Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Mark Price’s 2002 story on the 1961 Crystal Restaurant disaster
Mark J. Price, BJ’s expert on nostalgia, wrote about the Crystal Restaurant disaster in 2002.
Here’s his reply to my email and the story he wrote 13 years ago about the 1916 calamity, which is far better than the one I wrote, of course:
Hi, John ...
I wrote about the Crystal Restaurant disaster more than a decade ago. The 2002
story reappeared as a chapter in my first book, "The Rest Is History: True Tales
from Akron's Vibrant Past."
Next year marks the centennial. It would be nice to commemmorate the incident with a memorial plaque. Here's an electronic copy of
DINER DISASTER A FORGOTTEN TRAGEDY
There was barely enough time to scream.
One minute, the Crystal Restaurant was filled with customers. The next
minute, the Crystal Restaurant was gone.
The downtown Akron building collapsed like a house of cards, burying its
horrified occupants in a jagged mass of bricks, glass and lumber.
The disaster was so sudden that patrons were trapped at their tables and
waitresses were entombed beneath the counter.
Before the dust could settle, nine were dead and 30 were injured in one of
the worst catastrophes in Akron history.
The date was May 15, 1916.
Restaurant owners George and Gust Serris were trying to keep up with the
dinner rush at 145 S. Main St. Families, downtown workers and out-of-town
visitors had packed the eatery.
The brothers always prided their establishment on its "swift service,
sensible prices, courteous treatment and high quality."
They had opened the Crystal Restaurant in 1913 at Main and Quarry (now
Bowery) in a narrow, brick building that served as the Akron Beacon Journal's
home from 1898 to 1911.
On this evening, the dining atmosphere was less than ideal. Customers were
jostled by the bone-jarring noise of excavation.
Workers were clearing an adjacent lot for construction of the new Delaware
Building, and a crew from the Franklin Bros. Co. was using dynamite to blast
away large sections of rock.
An angry Gust Serris stormed out to complain at 6 p.m. He told the crew that
the explosions were rattling dishes and ruining dinner. Five minutes later, two
more blasts shook the building.
And then the world turned upside down.
"I was standing behind the counter near the long mirror, cutting bread,"
waitress Clara Leonhart, 23, later told the Akron Press. "I saw the glass give
and the heavy tile counter tilt toward me. I screamed when I saw the south wall
The brick wall collapsed with a thunderous crash, pulling down the roof. The
building shuddered violently, the floor caved in and the other walls began to
"I was startled from my meal by the sound of crashing glass," reported Sgt.
E.A. Blair of the Ohio National Guard. "I saw the large plate-glass windows in
front of the restaurant bent as though with a strong wind."
Beams and bricks rained on diners. It all happened so fast, witnesses said
there was little time to react.
"The front of the building sank with a deafening, splintering crash, and I
saw several people go down with the broken timbers like flotsam in a whirlpool,"
The kitchen was the only part of the restaurant left standing. Had it
fallen, the ensuing fire would have raced through the debris, claiming a higher
Blair and about 15 others escaped harm by rushing into the kitchen and
exiting through a back door. Nearly everyone else was trapped in the rubble.
"I remember falling, then waking up in darkness," Leonhart told reporters.
"Below me I could hear groans and screams. Sometimes they were louder than
others. I could hear things move above and below me. With the movement, the
screams seemed to increase."
The collapse could be heard for blocks. A gray cloud of dust rose above the
city. Hundreds of worried citizens rushed to help.
Safety crews and volunteers combed the rubble for victims. Many of the
survivors were buried for up to 15 minutes.
"I could hear men tramping above me and when the tramping grew louder, the
weight pressed harder and harder," Leonhart recalled. "Every minute I expected
to be crushed as the wreckage was moved to take out bodies."
Bruised and bloodied survivors were rushed by stretcher to City Hospital and
Peoples Hospital. The lucky ones suffered only broken bones and cuts.
Nine of the victims were beyond help. Some were crushed to death. Others
suffocated before rescuers could find them.
Tragic tales emerged from the mountain of debris.
Waitress Mary Gallup had been employed at the Crystal Restaurant for only
two hours. She and her husband, Edward, had moved to Akron six days earlier in
search of a better life.
"My wife is in there! My wife is in there!" Gallup cried after pushing
through the crowd. "Save her! Save her!"
He later had to identify her body at the morgue.
William and Annie Lawson were enjoying a night out with their 5-year-old
daughter, Mary. Having finished her meal, Mrs. Lawson decided to step outside
for fresh air.
"I am through, but I'll stay with Papa," Mary said.
Mrs. Lawson exited onto the sidewalk as the restaurant collapsed behind her.
She suffered minor bruises. Her husband and daughter died at their table.
Akron recoiled in horror at the disaster. There were immediate calls for
State inspectors determined that Franklin Bros. Co. had planted dynamite too
close to the restaurant. The building collapsed because its foundation had been
There would be no criminal charges, however. No state law had been broken.
"To bring a charge that could result in no more than a nominal fine for an
act that cost the lives of nine would be mockery at the law," Mayor William Laub
Franklin Bros. faced 42 lawsuits from victims' families. By 1917, the
company had settled every case, paying $75,000 total.
In late 1916, George and Gust Serris opened the New Crystal Restaurant at 6
N. Howard St., where they continued to offer "swift service, sensible prices,
courteous treatment and high quality" through the mid-1920s.
The restaurant eventually returned to South Main Street, undergoing a
succession of owners, addresses and incarnations. The Crystal name endured for
decades in Akron and was still being used as recently as the 1970s.
Today, the 1916 disaster is forgotten. Most who pass the Delaware Building
are unaware of its tragic beginning.
That was predicted long ago.
A few days after the collapse, an Akron Press reporter went to the ruins and
discovered hundreds of people standing in the rain, staring at the "death hole."
Two women were conversing quietly in the crowd.
"Do you think people will remember the horror?" one asked.
"For a time," the second one said. "But they soon forget."