Good Life

Memories of a blast from the past are still alive in Bellefonte

An explosion on Nov. 15, 1965 caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to the Nease Chemical Company east of State College.
An explosion on Nov. 15, 1965 caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to the Nease Chemical Company east of State College. Photo provided

It’s nice to think that letter carriers still appreciate a little effort once in a while.

The mailbox belonging to one Mr. Leonard Ripka sits atop a semi-melted steel beam in Bellefonte, looking to most of the world like somebody let a quarter of the air out of a long, red balloon.

An interior decorator would probably coin its condition as “distressed.” It has character, as they say — as much a conversation starter as it is a receptacle for bills and Pizza Hut coupons.

In fact, people pay hundreds of dollars for this kind of effect every day. All Ripka had to do was call dibs at the site of a massive chemical explosion.

It’s kind of amazing what some people will just throw away, right?

If it would have been during the day, with the office workers there an everything…

Leonard Ripka

The date was Nov. 13, 1965, and the Nease Chemical Company was in business on Route 26, east of State College. Ripka, about 29 years old at the time, had clocked in at about 5:15 p.m. to perform some brief maintenance work.

Barely two hours later he was back at home — and that’s where he heard the sound. Others in the area would confuse the concussive boom that split suddenly through night sky for the sound of an airplane breaking the sound barrier, according to an article published Nov. 15, 1965, in the Centre Daily Times.

The wicked crack echoed throughout Milesburg, Howard and Unionville and nobody guessed that what they were actually hearing was the sound of a leaking pipe.

Ripka said that they never figured out precisely what sparked the explosion. But whatever reacted with the fumes that were released blasted the only two workers on site through the outer plant doors, shattered the windows in several nearby homes and killed upward of 4,000 fish in Spring Creek, the CDT reported.

“If it would have been during the day, with the office workers there an everything …,” Ripka said.

The unfortunate duo who had the dubious distinction of experiencing the explosion up close and personal were taken to Centre County Hospital and treated for flash burns. Both survived.

Ripka and his brother drove to the plant later that night to inspect the destruction. The Alpha Fire Company from State College had called in support from units in Bellefonte, Pleasant Gap and Milesburg.

It was like a miracle, you know what I mean? Becaue I could have been right there in it.

Leonard Ripka

The damage would eventually be evaluated at approximately $400,000, but it’s difficult to put an exact dollar amount on rubble. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Fish Commission temporarily relocated 300,000 trout — approximately 45 tons of fish in total — from Spring Creek to ward off the effects of contamination.

“Nobody hurt. Oh my goodness, that’s truly amazing,” Ripka said.

Alongside his fellow employees, Ripka would work seven days a week to clean up all of the debris from areas surrounding the plant, eventually snatching the same piece of twisted steel that now greets the U.S. Postal Service on a daily basis.

It’s been a little more than 50 years since the explosion. Nease Chemical ceased operations in 1973.

Ripka is now 79 years old, but still marveling at his good fortune.

“It was like a miracle, you know what I mean? Because I could have been right there in it,” Ripka said.

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