The Liberty Building Explosion

Shortly after the 1936 flood waters had receded and cleanup was well under way, disaster struck Waco again. On October 4, the Liberty Building on Austin Avenue and Sixth Street exploded, fatally wounding 65-year-old janitor Warren Moore and causing an estimated $290,000 in damages to the structure, as well as those adjoining and nearby. Fortunately it happened on an early Sunday morning without the usual hustle and bustle of the busy Waco downtown area, or else casualties could have been much higher. Businesses affected by the incident included the F. W. Woolworth Co.; Law Offices of Sleeper, Boynton, and Kendall; Walgreens Drug Store; Pipkin Drug Store; and Goldstein-Migel department store. Other businesses suffered minor damage, and isolated injuries to people were reported.

A Waco News-Tribune article from October 5, 1936 detailed the Liberty Building's damages: “With its first three office floors converted into single rooms by force of the explosion Sunday morning, the Liberty building showed destruction from its basement to its roof.” The structure next door, F. W. Woolworth Co., suffered an estimated $75,000 in losses due to fire. The law office located on the fourth floor of the Liberty Building sustained serious damage. Its law library, several thousand volumes of books, was its greatest loss. The blast completely destroyed Pipkin Drug Store on the first floor. The nearby Walgreens Drug Store suffered heavy damage to its storefront and interior. 

In the aftermath of the explosion, investigators wasted little time searching for the cause of such a devastating accident. One initial theory was that a massive buildup of floodwater had overburdened the city’s sewage system and triggered the blast. However, the Liberty Building’s location on Sixth Street and Austin Avenue proved to be too much of a distance from the most affected areas closer to the river for this theory to be plausible.

After almost two years of thorough investigation, engineers determined that the explosion was caused by a gas leak from a loose coupling device on a two-inch pipe in the Liberty Building’s basement. Records from gas companies showed a surge in pressure around the time of the explosion. Based on some of Warren Moore’s statements before his death, it is believed that a spark from a light switch ignited the gas leak as the janitor turned out lights before seeking assistance with the sudden gaseous odor. Unfortunately, that well-intentioned move cost him his life. 

Images

Broken Glass

Broken Glass

The force of the explosion shattered windows as high as the sixth floor and left blinds dangling haphazardly like twisted skeletons within the bare frames. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Disaster Draws a Crowd

Disaster Draws a Crowd

In the explosion's aftermath, curious onlookers replaced regular shoppers on Austin Avenue. Here, a group of men survey the damage while one of the dislodged awnings of the Goldstein-Migel department store blocks the sidewalk behind them. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Damaged Goods

Damaged Goods

Merchandise spills out of the gutted storefront of F. W. Woolworth Co. The popular discount variety store suffered an estimated $75,000 in losses due to the fire started by the blast. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Amidst the Rubble

Amidst the Rubble

A recovery worker endeavors to navigate a retail space wrecked by fire. Given the extensive damage to the building, it is not surprising that it took investigators more than two years to determine the exact cause of the explosion. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Laid Bare

Laid Bare

This chaotic pile of damged goods was all that remained post-explosion of Walgreen Drug Store's once inviting display windows. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Havoc in the Library

Havoc in the Library

The law office located on the fourth floor of the Liberty Building lost its entire law library—more than a thousand volumes of books. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Geoff Hunt, “The Liberty Building Explosion,” Waco History, accessed May 26, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/43.

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