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A Tragic Accident

Hearn House

The following is an excerpt from a letter written by Lena Allen Conner, Florence's mother, describing the accident in which her husband, Thomas Ganaway Conner, was killed. Grandfather Conner was a civil engineer whose job was to oversee the operation of the city gas plant. The letter, addressed to Lena’s brothers and sisters, is in the form of a carbon copy.

T. G. Conner standing outside the Andalusia, AL gas plant. Photo taken just before his death on April 7, 1942

Andalusia, Alabama
April 19, 1942

I want to apologize for this way of writing, but I think I could not bear to write it over and over again, yet I am sure you want to hear more of the details of the awful tragedy. I may write many irrelevant lines, but please forgive me, for I am hardly coherent yet–maybe never will be again.

On Friday April 3, Tom found the screens of the machinery in a clogged condition. He worked on it until quite late that night. It all is SUPPOSED to be automatic, but he always found it needed a lot of nursing along, and very delicate adjustment. He worked off and on Saturday and Sunday “getting it adjusted” and on Sunday night after I had retired, and when he was ready to retire, he gave a look at his gauge, which he always watched closely, and he decided he would have to run down to the plant again before he went to bed. He roused me enough to tell me where he was going and why, then I dropped back to sleep.

At 12:30 I was aroused again by the fire alarm, and before I could get my light on, the telephone was ringing and just these words came over the wire, “The City Gas Plant is on fire!” The minute I discovered that Tom had not been to bed I was much alarmed, but I could get no satisfaction from the phone. There is no phone at the plant. I dressed and waited, hoping to hear any minute from Tom to reassure me about the fire, but when several minutes had passed and no message, I tried to get information from Central but they had nothing to report and promised to report anything to me that they heard.

Another wait until I could stand it no longer, so I called the hospital and they told me that Tom was there badly burned. I told them I would come at once, but as I had no way to get there except call a taxi, one of the doctors had the Chief of Police to come for me. Tom was still in the operating room when I got there. As soon as he was brought out and I could talk with the doctors, they told me at once how fearfully he was burned, and held out absolutely no hopes. After he came out from under the ether he was able to say a few words to me, but his suffering was so much, with his eyes swollen till he could not open them, and his face and lips more than double the normal size, it was too hard for him to speak. His left arm, hand, shoulder, all of his back to below his knees, his chest, neck, right forearm and a place above his left knee in front [were burned]. His hands were terrible. He said to me that the reason his hands were so bad was because he “had to keep on working AFTER he was burned.”

We have figured out that when he put up the ladder and went up with the wrench to the top of the tank to cut off the gas at its source, was the time his hands were so bruised. His nails were pulled out and they were bleeding. There was no one with him at first, and only when the negro was awakened by the explosion and went to him was there any one to help him. The account in the Star is incorrect in that it mentions his “negro helper.” There are negroes all around the plant, and the one who reached him first lives just outside the wire fence.

It was at least 3/4 hour before he got to the hospital and he walked in and up the stairs alone, but with his clothes literally stripped from him. His hat had protected his hair, and that part of his head was the only part of him I was able to touch.

I am so glad that he did recognize me for a few minutes. I helped the nurse give glucose. [Handwritten note in the margin: He was given 3 transfusions of blood plasma.] He was in such pain he was unable to keep still. Soon after, the doctor gave him morphine, then a second dose before he was quiet, then he went into a coma from which he never rallied. He lived for 27-1/2 hours, but he was the same as dead for 20 or 21 hours. . . The burial was in our local cemetery, the funeral service being held in the church at 11:00 Wednesday a.m.

That awful Monday is still so fresh in my mind, but I am praying that I may forget that and remember only his supreme sacrifice and glorious triumph. He died that others might live, without a doubt. My sacrifice is petty beside his and I do stand humbly and reverently in the presence of his passing.