On Monday, May 3, 1982, an explosion occurred in the Marshfield Elementary School in Marshfield, Missouri (now the Hubble Elementary School). A high school student David Lee Nelson was unfortunately killed in the explosion. I was in 4th grade at the time and my teacher was Mrs. Burnham. The explosion occurred in the basement (boiler room) which was just below the gym. The 5th grade classes and the gym were in that area of the building. The 4th grade was just down the hall from the gym and if I remember correctly I was in the last classroom before the outside door which separated the 4th and 5th grades. In other words my classroom was not too far from where the explosion occurred.
I don’t remember everything about the incident except rushing out of the building and being ushered across the parking lot by the teachers and administrators. I remember sitting across the parking lot in the grass between the two high school buildings (now Webster Elementary School and the junior high school). I do remember being scared and wishing my uncle (who is a firefighter in a suburb of St. Louis) was actually there working the fire. (Remember I was young. It sounds silly now.) My middle sister Cindy Homeister was in 2nd grade. She said she was in music class at the time which was apparently in the hallway on the other side of the gym. She remembers someone coming into the room and saying get the children out immediately. She said they exited out a door at the end of the hallway (which was where the kindergarten was located) and into the playground.
School was closed for a few days while they investigated the explosion and tried to figure out what to do with all of the students. Although I don’t remember where they placed all of the students, my class and the rest of the 4th grade finished the school year in the high school gymnasium. They got us our desks from the school and they set up with some sort of dividers to separate the classes.
As far as I can remember we started fifth grade back in the elementary school building.
About a year ago I was in the Springfield-Greene County Library Center looking for something else and decided for some reason to look for information about the explosion. With the help of the librarian I was able to find articles in the Springfield newspapers. I would like to get to Marshfield soon and look up articles from the Marshfield paper. When I get those I will post them here also.
I realize this was probably a traumatic experience for some kids. However, if you are willing to share your memories with me, If you would like to share your memories during this time please feel free to comment below. If you have pictures from after the explosion, pictures of the school then or anything else, I would love to have copies of the pictures. I can scan them and return them to you or you can email them to me as a jpg. My email address is email@example.com.
My husband was the Police Chief in Marshfield at that time and my oldest daughter was in Kindergarten. She was in the morning classes so she wasn’t there when it happened. I remember everyone being very nervous about sending their kids back to school so friends would call me to see if I was sending my daughter. They were worried the officials weren’t giving out all the information so if I sent my daughter, it must be ok.
Explosion severly burns Marshfield youth
By Jeff Catron
Springfield Daily News
Tuesday, May 4, 1982, page 1A
An explosion at the Marshfield Elementary School Monday afternoon critically burned a 17-year-old Marshfield High School student and damaged a portion of the school building.
David Lee Nelson was transported to the St. John’s Regional Health Center Burn Unit by Webster County Ambulance Service with burns over 92 percent of his body, said Joe Costantino, public information director at St. John’s.
Costantino said the youth suffered third-degree burns over 87 percent of his body but was conscious when admitted around 3 p.m. Monday.
A dispatcher at the Webster County Sheriff’s Department said that Nelson was working as a janitor’s helper at the time of the explosion.
The cause of the explosion was undetermined Monday night. A spokesman from the sheriff’s department said the state Fire Marshal will arrive today to investigate the blast.
R.A. Barr, superintendent of Marshfield Public Schools, said the explosion occurred about 1:40 p.m. above the ceiling in the wing housing fifth-grade classes.
“There was a gas build-up, either LP (liquid propane) gas or sewer gas,” he said. “We don’t have any idea yet what caused it.”
Barr said the explosion occurred while classes were in session, but no other serious injuries were reported.
“Some of the students got some minor knocks on the head, but nothing serious,” Barr said. “The ceiling buckled and some debris apparently fell through.”
Approximately 950 youngsters were in the bulding at the time of the explosion, said elementary principal Charles Moody.
“It’s amazing no one else was hurt,” Moody said. “The teachers did an excellent job in getting everyone out.”
Barr termed the damage as relatively minor.
Marshfield firefighter Scott Routh who was one of the first on the scene said damage was confined to a relatively smal portion of the school.
“There was damage to a storeroom and the ceilings of two classrooms, one right next door and the other across the hall,” he said. “There was some possible damage to a classroom down the hall.”
The force of the explosion blew down ceiling tiles in the classrooms and in the hall, Routh said.
Routh said little fire accompanied the explosion.
“The[re] was some minor secondary fire,” he said. “Some class utensils and charts may have been charred a little, but most of the damage was due to the explosion.”
No damage estimate has been released, and a testing crew from an LP gas company will inspect the damage today, Routh said.
Upon arriving at the school, members of the Marshfield Fire Department roped off all exits and allowed no one into the building.
Moody said that was done because dangerous gas fumes might still have been in the air.
Barr said no determination has been made as to when school will resume.
“Students in that building will not attend classes tomorrow,” Barr said Monday. “It will be closed on a day-to-day basis.”
He said classes in the senior and junior high schools will go on as usual.
School blast proves fatal for student
By Cheri Duncan
Springfield Leader & Press
Tuesday, May 4, 1982, page 1B
MARSHFIELD – State Fire Marshall Bill Zieres was scheduled to examine Marshfield Elementary School today as officials try to determine the cause of an explosion that took the life of a high school student who worked there.
Meanwhile, other high school students this morning were facing the shock of realizing that one of their number has died.
David Lee Nelson, 17, a sophomore at Marshfield High School, died at about 10 p.m. Monday in the burn unit at St. John’s Regional Health Center. He suffered burns over 92 percent of his body after the explosion, which occurred at about 1:40 p.m.
Nelson was a student volunteer at the elementary school who assisted custodians part time and assisted a teacher part time., High School Principal Bill Walker said. The youth’s death has shocked the student body, he said.
“I talked with the sophomore class president. They’re kind of like every one else at this point – it hasn’t quite soaked in yet.”
The students will send flowers to Nelson’s family, and will consider some type of memorial, Walker said.
“It’s just really rather sudden. Beyond flowers, they are going to want to do something, but they haven’t really made a decision to come up with anything. I’m sure that, if needed, the entire community will support them.”
Two grade school students suffered minor injuries but were not hospitalized. Teachers and students cleared the building after the blast.
Elementary students did not attend classes today, and Superintendent R. A. Barr said he would not order classes to resume until he is informed by fire authorities that the building is safe.
“They’re going to have to tell us that it’s safe first. We’re on a minute-to-minute or day-to-day basis until we find out.” he said.
Charles Moody, the elementary school’s principal, said the gas supply to the one-story, brick school building had been shut off more than two hours before the explosion while workmen searched for the source of a noxious odor. He said the smell reminded him more of sewer gas than propane.
Moody said Nelson apparently had opened the door to a janitorial closet and turned on a light when the explosion occurred. There was no fire. School officials said the odor was noticed again about an hour after the explosion.
Moody said the force of the explosion spread upward toward the roof of the 10-year-old building and damaged ceiling and light fixtures in six classrooms.
Officials this morning were not sure what triggered the explosion.
“We have no idea what type of gas it is yet (that people smelled in the building). We’re planning on taking some samples from the building to the lab,” Marshfield Fire Chief Wayne Plunkett said. “There were people in and out of there all day yesterday so why it occurred, at this time we don’t know.”
‘Everybody liked David’ at Marshfield schools
By Kevin Madden
Springfield Daily News
Wednesday, May 5, 1982, page 1B
MARSHFIELD – Two janitors lowered the elementary school flag until it flew at half-mast Tuesday.
Teachers at the end of the day gathered in small groups to discuss the previous day’s tragedy.
High school students at the building next door made plants to attend a funeral.
David Lee Nelson would not return to school.
The 5-foot-tall, 17-year-old sophomore with curly reddish-gold hair died Monday in St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield as a result of burns he suffered during two explosions Monday afternoon at the elementary school building.
Nelson, who has peers remembered as a quiet sort and easy to get along with, was working there as a bolunteer janitor as he did every day during a study hall period.
Nelson’s best friend, Kenny Reese (??), a 15-year-old sophomore from Niangua, tried to go to school Tuesday, but he couldn’t stay.
“Me and him skipped school a few times,” Reese said, “And today, I left school and went back to a few of the places where me and him used to go.”
He remembered that before the explosions, nelson was preoccupied with what he would do during summer vacation.
“He was always talking about things he was going to do, like get his car fixed up.” Reese said.
“I don’t want you to think we’re eulogizing him just because he’s gone,” said high school teacher Diane Wycuff. “I’d take a whole English class just like him and I said that long before this came up.
“I preached to him quite a bit because he was too satisfied with the status quo,” Mrs. Wycuff said.
“I thought he had more potential than he thought he had – and I think that was the biggest fault he had.”
Kay Lawrence, who taught math (hard to read but I think this is what it says) and language arts to Nelson, a special education student, said, “He was friends to everybody.
“He had a good sense of humor and he was always joking. He would torment me. He’s sit up there next to my desk and grade my papers for me and tell me what I was doing wrong… He was just somebody you liked and you wanted to take under your wing and make sure he got the best of everything.
Earl Cook, a custodian at the elementary school where Nelson worked, called him “a good darned worker.” Nelson worked as a volunteer during school hours and as a part-time worker after hours. “He was always cutting up – full of energy and everybody liked him,” Cook said.
“Everyone liked David,” said Nelson’s grandmother Alma Manar, as relatives gathered around an old word-burning stove in the home Tuesday afternoon.
Mrs. Manar and her husband, Charles, reared Nelson, his brother Paul, 14, and sister Becky, 12.
Mrs. Wycuff, the English teacher, said Nelson’s death was particulary hard for her to accept, even compared to the recent death of her 49-year-old father, a local Baptist preacher.
“He (Nelson) was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said. “It bothers me a lot. It’s harder on my faith than Daddy’s dying. As a Christian I really have to pray more for faith to accept that my God’s still in control of the universe in spite of what happened.
“To my human mind, it seems so unfair,” she said. “in David’s case, it’s easier for me to ask, ‘Why God?'”
Fumes suspected as cause of blasts
By Kevin Madden
Springfield Daily News
Wednesday, May 5, 1982, page 1B
MARSHFIELD – Two explosions which rocked Marshfield Elementary School Monday afternoon and fatally burned David Lee Nelson, a high school student working as a janitor, are still a mystery to investigators.
State Fire Marshal Bill Zieres said the explosions apparently were caused when fumes emitted from a drain box in a basement room were ignited.
The explosions occurred at about 1:30 p.m. when Nelson entered a storage room – which is connected with the basement by a stairway – and turned on a light switch. He died Monday night in St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield as a result of burns sustained during the explosions.
The concrete-lined drain box, located in the basement floor and fitted with two underground pipes, was designed to handle underground water around the building’s foundation.
“There are fumes coming out of that (drain box) but we don’t know what they are,” Zieres said. “Sometimes you can actually see the vapor.”
Teacher earlier had complained to school officials about an odor which peaked in strength on Thursday, he said.
There were two explosions because teachers said children were told to get underneath their desks after the first explosion, Zieres said. During the blasts, suspended roofs were blown off their supports in the storage room, two classrooms, a hallway and the boys’ restroom. In addition, there were two small fires in the storage room and basement.
None of the children were seriously hurt, said elementary school Principal Charles Moody.
Zieres said he would submit air samples taken at the school to the Region II Crime Laboratory at Springfield Police Department today.
On Tuesday, liquid propane gas inspectors from the state Department of Agriculture inspected the pressure on gas lines running from the main gas tank to the school building, Zieres said. He did not know the inspection results. The inspectors could not be reached by telephone for comment Tuesday night.
Marshfield shifts elementary classes
By Kevin Madden
Springfield Daily News
Thursday, May 6, 1982
MARSHFIELD -Elementary school students, evicted Monday by explosions that killed a student custodian, will attend classes Friday at Marshfield’s junior high and high school buildings, superintendent R.A. Barr said Wednesday.
Classes have not been held in the elementary school since Monday afternoon when two explosions rocked the school and killed David Lee Nelson, a 17-year-old high school sophomore who was working as a volunteer custodian.
State inspectors have not determined precisely what caused the explosion, Barr said.
“We don’t want them in there and neither does anyone else. It might be safe one day and not safe the next. We want to monitor it a little bit to see what’s going on,” he said.
Fifth grade students should report to the junior high school building, Barr said. Third and fourth graders should report to the east high school building, while kindergarten, first grade and second grade students should report to the west high school building.
Elementary teachers will hold classes in rooms vacated by junior high and high school students, Barr said. “There’ll be some doubling up by some of the kids,” he said.
A few elementary classes may be held in gynmansiums.
All elementary students – except those in kindergarten – should bring sack or box lunches because the junior high and high school cafeterias cannot handle the increased number of students, he said.
Barr said he received no reports from liquid propane inspectors from the state Department of Agriculture. However, Mac Case, manager of Case Heaing and Sheet Metal Co. in Marshfield, said Wednesday that pressure tests failed to produce leaks in the school’s lines.
State Fire Marshal Bill Zieres said Wednesday he had not received the results of air samples taken at the school. He had submitted the samples Tuesday to the Region II Crime Laboratory at the Springfield Police Department.
The two explosions apparently occurred when fumes emitted from a crain box in a basement room were ignited, Zieres said. “There are fumes coming out of that, but we don’t know what they are,” he said.
The explosions occurred about 1:30 p.m. Monday when Nelson entered a storage room connected to the basement and turned on a light switch. He died about 10 p.m. at St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield.
Probe of fumes shuts down Marshfield schools
By Kevin Madden
Springfield Daily News
Friday, May 7, 1982
MARSHFIELD – All Marshfield schools will be closed indefinitely while investigators examine gaseous fumes in a building other than the one rocked by two explosions Monday, Superintendent R.A. Barr said Thursday night.
Schools officials and Marshfield firemen discovered the fumes coming from a drain box in the basement of the public school campus’ east high school building Thursday evening Barr said.
Investigators believe similar fumes from a drain box at the campus’ elementary school caused two explosions Monday afternoon which rocked the elementary building and fatally burned a high school student.
“It’ll be closed on a day-to-day basis,” Barr said of the elementary, junior high and high schools. Barr said he did not know when classes will resume. Investigators planned to have samples of the fumes analyzed.
A preliminary analysis of earlier air samples showed races of propane gas in fumes from a drain box in the elementary school basement room where Monday’s explosions occurred, state Fire Marshal Bill Zieres said Thursday.
In addition, a cigarette burn and a spent match were found near the drain box, Zieres said.
David Lee Nelson, a 17-year-old high school sophomore and volunteer janitor, was fatally burned in the incident.
Investigators quoted Nelson as saying the explosions occurred when he entered a ground-floor storage room at the elementary school and turned on an electric light switch.
The storage room is connected to the baseroom room by a stairway.
However, Zieres said Thursday an investigation showed the switch could not have ignited the explosions.
Marshfield Fire Chief Wayne Plunkett said he found the cigarette butt, match and a baseball cap near a drain box in the basement room. Plunkett said he did not know the cigarette brand.
Marshfield patrolman Richard Callaway said the filtered cigarette butt and spent match both would be analyzed by the Region II Crime Laboratory at the Springfield Police Department.
An open, near-full pack of Camel Filters was found hear the top of the stairway, Callaway said.
Authorities refused to say the cigarettes belonged to Nelson. However, Nelson’s friend, Kenny Reese of Niangua, said Nelson smoked Camel Filters and Marlboro filtered cigarettes.
Investigators also found a pair of eyeglasses and a wallet belonging to Nelson on the stairway, Callaway said.
Zieres said the air samples were analyzed by the Region II lab. “Everything they’re coming up with shows the presence of propane,” Zieres said.
The results also showed traces of butane, another flammable gas. No evidence of methane, which is sewer gas or natural gas, was found, Zieres said.
The Marshfield Fire Department planned to submit samples of liquid propane gas from the school’s supply tank to the Region II lab to see if they match with samples taken from the elementary school’s basement, Zieres said.
“When it’s all done, it’s going to be the schools district’s problem,” Zieres said. “I don’t have the authority to say when the school building’s safe. It’s all going to be on their shoulders.”
The concrete-lined drain box, located in the elementary school’s basement floor and fitted with two underround pipes was designed to handle underground water around the building’s foundation.
“We still have the fumes coming out,” Plunkett said. In addition, he said, an odor which smells like neither sewer gas nor propane is still present.
The elementary school’s gas supply had been shut off for more than two hours before the explosions while workmen searched for the source of a foul odor, said Charles Moody, elementary school principal.
Mac Case, manager of Case Heating and Sheet Metal Co. in Marshfield, said Wednesday the pressure tests failed to produce leaks in the school’s lines.
Fumes extend school year at Marshfield
By Kevin Madden
Springfield Leader & Press
Saturday, May 8, 1982
MARSHFIELD – Marshfield students will have additional days tacked on to their schedule as a result of mysterious gaseous fumes found at the elementary and high school buildings, Superintendent R.A. Barr said Friday.
The fumes found in the elementary school building are thought by investigators to have been the cause of explosions which rocked the elementary building Monday and fatally burned a volunteer janitor.
Classes originally were scheduled to end May 19, according to the school year plan, Barr said. However, Marshfield schools used up several “snow days” through the winter and the last school day had been changed to May 26. Currently the last day of school has not been determined.
Elementary school classes have not been held since Monday’s explosions, and junior high and high school classes were called off Friday after the discovery of fumes at the high school.
Although Marshfield Junior High School is heated with steam heat and is located downtown – separate from the joint campus of the elementary school and high school – junior high classes also were canceled Friday, Charles Cunningham said it would have been costly to operate buses only for junior high students while the other schools were closed.
School Board President Harry Staley said the classes will not resume until officials receive approval from investigators.
Marshfield Fire Chief Wayne Plunkett said firemen checked some residences near the elementary and high schools Thursday night after gaseous fumes were discovered coming from a drain box in a basement room in the east high school building. No similar fumes were found in the residences, he said.
Results of air samples taken from another drain box in the elementary school building showed traces of propane gas, Plunkett said.
The samples, which were received Friday, were analyzed at a chemistry laboratory at Southwest Missouri State University.
The results confirmed another analysis which found propane present in the drain box fumes at the elementary school building. That analysis was performed by the Region II Crime Laboratory housed in Springfield Police Department.
“We’re almost positive there’s got to be a leak” in the gas pipes, Plunkett said. The school district probably will have to pay for replacing the pipes, he said.
Monday’s explosions fatally burned David Lee Nelson, 17, a high school student and volunteer janitor. Nelson’s funeral Friday in Marshfield was attended by many teachers and students, as well as family members and friends, said Barr, who also attended the funeral.
Marshfield schools reopen
Springfield Leader & Press
Monday, May 10, 1982
MARSHFIELD – The Marshfield Public Schools reopened today after being closed last week when two explosions ripped through the elementary school killing a janitorial aide.
However, the elementary building where an explosion last Monday killed 17-year-old David Lee Nelson of Marshfield will remain closed for the rest of the school year, Superintendent R.A. Barr said Sunday.
The district’s 930 elementary students will attend classes in the district’s other school buildings, Barr said.
The investigation of the explosion is continuing.
Marshfield blast has unsolved questions
By Jill Young Miller
Springfield Leader & Press
June 20, 1982
MARSHFIELD – A small, charred U.S. flag lies amidst debris in the storage room for the elementary school here, where 17-year-old David Lee Nelson was fatally burned during two propane explosions May 3.
Nelson died the same day in St. John’s Regional Health Center after the explosions at Marshfield Elementary School. Nelson, a sophomore, volunteered at the elementary school as a custodian and teacher’s aide during school.
More than a month later, investigators remain puzzled about what ignited the propane fumes in the elementary school.
Now, a Springfield engineering firm, the Marshfield Fire Department and the state Department of Agriculture are working to make the elementary school and the nearby east high school building safe for fall classes.
They are working at the high school because members of the fire department had detected propane fumes in the basement there a few days after the explosions at the elementary school.
The explosions occurred about 1:30 p.m. on a Monday when about 950 students were in the school, said Superintendent R.A. Barr.
Nelson, who was tending custodial duties at the time, was the only person seriously injured.
Pressure from the explosions damaged a boy’s restroom, two classrooms and a hallway in the east wing of the school which housed fifth-grade classes.
Chunks of overhead ceiling tiles which the explosions tossed from their supports still litter the storage room floor. The room smells sweet and musty.
During a tour of the elementary school last week, Marshfield Fire Chief Wayne Plunkett pointed out where the door and one of the walls are marred by the blast.
A stairway to the right of the doorway connects the basement and stockroom. Plunkett said after Nelson entered the stockroom he simultaneously closed the door and flipped on a light switch, which lit the basement lights.
Propane fumes ignited in the basement, and fire rapidly funneled up the stairway, Plunkett said. However, he has not determined what ignited the fumes.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know for sure,” he said.
Unfortunately, Nelson was standing at the top of the stairs, Plunkett said.
“If he had been standing one step over here, or if the door had been open, he would have probably only gotten burned bad,” he said.
A concrete-lined drainage box in the basement was the source of the propane fumes, Plunkett said. “We had fumes in this hole. That seemed to be where the entire smell was coming from.”
Last week, Plunkett and employees from the Marshfield water department dug up a 20-foot propane pipe from the ground.
The pipe, which ran under a covered walkway at the elementary schook, had at least one leak in it. The fire department pressure tested the lines and discovered the leak.
They have not located the cause of profane fumes at the east high school building, but pipes in the elementary school and both the east and west high school buildings will be replaced, in accordance with recommendations from state liquid propane line inspectors, Plunkett said.
He said he thinks fumes from the pipe were trapped under the elementary school’s cement foundation, and, because propane is heavier than air, the fumes seeped to the area of least resistance in the school’s foundation – the drainage box in the basement.
The fire chief hopes to complete his investigation and submit a report to the state fire marshal’s office and Marshfield School Board within two weeks. Plunkett ultimately will decide when the school is safe for classes.
State Fire Marshal Bill Zieres, whom Plunkett called for assistance, completed his report within a week of the explosions. Under state statutes, Zieres is charged with identifying the cause of fires and explosions. His responsibility ends there, he said.
Zieres’ report says the explosions were propane, that ignition had nothing to do with light switches, and that a cigarette and match were found in the basement.
He lists the cause of the explosion as “probably accidental.” Zieres did not determine what ignited the fumes.
Zieres, who no longer is involved in the case, said he is not sure where Nelson was when the fumes ignited.
“It’s hard to say. We found his cap in the basement, his glasses on the stairs and part of his clothes at the top of the stairs. We don’t know where he was or where he might have run to.”
Plunkett said they also found several cigarettes and an open pack scattered on the stairs.
Plunkett does not believe Nelson was smoking.
“People who talked to him said he told them, ‘I opened the door and turned on a light switch,'” Plunkett said. Nelson was conscious after the explosions, and he talked to ambulance attendants.
Nelson knew there was an odor in the storage room, Plunkett said. Teachers at the elementary school had complained to school officials the week before the explosions.
“He knew there was a problem. I think he would have known better than to smoke. Most of these kids are not dumb,” Plunkett said.
Inspectors from the state Department of Agriculture examined the lines at the elementary school and submitted recommmendations to the School Board, said J.W. Abbott, director of the Division of Weights and Measures in the agriculture department. However, the divsion has not completed its investigation of the schools.
The recommendations refer to the kind of piping to be used and also suggest that the pipe enter the elementary school above ground instead of running beneath the foundation.
The Marshfield School Board has hired Springfield engineering firm Moore and Wolfinbarger, which began inspecting both schools June 7, Barr said.
That firm did similar work at Walt Disney Elementary School in Springfield because of fumes detected there in 1980.
Test indicated the fumes there were from gasoline, said Jim Grammer, director of Springfield Public Schools safety and security, but the source never was found. Grammer said the school’s basment has been sealed off and the area has been monitored every two weeks without any further signs of fumes.
Engineers at Moore and Wolfinbarger would not comment on the Marshfield investigation.
Meanwhile, the School Board awaits reports from the state agriculture department, the engineering firm and Plunkett.
“When school starts, I’ll have to determine if the buildings are safe,” Plunkett said. “If I say they’re not safe, there’s no way they can put anyone in those buildings.