad took my sister— who had won the tickets from the Cleveland Press for being a straight-A student at St. Mary’s grade school in Bedford—and me to the observation deck of the Terminal Tower. I had never been that high up and the view was magical; so were the sights I saw for the first time when we claimed our seats at the old Municipal Stadium. I remember being awestruck by the bright green, expansive outfield; the muted beige, well-groomed infield; and the perfectly straight, bright white baselines. That day I became hooked on baseball and baseball Indians. —Joe Jancsurak
* * *
We used to go to the Indians games and my uncle had something to do with the grounds crew, so we actually got to sit in the section on the third-base line where they would roll out the tarp.
This was pre-ball boys and they used to tell you, “You can’t go on the field.” Once, when a ball came down, I reached over—I had my mitt, of course. I got the ball, but as I reached over, I fell onto the field. I thought, “Oh my God, lightning is literally going to strike me. I’m dead. You’re not allowed on the field; it’s illegal.” I got up and the place was cheering me because I had done a flip-over. I was so nervous I hid. That’s the only ball that I got, and I don’t consider it to be a ball that was caught at the stadium. But it was great.– Steve Presser
* * *
I remember playing organized baseball and also pick-up games, including playing on the fields where the Lakewood Post Office is now, where the Giant Eagle is now at Detroit and Bunts, and at Harding and Emerson junior high schools. All the games were played during the day, and high school and
college kids were the umpires. Mostly, mothers managed the teams. I also played lots of pick-up games on school grounds. My wife and I both remember the men’s adult softball games at Harding under the lights. We would go watch them as a family, and I remember a candy store across the street. I was a ball boy for my older brother’s team. —Karl Riccardi
You wouldn’t know to look at it now. If you drive by 2025 Ontario Street today you might easily miss it: the sign simply says “Society Corporate Center,” an anonymous-looking business office. But on July 3, 1908, that address became history—terrible history, indeed—although it is almost completely forgotten today. You’d never guess, to look at its modern glass-and-trim front, that it was once the scene of a fiery, exploding holocaust that brought death to seven, injury to dozens, and a day of terror, tears, heroism, and shame to the city of Cleveland. For this is the site of the S. S. Kresge fireworks explosion and fire.
Let us set the stage for the chief actors in this melancholy tale. For Anna and Freda Trefall, sisters and fellow clerks at the Ontario S. S. Kresge store, the fateful day began early. They got up at 6 a.m. at their 2308 Carnegie Avenue boarding house, lest they be tardy when the dime store opened at 9 a.m. sharp. Anna and Freda were orphans from Wisconsin, who had come to Cleveland a year previously to live with their sister-in-law. Everyone noticed how close they were to each other; the coming day would offer sublime proof of their sisterly bond.
Mary Hughes, 27, of Whitman Avenue didn’t work at the Kresge store. She was an assistant to a downtown dressmaker. But the necessities of her job would bring her to the Ontario dime store that morning to buy some material for her work.
Ed Bolton didn’t work for the S. S. Kresge Company either. But his day as a shipping clerk at the W. P. Southworth store next door began early, too, and he expected to spend it slaving over the mountain of orders that had to go out before the July 4th holiday. Ed came from a surprisingly heroic bloodline: his uncle, Captain John Grady, had bravely lost his life fighting a terrible 1891 Cleveland fire, and three other uncles were members of the Cleveland Fire Department.
The day came early, too, for Jimmy Parker, four years old, of Ham p den Avenue. Jimmy’s father, George Parker, had promised Jimmy that this year he could join in the noisy fireworks at the Parker home. But first, Jimmy Parker had to go shopping downtown with his mother, Minnie . . .
Up early also that fine July morning was Luther Roberts, the janitor of the Kresge store. Luther was short, quiet and self-effacing—but his incredible courage would resound throughout the city before the day was done.
Winifred Duncan was excited that morning. Only 18, one of the many teenaged clerks at Kresge’s, she usually sold postcards on the first floor. But today she was going to do something unusual . . . and thereby step unwittingly into history.
The S. S. Kresge store occupied the first two floors of a four-story structure, with a restaurant in the basement and offices on the third and fourth floors. Toward the center and rear of the ground floor, a stairway rose upward, dividing at a landing into left and right flights to the second floor. From the right side of the landing, a balcony stretched out over the right rear of the store, forming a mezzanine level that contained the manager’s office. The second floor was generally unobstructed, with windows both at the front on Ontario Street and the back, facing an alley, where there was also a fire escape. The only dangerously obscure aspect of the building was this: although there was a rear exit to the building on the left side of the first-floor staircase, there was no exit whatsoever in the identical-looking area to the right of the staircase. There, instead of an exit, were three windows, blocked with temporary shelves and further secured with steel bars, wire netting, and sheet-iron doors to prevent break-ins from the rear alley. Under normal circumstances this layout presented no problem. But if someone were in a hurry to get out the back of the store and turned to the right of the staircase instead of the left . . . it might make all the difference between life and death.
Owing to the ensuing deaths and the confusion of the tragedy, we cannot know the exact sequence of events that day. We do know, however, that at about 10:50 that Friday morning, Mrs. Minnie Parker and her four-year-old son Jimmy entered the Kresge store.
Jimmy had been lured there by the sight of clerk Winifred Duncan, demonstrating a sizzling sparkler near the store’s front window. D. E. Greene, the store manager, had just ordered her to do so and had assured her that the sparklers were “harmless.” Winifred stood in the aisle, three feet wide, separating the postcard department from the ample counters of firecrackers, Roman candles, rockets, and sparklers that were stacked all over the first floor in that era of virtually unregulated Fourth of July mayhem.
This was the scene in Kresge’s as 10:50 a.m. arrived: Minnie and Jimmy Parker were watching Winifred demonstrate a sparkler. Manager Greene was in his mezzanine office with Cashier Celia Zak, scanning the day’s mail. Mrs. Fannie Frank, 50, a Collinwood Village matron, was shopping on the second floor with her four-year-old granddaughter, Grace. Mary Hughes, the dressmaker’s assistant, was probably in the sewing section on the second floor. Ed Bolton was next door at the Southworth Company, busily getting out the day’s orders. Miss Carrie Bubel, a clerk, was selling goods at her counter on the second floor. Erma Schumacher, 18, was pacing the floor, keeping a vigilant eye on the 50 or so female clerks who worked the floor. Although only 18, Erma had just been promoted to floorwalker, and it was well known that she aspired to even higher rank. Muriel Mayes, a Kresge clerk, was at her second floor counter. So, too, was Freda Trefall, while her older sister Anna worked downstairs. Mary Podowski, a charwoman, was awaiting change from the $20 bill she had handed a clerk. Andrew Lempke, a Kresge employee, was trimming lamps as he worked atop a ladder on the first floor. And staff pianist Hazel Thompson, one of the several Kresge pianists who demonstrated the store’s sheet music for curious customers, had just launched into a rendition of “I Don’t Want to Go Home in the Dark” . . . when all hell broke loose on the first floor.
This is probably what happened. After remarking to Minnie and Jimmy Parker that her sparkler was “perfectly harmless,” Winifred turned sideways toward a fireworks display that included an American flag. Sparks from the sparkler in her hand suddenly ignited the fabric of the flag, which in turn set fire to Mrs. Parker’s voluminous, flammable dress. As the two terrified women attempted to beat out the flames, sparks from the dress fell on adjacent fireworks counters and the fire and explosions began their deadly race through the store.
It was about as close to instantaneous combustion as you can get. The store contained about $30,000 worth of fireworks, and within seconds of the initial spark, the entire stock ignited in an inferno of blazing colors, dense smoke, and terrifying, deafening explosions. In a minute or less the entire first floor of Kresge’s was a fiery nightmare, with up to 200 panic-stricken shoppers and clerks trying to flee the sudden conflagration. Max Zucker, a customer on the ground floor, had a typical experience. One moment he was staring at the sizzling electric sparkler, and the next: “I heard a sputtering noise—a skyrocket whizzed past my face and darted over the heads of the crowd and set fire to combustible material on the counters. People around me stood aghast for a few seconds. A giant cracker exploded with a roar that set all into a mad dash for the front and rear exits.”
The fire spread with shocking speed, setting merchandise and people alike on fire as it raced from counter to counter, aisle to aisle through the store. The next morning’s Plain Dealer well conveyed the horror of the next few minutes:
Big piles of fireworks exploded and added to the noise and confusion. Giant crackers pounded and boomed, skyrockets whizzed through the crowded room, roman candles sputtered and flashed. It was a mimic battle, magnificent if it had not been so full of terror and death.
Several patterns of movement developed during the fire’s first minutes. On the blazing first floor, customers tried to escape in three directions. Those near the front headed for the Ontario exit. For those toward the rear, the aisles to the left and right of the rear center staircase beckoned toward seeming safety. This was true of the aisle to the left, a corridor that led to an unlocked door on the back alley. The corridor to the right of the staircase, however, led only to the rear wall of the store, blocked there by shelving and barred windows.
Things were better on the second floor. When it became apparent there that the first floor was afire, movement surged toward the front and rear windows, the elevator, and the staircase. The elevator was not working, and it was immediately abandoned after one attempt to use it. Most of the shoppers and clerks fled to the front and back windows and most of them survived, albeit injured and traumatized. Some, however, tried to escape down the stairs, and the vast crush and hysterical panic there quickly precipitated a pile-up of screaming, suffocating women, girls and children on the stairs and the landing on the ground floor. All of them were pulled out or managed to wriggle free and stagger into the inferno waiting below.
The evidence is that the fire department arrived soon after the fire started, but by the time the engines got there, Kresge’s was already a fiery pyre, with smoke pouring out of every door and window. Customers and employees were still streaming out of the exits and frightened women were leaping out the second floor windows. Firemen quickly deployed ladders and nets. The nets saved many lives but could not prevent some terrible injuries. Owing to the smoke, many could not even see the nets and fell beyond them to the pavement below. And quite a number of people jumped into the same nets simultaneously, injuring each other and bringing the nets crashing to the ground.
Let us see how our cast of characters fared. Poor little Jimmy Parker disappeared into the interior of the store during the first few panicky moments of the fire. His mother, although badly burned, frantically searched the burning store for Jimmy. Told, however, that a little boy had been rescued from the store, she was persuaded to leave and return home. By the time she got there her husband George had already identified Jimmy’s corpse at the county morgue.
D. E. Greene, the Kresge store manager, did his best. As he was in the middle of sorting his mail, an exploding firecracker alerted him to the danger. He immediately seized cashier Celia Zak and rushed her to safety outside on Ontario Street. He then returned and tried to save others until flames and smoke drove him back out into the street for good.
The chief hero of the Kresge tragedy was Luther Roberts, the Kresge janitor. Realizing that the elevator was useless, he began to smash open the windows on the second floor. He then went to the fatal staircase, clogged with screaming, writhing, piled-up bodies and began to drag and throw them out the back windows of the second floor onto the fire escape. Time after time, Roberts returned to the staircase, until the flames and smoke drove him back, “blinded and dizzy.” But he had cleared everybody from the staircase.
Roberts’s courage, if not his fate, was matched by that of Anna Trefall. When the fire started, 24-year-old Anna was working with several clerks on the first floor. Her companions immediately seized her and tried to drag her out the Ontario exit. She resisted, saying, “I must find my sister!” She broke free and ran toward the staircase to get to Freda on the second floor. Her first attempt failed; the hysterical sea of bodies surging down the staircase soon forced her back toward the Ontario exit and safety. But she again freed herself from the crowd and resumed the search for her 17-year-old sister. We don’t know the exact sequence of events after that, except that Freda was one of the last to make it down the staircase during the fire. Upon reaching the ground floor, she was immediately overwhelmed in the pile-up of terrified women there. An eyewitness saw Anna try to pull Freda toward the Ontario exit, and then saw both sisters stumble and fall to the floor. Freda and Anna Trefall died with the rest of those trapped by the three barred windows, their arms around each other’s necks. Freda’s dead face was so crazed with fear that her fellow employees could not identify her corpse.
Ed Bolton, too, proved himself a hero that July day. Becoming aware of the fire, he ran into the burning building. He dragged several persons out of the building onto Ontario and then reentered the store on his hands and knees to search for others, until the fire drove him out again. He then held nets for those leaping from the second floor.
This almost proved Bolton’s undoing. As a girl prepared to leap from the second floor, she opened her umbrella like a parachute to aid in breaking her fall. By the time Bolton shouted, “Never mind your umbrella,” it was already too late. As the young lady landed in the net, her umbrella smashed Bolton’s arm, breaking it and sending him out of the fray. Staying in character, Bolton merely had his broken arm set, returned home to change out of his wet clothing, and resumed shipping out the holiday orders for Southworth Company, Grocers Wholesale and Retail.
Mary Hughes was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The dressmaker’s assistant survived the crushing pile-up at the staircase—only to die with the rest of the victims by the three back barred windows.
Mrs. Fannie Frank of Collinwood was a heroine, too, that July day. On the second floor with her four-year-old granddaughter, Grace, Mrs. Frank quickly led the child to a window and out onto a projecting ledge. From there she jumped, holding Grace so as to shield her from the impact of the fall. Fannie hit the ground, injuring herself but saving Grace from injury. As Fannie put it, “I could not bear to think of what my daughter would say if the child was hurt.”
Erma Schumacher, the newly promoted floorwalker, died in character. When the fire started, she tried to stem the panic of her employees at the flashpoint—the staircase—and it was near there and by the three barred back windows that firemen found her body later in the afternoon.
Muriel Mayes, a second-floor clerk, was one of the first to escape from the second floor. At first she thought the explosions were the work of mischievous boys blowing off fireworks in the rear alley, but she eventually made her way to a front window and was the first person to jump into the nets below. She survived the jump, but was badly injured by the force of collision with the bodies that jumped into the net after her.
Miss Emma Schaef, 17, was something of a heroine, too, after a fashion. She had fled to the second-floor windows looking out on Ontario. There was a woman with a child there, afraid to jump through the suffocating smoke toward the nets below. So Emma pushed them out toward the net below. The woman missed it, hitting the sidewalk. Then Emma jumped—and missed it, too. The child was unhurt.
Miss Carrie Bubel, 18, had one of the fire’s typical injuries. Selling goods on the second floor when the fire started, she was paralyzed by terror for some minutes. By the time she got to the windows, everyone else had already jumped. She jumped, missing the net, breaking her left leg and spraining her right.
Let us not forget charwoman Mary Podowski. Just as she handed her $20 bill to a clerk, the fire exploded around her. Initially disoriented by the blaze, Mary recovered her nerve and began searching through the burning, smoky store for the clerk who had taken her money. After fighting her way into the store through the frightened crowd surging out, Mary finally spotted the clerk who had taken her $20 bill: “I want my money! Give it to me!” she shrieked. The clerk, who must have marvelled at Mary’s single-mindedness, muttered, “Haven’t got it!,” as the surging, terrified mob swept the clerk by Mary and toward the Ontario exit. After the fire was extinguished, Mary could be seen, still in front of the smoldering store, weeping and sobbing over and over again, “My money! I want my twenty-dollar bill!”
The fire was over in about an hour. It had quickly gutted both floors of the dime store and outside the smoldering ruin milled multitudes of firemen, policemen, and spectators—the latter doing their usual best to impede the work of safety forces. The initial belief was that everyone had been rescued from the burning building. It wasn’t until about 12:30 p.m. that Fire Chief George A. Wallace and a crew of searchers entered the sizzling building and found seven bodies in the rear right alcove by the three barred windows. Captain James Granger of Cleveland Fire Company #1 (later chief of the Cleveland Fire Department) described the gruesome scene to a reporter from the Cleveland Leader:
“I heard what sounded like the mewing of a cat,” he said. “I had heard that sound before, however, and I shuddered. . . . [There] was a mass of humanity, it seemed, intertwined. There were [six] women. It seemed all had huddled together in the belief they would get air at that particular point, and when the fumes of the powder and paper became too strong all had given up at the same time. The arms of [most] of them were free, but their legs were intertwined so that it would have been impossible for any one to have dragged herself out. At the farther end of the bunch was a little lad. He was living.”
The lad was Jimmy Parker, who died soon after his removal from the store. The fact that he was still living when found may have led to the false report that convinced his mother he had survived.
By now, it had begun to rain, and the bodies were removed and laid in the muddy back alley behind the Kresge store. It soon became apparent, however, that two of the victims were still breathing. Two female trained nurses forced themselves through the police line and tried to revive the two survivors. Their efforts were in vain: Erma Schumacher was dead on arrival at Lakeside Hospital later that afternoon. The other survivor, S. S. Kresge clerk Elizabeth Reis, recovered consciousness at Huron Road Hospital before dying at 6:30 that evening.
The awful afternoon was not yet finished. While police and firemen searched the smoking ruins of the store and questioned survivors, heartbreaking scenes unfolded at the county morgue, where most of the seven bodies had been taken. Through it streamed a mournful procession of relatives, survivors, and a goodly proportion of the morbidly curious to see and identify the dead. Catching sight of his dead four-year-old son, George Parker collapsed, sobbing, “My son, my son! My poor little Jimmy!” Two sisters of Mary Hughes identified her corpse—by her teeth—but then became hysterical and had to be led away. Throughout that ghastly July afternoon crawled a sad procession of stunned men and women through that house of death, all with the same, simple, sad question on their lips, “Is my girl here?”
The rest of the S. S. Kresge fire saga—except for the ultimate legal result—is the stuff of sour anti-climax. The inquest, managed by Coroner Burke, began on July 9 and featured a parade of witnesses, rigorous cross-examination, and a lot of contradictory testimony. Winifred Duncan testified about her sparkler demonstration—but firmly denied that it caused the blaze. All witnesses corroborated her belief and that of the store management that the sparklers were “harmless.” Testimony disclosed that no one in the store knew that the right rear windows were barred—or even that there were windows there at all. Testimony also revealed that there had never been a fire drill in the Kresge store—and that it was not legally required. As to the display and storage of fireworks, all officials and witnesses agreed that it was in full compliance with all Cleveland fire and safety laws. Or as Coroner Burke lamely summarized the inquest: “I am satisfied that the law was violated in spirit, while it seemed no one was legally culpable. It was morally wrong for that condition to be permitted to exist.” The inquest concluded with the finding that while the fire was due to “carelessness in handling fireworks,” no one was legally at fault because everyone involved acted under the belief that the sparkler was “harmless.”
That wasn’t quite the end of the matter. Cleveland newspapers cultivated public outrage over the fire for several weeks afterwards. And the enduring outcome of the Kresge tragedy was a public demand for an end to the homicidal mayhem that had become the norm for Fourth of July celebrations. On July 6, 1908, Cleveland Councilman Daniel Pfahl introduced the following ordinance in Council:
That no person, firm or corporation, shall, within the city, sell, offer for sale or have in his or its possession or custody any toy pistol, squib, rocket crackers or roman candles or other combustible fireworks, or any article for making of a pyrotechnic display.
The Pfahl ordinance passed Cleveland Council by a vote of 21 to 11 on the night of Monday, July 13, 1908, and was soon signed into law by Mayor Tom Johnson. This landmark legislation and the tragedy that precipitated it were important milestones in the movement, ultimately nationwide, to end the annual toll of deaths and injuries due to fireworks. Other cities and states copied the Cleveland fireworks law and the Pfahl ordinance is remembered now as a pioneer triumph in the crusade for a “safe and sane” Fourth of July. So the Kresge Seven did not die entirely in vain—something to think about the next time you are stalled in traffic opposite 2025 Ontario Street.
Excerpt from The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio—A Memoir by John Gorman and Tom Feran
Welcome to Cleveland
Fourth of July 1973. Welcome to Cleveland. There was a dead pigeon on the windowsill of my room overlooking Public Square in the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel. Despite several calls to the front desk, the pigeon remained part of the decor for three long, hot, muggy days. It matched the desolate street scene below. Sure, this was a holiday, but still—at 10 a.m. there was not a single car or person on the street.
I’d come from Boston, the city I loved, to take the new job of music director at WMMS—a promising, “free-form” radio station whose program director and morning host, Denny Sanders, was an old friend in need of help.
Metromedia, WMMS’s former owner, had recently sold its Cleveland properties to Malrite Broadcasting, a small company relocating from suburban Detroit. Most of the staff, fearing an inevitable format change, had resigned. Denny was now program director, trying to keep the station on the air with a limited staff hired largely from the Cleveland State University station.
The clock was ticking. Malrite’s purchase of WMMS had been held up when a community group, led by activist Henry Speeth and a young councilman named Dennis Kucinich, convinced the Federal Communications Commission that the station’s progressive format provided a unique public service. Malrite, which planned to change it to country, agreed to retain progressive rock for one year, starting in January 1973. If the station failed to generate revenue and ratings, Malrite would be free to change.
Denny asked if I was interested in coming to Cleveland. I was. It sounded like a challenge and, maybe, fun.
Malrite was putting me up at the Sheraton-Cleveland for my first two weeks of employment. I was expected to find a place to live in that time. What furniture I had wasn’t worth the trouble of moving, and I hadn’t owned a car for months because Boston’s extensive transit system made one unnecessary. I had rented a small truck to move my records, books, files, and clothes, and I’d be searching for a furnished apartment on a bus or train route.
The Sheraton-Cleveland was frayed and musty. The hallway connecting to the Terminal Tower reeked of urine. The gutters on Public Square were littered with trash. Twelve blocks up Euclid Avenue, I was amazed to see a department store, Halle’s. It was the only sign of life in an area whose name, Playhouse Square, appeared suited only to history. Its theaters were boarded up, seemingly abandoned.
I drove my rented truck to the WHK-WMMS studios on Euclid Avenue near East 55th Street to meet Denny, who was waiting in the parking lot off Prospect Avenue. The building’s once-imposing facade at 5000 Euclid Avenue recalled the time, a generation earlier, when it was a glittering broadcast center, complete with auditorium and theater marquee.
Now it could have been a struggling old factory. The WHK call letters, on a vertical marquee, were grimy, and there wasn’t even a sign for WMMS. The back of the building was tarpaper. To its left on Euclid stood a bank; on the right was a Blepp-Coombs Sporting Goods store with Indians and Browns jackets in the window. The view didn’t improve inside the stations’ dingy lobby. It was a place where the woman who ran a small snack stand died behind the counter as she was closing up one evening, and no one noticed or cared until the stench became unbearable.
There were two other cars in the lot. One belonged to Hal Fisher, the general manager. Lugging a briefcase overflowing with papers, he was wrapping up a half day of work on this holiday morning. “You must be John Gorman,” he said as he shook my hand. “Welcome aboard. I’m looking forward to working with you.”
I hauled boxes upstairs, to the stuffy loft that was the music library and my office, while Denny got some paperwork out of the way, and decided to pass on a station tour in favor of lunch. My primary concern was finding a furnished apartment, and I pulled out the Plain Dealer classifieds as we waited for corned beef sandwiches at Hatton’s Deli, a few blocks down Euclid.