The three teenagers tossed a baseball back and forth as they walked home from Allegany High School where they had been participating in an athletic program sponsored by the Cumberland Police Department. It was a Saturday morning in February 1945.
Robert Milburn,14; Eugene Iames, 14; and Eugene’s brother, Allen, 12, started to spread out as they walked across the Valley Street bridge. Robert and Eugene were near the center while Allen rushed ahead of them to the end of the bridge.
Two blasts sounded within seconds of each other. “The second blast was louder than the first and when I looked out the window, the whole middle section of the bridge seemed to bulge eight or ten feet into the air,” William Keegan, owner of the Shober Restaurant, told the Cumberland Sunday Times.
The force of the explosion shattered many windows on the west side of Cumberland. Robert and Eugene went flying through the air while Allen was knocked off his feet.
“Witnesses who saw told me later I went flying from the blast about 25 feet above the bridge and another 20 feet below the bridge, where I broke through the ice,” Eugene Iames, who is now 79 years old, said.
When Robert fell back down, wreckage caught him and held his head underwater. David Martin in Shober’s Restaurant saw the boy’s predicament and rushed out to help him.
“What is odd is he’s hanging from his foot and his leg gets cut all over, and I am the one who gets a broken foot and punctured kidney,” Iames said.
When Allen climbed back onto his feet, he ran off to his house on Columbia Street to tell his mother what had happened.
The explosion left gas lines throwing towers of flame reaching 100 feet into the air while at the same time a burst water main sent water rushing over the bridge.
“The middle of the concrete and steel bridge, gutted by the blast, looked like it had been hit by an aerial bomb and the broken gas main burned until late last night with flames lighting up the entire area,” the newspaper reported.
Help began arriving and Robert and Eugene were taken to Allegany Hospital. Robert was released after a few days. Eugene’s stay turned out to be much longer.
When he began to feel better, he was allowed to use a wheelchair to get around the hospital. He was riding a wheelchair down the hallway when he wound up going down the stairs backwards. His injuries from that accident were so severe that the doctors thought he would never walk again, but he proved them wrong and recovered.
Cumberland police and fire officials investigated the cause of the gas line explosion, but no conclusion was ever reached.
Iames says he knows why the bridge exploded. He explained that in the weeks before the explosion, people who lived nearby the bridge, like him, had been complaining about a bad smell and they were getting headaches. The gas company had considered that a leak had been causing the problem, but never found a problem.
“The last thing I saw before the blast was a Western Maryland train coming under the bridge, smoking like hell and sparks flying everywhere and it ignited the gas,” Iames said.
He said that although the investigation never revealed a reason for the explosion, the answer was simple, but nobody really cared about the opinion of the kids who were on the bridge when it blew up.