The Deadly 1963 Indiana Ice Show Explosion

Even by today's standards — when cell phones record car accidents or crime scenes and the images get uploaded to the internet without a second thought — the black-and-white photos showing the aftermath of Indianapolis's deadly 1963 explosion during a "Holiday On Ice" performance still have the power to shock. From above, cameras capture the rink floor of the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum serving as a makeshift morgue, as investigators and family members walk among the rows of shrouded bodies.

It was Halloween night in 1963, just three weeks or so before President Kennedy would be assassinated. The stands were packed with families watching a holiday-themed ice skating performance. As the Indy Star tells it, there were just a few minutes left in the opening night performance when everything changed in an instant.

What no one could have known is that a propane tank in the concession area had been slowly leaking and filling the air with combustible gas. All it took was an electric popcorn machine to come into contact with the gas, and a huge explosion rocked the arena.

What witnesses to the Indiana Ice Show explosion saw

The details of what happened next are particularly chilling. The force of the blast shot spectators high into the air. Some were thrown onto the rink, parts of others rained down from the ceiling, along with massive chunks of concrete. The explosion created a crater that still others fell into, victims who were then covered by more falling concrete.

Indy Star quotes reporter Bill Robinson's chilling, eyewitness account: "For a few seconds, no one cried out. Then, there were screams and cries of agony and the audience jumped from their seats as if in unison and started rushing for the exits. The orchestra continued to play."

The aftermath evokes comparisons to a battlefield, as some of the grievously injured appeared to be sitting in shock, separated family members rushed to find one another, and rescuers covered the dead with whatever they could find to afford them some final dignity.

The Ice Show explosion's aftermath

Despite the carnage, news reports also highlight the ingenuity and teamwork of people coming together to help in any way they could. Aside from the onsite morgue, Indy Star reports that a cattle barn was turned into a hospital and that nurses and doctors still in school were called up for duty.

Such a massive effort was needed, because more than 4,000 people had been in attendance that night. Making matters worse, says the Courier-Journal, a second blast occurred after rescuers had rushed in to help. In all, 81 people were killed and more than 400 injured.

Investigators working to uncover how this tragedy could have happened found clear negligence. Not only were the propane tanks not supposed to be used indoors, but they also lacked safety caps, says the Courier-Journal. Even so, the tragedy might have been avoided had authorities done the proper inspections before showtime, but they did not. Indiana Public Media reports that though many were charged for their role in the disaster, ultimately, no one was ever convicted. The victims and their families received settlements, but not much more.

The following fall, the Courier-Journal reports, a little band called The Beatles took the stage at the reopened Coliseum. When Holiday on Ice came back around a few weeks after that, Hoosiers, it seemed, were going to make the best of it; 5,000 people showed up — even more than had been in attendance the night of the disaster.