From The Vault: Simon Kenton High School turns tragedy to triumph after 1980 gas explosions, fire

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INDEPENDENCE, Ky. –  A school year that started with tragedy and tears of shock and sadness ended in triumph and tears of joy for Simon Kenton High School students.

A gas explosion in the basement boiler room killed a student in the art room next door and hurt several others on Oct. 9, 1980. Thirty minutes later, a second explosion -10 times more powerful than the first - injured more than two dozen firefighters and utility workers who had responded to the first emergency.

WATCH video from the explosions and fire in the video player above.

A local deputy said the second blast knocked first responders off their feet and scattered them like bowling pins. Most suffered burns and many were taken by ambulance to St. Elizabeth Hospital. The rest of the students had been evacuated before the second explosion. Worried parents rushed to a nearby school to find their teens and hug them.

But a 16-year-old junior, Robert Williams,  was killed when the first explosion blew apart the cinder block wall between the boiler room and the art room. He had been standing close to the wall.

Williams' friend and fellow art student, Scott Wallin, said Williams was the best artist ever at Simon Kenton. Wallin and 10 other art students were decorating windows for Halloween when the blast happened. They didn't have any warning, he said. They heard a hissing sound, then were rocked by the explosion.

"Like a big wall of fire and rock just shot out, like a big torch," Wallin said.

The other art students and their teacher escaped with cuts and bruises.

The blast destroyed the art room and other classrooms in the north wing, but lives were spared by the timing: 11:30 a.m. The other classrooms were empty because students were at lunch or elsewhere on campus.

The two explosions and resulting fire caused about $1.5 million damage to the school and forced Simon Kenton students to take classes at the newly-opened Scott High School. Scott students attended in the morning and Simon Kenton held classes from 1:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Simon Kenton basketball team found itself without a gym to practice or play in. They ended up practicing all over Northern Kentucky.

WATCH video from the Sweet 16 semifinals and finals in the player below (Sorry, no audio, but it's still pretty cool):

 

The Pioneers expected to have a good team. They were big and experienced, led by 6-6 senior Troy McKinley, one of the state's top scorers. But Simon Kenton had never reached the Boys Sweet 16 – and no team from Northern Kentucky had ever won it – so no one except maybe the Pioneers and their coach, Larry Miller, could foresee what would happen the next March.

Like the team from "Hoosiers," Simon Kenton played like a team of destiny. They had to make up an eight-point deficit in the last two minutes to win the 33rd District semifinal in double overtime. When they got to the Sweet 16, they had two one-point wins – beating Louisville Moore in the semifinals on a last-second shot by Billy Meier.

Thousands of Simon Kenton fans in Rupp Arena celebrated getting to the finals, but the team wasn't done. McKinley, Meier and the rest – most notably, Dave Dixon, Greg Ponzer, Alan Mullins and Sean Dougherty – finished off their incredible season by beating Mason County 70-63 and brought the first title back to Northern Kentucky.

Eric Deters, long-time Northern Kentucky attorney, wrote a book about them called "Pioneer Spirit." It was a better story than "Hoosiers," Deters said, because of what happened to the school.

State and federal agencies investigated the explosions at Simon Kenton. The National Transportation  and Safety Board  blamed the gas company at the time, Union Light, Heat & Power – a subsidiary of Cincinnati Gas & Electric. A utility crew had mistakenly hooked a high-pressure main gas line to the school a few weeks before. At the same time the utility was testing the line,  the school turned on the heat during a cool October spell. Gas then escaped and ignited in the school.

Making matters worse, gas company personnel didn't know where to find the shut off valve buried outside the school, the safety board said.  If they had, the second explosion could have been averted.

As it happened, while crews fought the fire in the school for two hours, a Kentucky State Police trooper jumped into a backhoe and dug up the pavement until the valve was found.

The Kentucky Energy Regulatory Commission made basically the same finding against ULH&P and fined the company $100,000.

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