By now everyone in the old engine/old tractor hobby knows about the tragic explosion that occurred July 29 at the Medina County Fair in Medina, Ohio. While there is some confusion surrounding the cause of the explosion, the basic facts of the accident are known.
At approximately 6:20 p.m. on Sunday, July 29, Clifford Kovacic wheeled his 1918 Case 110 steam tractor into the Medina County Fairgrounds. Medina Patrolman David Soika and Special Officer Kristopher Conwill approached Kovacic to talk with him about damage his Case had caused to a freshly asphalted road leading to the fairgrounds. Soika and Conwill had traced Kovacic's tractor from the 1.3 miles of tracks it left as it drove toward the fairgrounds. As Soika and Conwill approached Kovacic's tractor, the tractor blew apart.
The resulting blast immediately killed Kovacic, 48, his son William, 26, and family friend Alan Kimble, 46. Dennis Jungbluth, 58, died a few hours later at a Medina General Hospital, and seven days later Bryan Hammond, 18, who was part of Kovacic's crew, died from injuries he sustained in the explosion.
On Aug. 10 investigators from the Ohio Department of Commerce concluded that low water level in the tractor's boiler caused the explosion. Investigators stressed that the low water level could have been caused by operator error, mechanical failure, or a combination of the two.
For whatever reason, Kovacic's boiler ran low on water, thereby exposing the crown sheet on the firebox. Without water covering the crown sheet it became superheated. Investigators say that when the boiler tilted as the tractor was being operated, water hit the superheated crown sheet. The water turned to steam instantly, creating so much pressure the crown sheet was blown into the firebox and then into the ground.
It has not been possible to determine exactly what transpired, since everyone operating the tractor was killed.
While the tragedy at Medina has caused concern for the future of the steam engine hobby and steam engine gatherings, there are people who feel this tragedy will serve as a much-needed wake up call for a hobby that has been extremely lucky. In an interview in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Henry Marsilio, owner of H.M. Eagle Services, a Youngstown, Ohio, company that services boilers, said he's been to fairs "where there was equipment that I wouldn't let my kids go near."
Marsilio also believes Ohio's lack of oversight allows dealers in antique steam engines to sell machines that might otherwise not make it to market in states with more stringent codes, such as Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Ohio does not require annual boiler inspections for steam traction engines.
According to Bill Teets, a spokesman for the departments' Division of Industrial Compliance, "courtesy inspections" had previously been offered to steam traction operators requesting them. Those inspections were stopped this year, said Teets, "as it was determined they were outside our purview."
According to Robert T. Rhode, author of a book on old time threshermen and a steam engine owner, there has only been one other documented explosion since the mid-1940s. That event occurred July 17, 1971, in Mitchell, S.D. That explosion, like the one in Medina, was ultimately blamed on a low water level.
Contact Gas Engine Magazine editor Richard Backus at (785) 274-4379, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609-1265, or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.