Antique engine explodes, killing 4

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MEDINA, Ohio – Cliff Kovacic and his son, William, along with their friends, Dennis Jungbluth and Alan Kimble, were getting ready to display a new addition to Kovacic’s antique tractor collection when they were killed at the Medina County Fairgrounds July 29.

Kovacic, 45, and his son, William, 27, both of Medina, along with Jungbluth, 58, and Kimble, 46, both of the Litchfield area, were killed when the antique steam tractor Kovacic was bringing onto the fairground exploded.

Cliff Kovacic was the owner and operator of Liberty Excavating of Medina. Jungbluth owned Field Energy Services of Litchfield.

According to Kovacic’s brother, Chuck, no one has any idea why the 1918 Case steam rolling tractor exploded.

Best experts killed. “The four best experts in northern Ohio were killed in that explosion,” Kovacic said. “It was a 19th century accident and there is no one here now who knows how it could have happened.”

Cliff Kovacic, who had been an active participant in the antique tractor world for many years, had just finished restoring the old Case. It was a very rare variant equipped with an overcab.

Two weeks ago, he had taken it out to Litchfield to try it out, his brother said, and had been successful plowing with it. There had been no problems.

But as the men were backing the tractor into the spot where it would be on display as part of the antique farm machinery collection for the Medina County Fair, the steam engine went off like a bomb, spewing hot oil, steam, and schrapnel into crowd.

All around grounds. The explosion was heard in every part of the fairgrounds, and people came running to see what had happened and what they could do.

Forty-nine others, including two Medina police officers, were also injured in the accident.

Kovacic did the metal and boiler work on his antique tractor collection in the shop at Liberty Excavating. He had apparently driven the tractor and other antique equipment he was going to display about a mile from the company, and entered the fairgrounds at the gate at the northwest corner, where the antique farm machinery exhibit was being assembled.

Driving on streets. According to the Medina police, two Medina officers had followed the procession onto the fairgrounds, and were talking to the operator about illegally operating the equipment on city streets.

The old tractor, which was 14 feet high with 6-foot metal wheels, was considered too heavy to operate on streets without damaging them. The heavy iron wheels had been leaving tracks in the blacktop.

But as the officers were talking with one of the men, the tractor exploded.

Officer Dave Soika and auxiliary officer Chris Conwill were both seriously injured and burned in the explosion. Pieces of schrapnel were found buried in the bullet-proof vests they were wearing.

Other victims were transported by ambulance and by rescue helicopters to six area hospitals, including the Medina General Hospital, Akron City Hospital, Akron Children’s Hospital, Wadsworth/Rittman Hospital, Lodi Community Hospital, and Cleveland Metro Hospital.

Several of them were being treated for severe burns.

Emergency help. Medina County Sheriff Neil Hassinger said that more than 100 firefighters and paramedics from the surrounding area responded to the explosion. Medina convenience stores and restaurants were asked to deliver ice to the fairgrounds to help burn victims, and a bucket brigade was established to deliver it to the scene of the explosion.

Parts of the engine were found as far away as 390 feet, and, according to Medina Fair Board president Dave Bertram, the tractor itself was blown 10 feet into the air.

Chuck Kovacic said his brother had been showing antique tractors and farm machinery for many years. And because he owned large rig trailers, he was also known for assisting other collectors in getting their tractors to the shows.

Expertise needed. Kovacic added that anyone with expertise in steam engines who might be able to assist the investigation should be encouraged to contact the Medina County Sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Hassinger said it would be a difficult investigation because of the rare nature of the equipment involved in the accident.

The Medina County Fair opened on schedule Monday morning even though the fairgrounds was closed Sunday after the accident.

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at jcummins@farmanddairy.com.)

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