Explosion in Springfield kills fairgrounds maintenance worker

Thursday, June 19, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- A maintenance man was killed Wednesday when an explosion ripped apart a building at a fairgrounds in southwest Missouri.

The explosion, reported at 12:08 p.m., damaged at least a half-dozen other building at Ozark Empire Fairgrounds in north Springfield. Residents living nearby said it shook homes, knocked screens off windows and spewed debris into the air. No other injuries were reported.

Maintenance worker Brad Murphy, 34, of Springfield, was alone in the Frisco Building when it exploded, Springfield assistant fire chief Barry Rowell said. Severe head trauma was the suspected cause of Murphy's death, although an autopsy was planned for today, Rowell said.

It was not immediately clear what Murphy was doing at the time. The Frisco Building -- which typically houses a train exhibit during the fair -- was being used for storage, Fair Director Marla Calico said.

"We had some old signs, paints -- storage-type things in the building," she said.

The building did not use natural gas, but authorities were hesitant to exclude it as a possible cause of the explosion. Utility crews were inspecting neighboring buildings to see if a leak elsewhere may have caused fumes to seep inside, Rowell said.

Murphy was not breathing when firefighters found him buried under a mound of rubble, Rowell said. He was taken to a Springfield hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

"He was trapped," Rowell said. "We did have to use hand tools to remove debris to get to him."

Calico became teary eyed as she recalled hiring Murphy last summer to pickup trash and do other odd jobs.

"He came into my office and said he needed a job," Calico said. "He really had such a sweet spirit. He was very dedicated."

Murphy grew up near the fairgrounds and had sold soda at the grandstand as a teenager, she said.

'He loved the fair'

"He loved the fair and he loved working here," Calico said.

The explosion scattered debris over a 200-yard radius, including at the nearby Dickerson Park Zoo. The zoo's operations were not affected.

It was unclear how the explosion would affect the fair, scheduled for July 25-Aug. 3. Some events and exhibits will have to be switched to other buildings, but the explosion was not expected to force a cancelation, Calico said.

The Frisco Building was about 6,000 square feet, officials said. It was built as a Works Progress Administration project about the time the fair opened in 1937. It had been used in past years to display exhibits about Missouri's link to railroading. Fair officials were working to change it to focus more on Ozarks heritage.

A portable fire station that serves as temporary headquarters for firefighters during the fair and two sets of restrooms were heavily damaged. A handful of others buildings -- including a root beer stand, and a funnel cake stand -- suffered minor damage.

Authorities inspect all buildings before the fair starts. Rowell could not recall there being any past problems.

William Weaver, a maintenance man at Interstate Apartments across the street from the fairgrounds, said the explosion shook two structures at the apartment complex and knocked some screens off windows.

"We heard a big old boom," Weaver said. "We saw debris go straight up in the air 100 feet. It was like a mushroom. It was a pretty good blast."

Donna Martin, who lives at the apartment complex, said the explosion rattled her windows.

"It was something like I never heard before," she said. "I didn't know what it was."

The Ozark Empire Fair Board of Directors has leased the property from the Springfield-Greene County Park Board since 1937. The Greene County Agricultural and Mechanical Society of Springfield manages the fairgrounds.

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