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Witnesses remember Purdue bleacher collapse more than 70 years later

Not many people are around anymore that remember the Purdue bleacher collapse of 1947. But these two men remember the events like it just happened.

Posted: Feb 28, 2020 10:37 AM
Updated: Feb 28, 2020 11:25 AM

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — There are not many people left who remember one of Purdue University's most famous tragedies. The ones who are though, say it seems like it was just yesterday.

Two local alums, now in their 90s, will never forget February 1947.

If you head to Purdue's campus about 10 a.m., you will find 92-year-old Olin "Augie" Martin walking the track at Lambert Fieldhouse.

"Practically every day of the year!" Martin said.

Martin is the definition of a Boilermaker. He went to Purdue, played baseball for Purdue and worked for Purdue.

"A lot of people know me because I think I've been in every building and every room on campus in my 40 years that I worked at Purdue," said Martin.

Now more than 70 years later, he still recalls what happened in the building he exercises in daily. Martin was a witness to the deadly Purdue bleacher collapse of 1947.

"That's the thing I remember about Lambert Fieldhouse," said Martin.

Nobody Likes a Monday

It was Monday Feb. 24, 1947, nearly two years removed from the end of World War 2. Purdue's campus was full of GI's. 

"Nobody likes a Monday, but that day was an exciting day on the Purdue campus," said Purdue Historian John Norberg. "That evening at 7 o'clock, the Boilermakers were going to play Wisconsin in a basketball game here in the Fieldhouse."

The Boilermakers were not having a great season, but had won their last four home games. Wisconsin was leading the Big Ten. 

The court ran north and south and had permanent seating on all the sides except to the east. Purdue had 4,000 students in 1944 as the war ended. By 1947, 14,000 students walked the campus. Purdue needed to increase the seating capacity. So, they bought temporary bleachers for the south end zone of Ross-Ade Stadium and the Purdue Fieldhouse. 

The game that day was a complete sell-out. There were 11,000 people packed into the stands, with about 4,000 on the temporary ones. 

As the haltime buzzer sounded, Purdue took a 34-33 lead over the Badgers into the locker room. 

"Purdue fans stood up to cheer and clap and get excited, and as the players left, they sat down in unison," said Norberg. "As that happened, the bleachers on the east side of the Fieldhouse started to collapse."

The Stands were Flat

Bill Berberian was the starting guard for the Boilermakers that day. He may be 96 now, but remembers is vividly.

"I didn't see it because we went down at the half," said Berberian. "But when I came up, the stands were flat. They had kept telling people, 'Move in, move in.'" 

Martin had a different perspective. He was a junior working at the scorer's table right across from the stands.

"It was a slow fall down," said Martin. "It was kind of floating. It was surprising it didn't crash. It made a lot of noise, but didn't crash like you would think. A lot of people fell through."

"People who were there described it like an accordion, collapsing on itself," said Norberg. "It was like riding down on a roller coaster. Somewhere deep under those bleachers,  there was a structural support that broke. Then another thing broke, and another thing. A series of things went wrong."

Some students were fortunate enough to put their legs in the air and ride the bleachers to the ground. Others got their limbs caught inside. Students became trapped, lying all over the floor.

"I had a lot of friends who were going to school with me who had broken legs," recalled Berberian. "It was really a catastrophe."

The floor became scattered with benches, broken planks and blood. 

"It looked like someone had taken a matchbox and just thrown matches out," said Norberg.

Reports claim between 250 to 300 students were injured. Three were tragically killed.

Lived Through War, Died Watching a Basketball Game

Roger Gelhausen got an early jump on the halftime line at the concession stand. He had jumped through the bleachers and was killed instantly.

"He had been in the Navy, and came back here and died watching a basketball game at his university," said Norberg.

Another student, William Feldman, was crushed and died later that night. 

"He was in the Army and air service and had flown 60 combat missions and survived it. He came here and died watching a basketball game."

The third student, Ted Nordquist, died the next day at the hospital. He had been in the Merchant Marines and had a wife who had moved to West Lafayette to be with him. 

Lafayette Airwaves Saved Lives

Martin recalled sitting next to the "Voice of Purdue," John DeCamp. The legendary WBAA radio announcer was broadcasting live when the crash happened.

"I kept track of what he said over the radio," Martin recalled. "He described every detail so precise."

What DeCamp called for, historians said saved lives.

"He said, 'We need ambulances, we need doctors, we need nurses,'" said Norberg. "Funeral homes brought in hearses. People came in trucks to take students to the hospitals. A Greyhound bus dropped off its passengers, came here empty and took 45 students to the hospital." 

One Good Thing

The Fieldhouse at the time was full of former servicemen and women who had been through war. They were used to injuries.

"These veterans started helping the students who were injured," said Norberg. 

Historians described the scene as amazingly calm. After all, these students had just been through war.

"It was calm, but everyone went over to help," Martin remembered. "All the students and staff stayed in amazement and watched."

"There was a young female student who had a compound fracture," said Norberg. "There was a bone sticking through her leg broken. A doctor said she was completely calm and smoked a cigarette while he stabilized her." 

'Wonderful' in the Face of Tragedy

Purdue President Fred Hovde and the Indiana governor immediately launched an investigation that found the manufacturer and the people who installed the bleachers were at fault. Lawsuits were settled within the next few years.

The second half of the game was not played that day. The game was made up at Evanston High School in Chicago, a midway point. Purdue lost the game 72-60.

"The Purdue players said that they wished it would have been played a the [Lafayette] Jeff Gym, because it was better," Norberg said. "The Evanston High School gym had fan-shaped backboards, which they didn't like."

Wisconsin ended up finishing third in the NCAA Tournament that year. The Boilermakers lost the rest of its games. 

Purdue ended up voluntairly paying all the medical and funeral expenses for the injured and killed.

"One mother went out and bought a headstone that cost, in today's dollars, more than $8,000," said Norberg. "R.B. Stewart (Purdue Treasurer) didn't blink an eye and paid for it. It was just a horrible day, one of the worst in Purdue University history."

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