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Iowa History Daily: November 5 - Merle Hay Mall Fire

Iowa History Daily: On November 5, 1978, firefighters scrambled to put out the deadliest fire in the history of Des Moines at Merle Hay Mall. Breaking out in the mall’s Younkers store, the fire caused an estimated $20 million in damage while taking the lives of eleven store employees.

Built on the site of St. Gabriel’s Monastery, Chicago developers started work on ‘The Northland Shopping Center’ before eventually shifting to Merle Hay in order to honor the first Iowan (and perhaps American) killed in World I and namesake of the road on which the mall was to be located. Originally an open-air plaza when first opened in 1958 and known as Merle Hay Plaza, workers enclosed the structure and renamed the facility Merle Hay Mall in 1972.

At roughly 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, November 5, 1978, an explosion ripped through the store as employees prepared for a typical afternoon rush of shoppers. Responders from the nearby Fire Station 9 raced from a few blocks away to fight the fire and rescue employees stranded on the roof of the building. Those trapped inside were later identified primarily by jewelry after the extreme heat of the blast and subsequent fire.

Although officials initially announced a problem with the store’s heating and cooling system caused the fire, later evidence suggested an electrical malfunction caused by wires covered in polyvinyl chloride overheating and giving off hydrochloric acid which led to the explosion. Although the store reopened a year later, those who lost loved ones or fought the fire still remember Des Moines’ deadliest fire. #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar


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