While others ran outside to escape the fire, Duane Dittrick ran past the blaze to grab a fire extinguisher.
It was June 28, 1955. His workplace at the time – Consumers Warehouse Market on College Street – was going up in flames after a fireworks display somehow caught fire.
Three people, including two children, would die before the day’s end.
Newspapers across the country splashed news of the tragedy across their front pages, from Oregon to Virginia.
Dittrick, then a 19-year-old produce manager, attempted to put out the fire with what he called inadequate fire extinguishers. He had recently joined the Marine Forces Reserves.
“That’s who I am,” said Dittrick, now 82, from his Salisbury, Missouri home, shrugging off the notion that he was brave that day. “I don’t think I’m anything special.”
He remembers the whistling sound the fireworks made as they ignited, right before “all hell broke loose,” he said.
“It blew the top off the grocery store,” Dittrick said. “It was something I wouldn’t want to go through again.”
Firefighters found him lying on the floor. Dittrick does not recall what happened after he tried to extinguish the fire. He spent the next few days in the hospital, where lawyers descended on him like vultures, trying to get him to sue the store. He refused, citing loyalty to the company.
The explosion blew out the large plate glass storefront. A draft sucked flames through the building. The fire shot 25 feet out the front and curled over the roof before firefighters could put out the blaze.
Firefighters found the bodies of a woman and two girls in the ruins of the restroom in the one-story concrete block and brick building, according to News-Leader archives. The three had sought shelter in the restroom from the swiftly spreading fire.
If they had chosen another nearby door, they might have reached the outdoors safely.
Authorities identified the victims as Margaret F. Click, 56, of Miller; Mary Edith Williams, 11; and her sister, Linda Kay Williams, 7.
The Williams sisters were reported to have gone to the store to fetch milk for a neighbor.
Only three or four customers, including the dead, were reported to have been in the building. The fourteen employees besides Dittrick fled to safety through a rear door.
They escaped injury, seconds ahead of the flash fire that gutted the interior within minutes.
The origin of the fire was undetermined, although many believed the blaze started at the fireworks display counter at the front of the building, according to press accounts. The location of the display prevented people from escaping through the front door.
The fireworks on display inside the half-block long store exploded, spewing flaming debris throughout the structure, one of the city’s largest.
“The fireworks went off all of a sudden,” said Harold Wright, assistant manager of the store, known as Consumers Warehouse Market No. 3.
“We don’t know how it started,” he was quoted as saying. “Some of the workers grabbed fire extinguishers, but it got started too fast for us to stop it.”
Clarence Wheeler, co-owner of the store, estimated the loss at $275,000.
Consumers, which had other stores around town, announced it would no longer sell fireworks.
Then-Mayor Warren Turner called a special meeting of the City Council to consider a resolution to ban the sale of fireworks within city limits. It passed and remains in effect today.
(Read the original article shared by the Springfield News-Leader here.)