Residents Rebuild in West Plaza After 1962 Gas Main Explosion

Eleven homes at 46th and Wyoming were destroyed in a 1962 gas main explosion. It took more than a year to repair the damage and rebuild the homes, but neighbors rallied to help those whose homes had been wrecked, and several families rebuilt so they could stay in the neighborhood.

A fiery explosion that leveled 11 homes and damaged 17 was not enough to drive away residents of the West Plaza neighborhood in 1962.

The whole city was shocked by the story that year, with headlines detailing the devastating blast and the lingering impact on the lives of the impacted families. A year later, neighbors were still cleaning up, removing charred black trees, replacing lost possessions, and putting their lives back together. But most stayed and rebuilt, and today, there are few signs of the blast that shook the area.

On July 2, The Midtown KC Post looked back at the early days of the block from Fairmount to Wyoming between 45th and 46th Streets. Residents began moving in around 1910.  Many were Swedish immigrants; some were born in France, Germany, and Switzerland. Many of the residents worked on the railroad. By the early 1960s, families with children shared the area around 46th and Wyoming with older, long-term residents. That block and the three adjacent to it were the most severely damaged in the 1962 explosion.

Such a disruption might have been enough to drive away those who suffered the most damage, but mostly, they stayed and rebuilt on the blocks.

A year after the explosion, Mrs. Adolf Baumgartner had built a new house on the site of her demolished one, with a new kitchen that was almost exactly like the old one. Next door, Mrs. Henry Beyer was just moving into a new duplex where her old one had been reduced to rubble. Mrs. and Mrs. Charles Dobbe, who lost their home at 4540 Wyoming, had moved just across 46th Street to a new home they erected at 4603 Wyoming.

At 4542 Fairmount, Blanche and Anna Tavenner, aged 76 and 81, needed to clean up buckets of plaster and glass before they were then able to move back in. Neighbors and strangers chipped in to help replace what they had lost. One stranger whose parents had lost everything in the 1903 flood read the sisters had lost all of their china. She sent them a new five-place setting; they were thrilled because their old dishes didn’t match, and their new ones did.

This map shows the West Plaza area in 1925, before the blast that destroyed 11 homes there. The homes in red were completely destroyed in the explosion, and a dozen other adjacent homes were damaged.

The Day the West Plaza Exploded

by Joe Montanari (Former West Plaza neighborhood president and historian Joe Montanari shared his excellent story about the blast. It was published several years ago in the West Plaza Neighborhood newsletter.)

As you walk through West Plaza today, you will notice mostly 1920s-era bungalows. But when you reach 46th and Wyoming, you will see a number of 1960s ranch-style homes, along with a few more recent additions. These homes are the tangible reminder of one day back in 1962 when West Plaza neighbors found out just how important good neighbors can be.

Friday, August 3, 1962 was just another quiet summer day. Most of the neighbors, like Billie Attwood, 4601 Wyoming, and Charles Dobbe, 4540 Wyoming, were at work that afternoon. The neighborhood kids were enjoying the last few weeks of summer vacation. Teenagers tuned in WHB on their transistor radios to hear Chubby Checker do the Twist and Little Eva do the Loco-Motion. Neighbors who were lucky enough to have air conditioners had them turned up high, as the temperature reached a sizzling 92 degrees, while the rest stirred the sultry air around with window fans.

West Side Story had won Best Picture that year, and the Kansas City Athletics were heading for the cellar yet again. President Kennedy had delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech the week before, and Soviet missile shipments to Cuba were about to ignite the Cuban Missile Crisis only six weeks later. It was the height of the “Cold War,” but there was nothing cold in Kansas City on that day. It was hot and sticky, and about to get a lot hotter. At precisely 3:15 p.m., with no warning at all, a 30-inch-wide high pressure gas pipe erupted beneath the intersection of 46th and Wyoming, sending the asphalt pavement, rocks, and dirt flying in every direction.

Some neighbors, like James Lacey, 4523 Wyoming, thought it was a sonic boom. Air Force jets from Richards-Gebaur had been making frequent passes across the summer skies, and the resulting sonic booms were fairly common. Glenn Aikens knew better. The 42-year-old man had been painting a house at 45th and Wyoming when the blast knocked him backward off his ladder. Mrs. Jessie Addison knew better, too. She was looking out a second story window of her home at 4544 Fairmount when the explosion occurred. “I heard a loud swishing roaring sound and saw the pavement heave up like dynamite exploding on a mountainside.” James Lacey had to concede that it was no sonic boom when he saw that the blast had knocked all the windows out of his house.

The explosion was followed by a brief interval of eerie silence. Neighbors poured into the streets to see what had happened. Detective Sergeant Dan Breece of the Kansas City Police Department, who just happened to be driving down Wyoming, began warning neighbors to evacuate their homes and to call the Fire Department. Fortunately, many had already begun to do so, for nine minutes after the initial blast, the gas, which had been gushing out of the ruptured main, ignited with a tremendous explosion that shot flames more than 150 feet into the air. One by one, houses caught fire. A south breeze blew the fireball north on Wyoming, setting ablaze nearly all the homes on the 4500 block.

It was pandemonium as neighbors scrambled to locate their children, their husbands, wives, loved ones, and pets and evacuate their burning homes. Some, like Mary Baumgartner, 61, 4547 Wyoming, bailed out the door into her back yard, only to find herself surrounded by fire. “It was like black coals falling from the sky,” she said. Though she couldn’t remember how, she made her way to the street, where she ran north, until a wall of fire forced her back south, then east to safety on Fairmount.

The fiery inferno was so intense that Fire Chief Hughes and Fire Director James Halloran saw it from the 23rd floor of City Hall and called in a general alarm before rushing to the scene. In all, 21 fire companies responded, 13 from Kansas City, Missouri, 5 from Kansas City, Kansas, and 3 from Mission, along with about 250 KCMO police officers, who helped evacuate the neighborhood, performed crowd control, and patrolled for potential looters. Before long, many of the neighbors who were still at work heard the news that something terrible had happened back home.

One young working mother named Moore had left her boys, two-year-old Craig and one-year-old Philip, in the day care of Mrs. Cora Vernon, 70, who lived at 4523 Wyoming. When Mrs. Moore called Mrs. Vernon from work to check on the boys, the telephone line was dead. Rushing to Mrs. Vernon’s home, Mrs. Moore discovered the Vernon home a charred wreckage. An unknown woman approached her and told her not to worry, that her babies were safe. “I must have looked so frantic that she knew I was the mother.” Mrs. Vernon had been in the basement with the children when her house caught fire, and a man came to the door and helped carry the two children to safety in Westwood Park. Mrs. Moore found them there, safe with Mrs. Vernon, thanks to the kindness of a man neither she nor Mrs. Vernon ever knew.

Billie Attwood and his wife were both at work, and their three boys, Michael, 11, Charles, 9, and John, 6, were at home at 4601 Wyoming when the first blast occurred. The three Attwood boys ran from their burning house, joining other neighbors in Westwood Park. “When the explosion came, I could see shingles blown high in the flames,” Michael reported.

Charles Dobbe returned from work to find his home completely destroyed. He finally found his wife, safe, but sobbing that they had lost everything. He comforted her, telling her, “Thank God you’re all right. We can get other things, honey, but we couldn’t get another you.”

Gas Company crews sealed off the broken pipe, and by 5 the Fire Department had extin­guished all the fires. Neighbors whose homes were spared cautiously returned home by 7:30 p.m.

In all, 23 West Plaza homes burned that after­noon. Eleven burned to the ground. The property damage was so great and so sudden that police, fire and rescue personnel expected serious loss of life. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured. Mrs. Baumgartner suffered a broken finger. A few people had minor cuts, bruises, scrapes, and burns.

There were acts of real heroism that afternoon. Told that there was a child trapped inside a burning car, Merriam Police Captain Michael Donohue suffered burns on his face and arms attempting to rescue the child. It turned out there was no child in the car. There were countless acts of kindness by neighbors warning other neighbors, by the Police and Fire Departments, by Red Cross volunteers, and by that stranger whom no one ever identified, who helped Mrs. Vernon carry the two babies to safety. Mr. Julius Kern, whose home at 4546 Fairmount was nearly destroyed, was sitting on the curb in front of the charred remains. He observed, “I think my tomatoes are shot.”

Editor’s Note: To see photos of the West Plaza just after the explosion and comparison shots in 2009, go to


5 responses to “Residents Rebuild in West Plaza After 1962 Gas Main Explosion”


    I think there are a couple of minor errors. It is said that all the homes on the 4500 block of Wyoming burned. Not true! I was only 8 years old, but lived at 4506 Wyoming and don’t recall any fires near this end of the block.

    The address for Mrs Vernon was given as 4523 Wyoming, which is where the Lacey’s lived. I could be wrong, if she lived in part of the house? But the house isn’t very large and there were 2 or 3 Lacey boys, that I rarely played with, as they were quite a bit older than myself and very rough! It was surely some years later, when one (or more?) of them knocked me down and briefly lost consciousness. Mrs Vernon could have lived on the second floor?

    I appreciate the work you do and the history reminder as well as new info that I learned. Thank you!

    1. Sharon P Martin Avatar
      Sharon P Martin

      Correction, the article says that NEARLY ALL the homes on the 4500 block of Wyoming burned, not that ALL of them burned. However, I’m not sure that this is an accurate representation?

      But I’m impressed with the many details and facts described, so eloquently, with humor and amazement of what happened. It’s an awesome story telling report…I’m at a loss for words, but Joe Montanari wasn’t! Great work!!!

    2. Sharon:
      Thanks for adding your recollections. Often street numbers changed over the years. Joe and I were working from old newspaper clippings, which also sometimes get street numbers wrong. So it is not surprising that a few of the house numbers might be off a bit.


    Great story, Mary Jo and Joe! Thank you!

  3. great story!!!

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