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Texas City Explosion – Texas – April 16, 1947

Lack of awareness of the dangers from ammonium nitrate despite published guidelines and earlier similar historical tragedies caused the tragedies at the port of Texas City on Galveston Bay.

Two explosions of ammonium nitrate fertilizer shattered Texas City and its surrounding area beginning on the morning of April 16, 1947. In the first explosion the freighter Grandcamp’s explosion was heard 150 miles away. The second one, High Flier, was no less fierce when it blew up sixteen hours later. Several thousands were injured and 568 killed. It caused the greatest number of casualties of any U.S. industrial accident.

Texas City on Galveston Bay, about thirty miles southeast of Houston, Texas, was a thriving oil port in the 1930s with a population of six thousand. Several oil refineries stood near the docks and the shipping traffic was mainly occupied with crude oil and petrochemical products. With the onset of war in the first half of the 1940s and a rising demand for aviation fuel and a range of synthetic chemicals both the population of the city and the growth of industrial capacity expanded dramatically.

Production of oil based products jumped fivefold in five years and the population more than doubled. By 1947 there was an aura of success and confidence as business continued to grow in the aftermath of the war.

A zoning law was passed in 1946 to establish which areas were to be devoted to industrial, residential, and institutional activities and in each of these places safety precautions were given high priority. Gas and oil storage tanks were both equipped with fire control systems and surrounded by dikes that would prevent spills reaching other buildings if accidents occurred.

There were good reasons for these precautions. Within a one square mile area next to the docks there were six oil-company complexes, eleven warehouses, plus several other installations and residential blocks. Experts in fire prevention assured the port authorities that only one-fifth of this area was in danger of a serious fire and existing precautions would be adequate to cope with such an eventuality.

All of this thinking should have changed when large quantities of ammonium nitrate fertilizer began to be shipped from Texas City in 1946. Now, in the event of an accident, there was the possibility of a conflagration that would affect the whole dock area, not just one-fifth of it. Two conditions prevented the kind of new thinking that was required. The port authorities responsible for handling the nitrate—the railways and the masters of ships—operated independently of the other agencies and they saw no reason for coordinating their safety systems with those already in place. In their minds these shipments were no different from the cotton and the other bulk commodities they handled. The second dangerous condition was general ignorance of the lethal potential of ammonium nitrate.

The fact that the nitrate had come from an army ordnance factory should have raised questions about safety, especially since a 1941 army manual listed ammonium nitrate as high explosive. It had in fact half the explosive power of TNT. In addition, a 1945 U.S. Department of Agriculture publication on the same subject said that it would explode if given a strong impulse or is held in a restricted space under conditions of rising heat and pressure.

There were other conditions listed in different publications— such as the effect of fire—that added to the lethal potential of ammonium nitrate, some of them directly related to the tragedy that occurred at Texas City. In Germany, twenty-six years earlier, as will be described later to illustrate the seriousness of neglecting the lessons of past disasters, a gigantic explosion occurred in a storage unit containing this same substance, ammonium nitrate, yet ignorance of it was as common as the unfamiliarity with the U.S. Army publication.

Prior to April 16, 1947 almost a hundred thousand tons of ammonium nitrate had passed through the port at Texas City for onward shipment to other countries. There had been no incidents in this time and so the assumption that it was not an explosive substance was reinforced. The nitrate was manufactured in ordnance plants where formerly it formed part of the ingredients for bombs. Small quantities of clay were added to each shipment to prevent caking, a problem that led to the disaster in Germany.

Ammonium nitrate had the double advantage of being relatively inexpensive as ell as being richer in nitrogen than some other fertilizers. Following the end of World War II principal destinations for the fertilizer lay in Europe where the United States sought to expand food production and speed up recovery from the war. The freighter Grandcamp was to take its cargo to France.

More than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate had already been loaded on to the Grandcamp when a small fire was found in the hold, possibly due to a smoking cigarette stub. Smoking, while officially prohibited on the docks, was generally permitted at that time. Longshoremen who were working in the hold tried to put the fire out with fire extinguishers but failed. At that point the captain intervened. He felt that the use of water would damage other things in his cargo so, instead of dealing with the problem, he closed the hatches and ventilators and turned on the steam system in an attempt to smother the fire. It was the kind of move that almost certainly guaranteed an explosion.

In addition, as a precautionary measure, he had cases of ammunition removed from a nearby hold. As the fire grew, the heat forced both longshoremen and crew to leave the ship. The ship’s alarm was then switched on and contact established with the fire department onshore. Before any help could arrive, hatch covers were blown off by the pressure buildup, smoke and flames shot upward, and moments later the entire ship blew up in one gigantic explosion.

The shock wave alone, quite apart from the cluster of steel that accompanied it, did enormous damage. Two planes flying overhead were brought down. The intensity of the fire at this stage ensured that everyone still on board the ship or near it was vaporized. Flying objects killed hundreds in the immediate vicinity of the pier and lighter debris damaged buildings in the business district, a mile away.

Some of the flying pieces from the Grandcamp weighted several tons. A fifteen-foot wave, a sort of tsunami swept up from the harbor by the explosion, picked up a large steel barge and carried it onshore. There were quantities of cotton and other textiles in the ship’s cargo and these now became fireballs raining down on shore, triggering fires everywhere.

At Galveston, ten miles south of Texas City, people were thrown to the pavement by the force of the blast, and at some locations twice as far away buildings swayed. People rushed to the docks at Texas City to search for relatives and friends. Wounded ones were everywhere, covered in black oil, stunned into passivity by their ordeal.

The city auditorium was transformed into a first-aid center to cope with the thousands of casualties. Doctors, nurses, and ambulances were brought in from neighboring communities. Law enforcement officers also had to be called into service from other places to help establish some sort of order. But just as things began to come together there was a second cataclysm.

Because of the general indifference to the dangers of ammonium nitrate, no one took much notice of the second freighter that also was being loaded with the same dangerous cargo and was now carrying a thousand tons of it. The High Flier had been torn away from its moorings by the force of Grandcamp’sexplosion and was stuck alongside other vessels. It had been severely damaged and before long the thick black fumes from the first explosion forced everyone to leave it and head for shore. Rescuers looking for survivors checked the High Flier in the course of their search and noticed a fire in one of the holds but there was so much anxiety over the first explosion that little thought was given to this.

Not until late on the evening of the sixteenth was any action taken to deal with the High Flier. At that time flames were shooting high into the air. Before anything could be done, either to move the ship out to sea or douse the fire, it blew up in a second blast just like the first one. Casualties were much lighter this time, not because the explosion was less powerful but rather because there had been a general evacuation from the port area. Additional damage was now done to buildings that were already partly destroyed with the first blast, additional oil tanks caught fire, and a shower of large pieces of steel, just as had happened in the earlier blast, caught everyone who still happened to be near the piers.

It took a lot of time to get federal and local authorities into action to ensure that a tragedy of this kind would never recur. Culpability was not acknowledged by anyone yet errors due to neglect were everywhere. The whole infrastructure of the port area was wrong. Large oil tanks and other highly inflammable products were stored close to the piers without regard to the conflagration that would erupt in the event that a ship caught fire. No procedures were in place to deal with emergencies.

The disaster brought changes in some of the processes involved in chemical manufacturing and there were new regulations for the bagging, handling, and shipping of chemicals. Thousands of lawsuits were finally settled in 1956 with a total cost of more than sixteen million dollars. The bodies of the sixty-three unidentified dead were buried together in a memorial cemetery. A park beside this cemetery was dedicated to them forty years later.

Had there not been neglect of previous accidents with ammonium nitrate, together with indifference among the authorities at the Galveston Bay to warnings regarding the handling of this product, the whole tragedy of April 16, 1947, could have been prevented. Twenty-six years earlier, in the morning of September 21, 1921, in Oppau, Germany, a massive ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at a chemical plant. The factory that processed the chemical and the village of Oppau were totally destroyed. Casualties were many. The cause of the accident was ignorance about the explosive potential of ammonium nitrate.

The Badische Anilin Company built a factory in Oppau in 1911 to produce, among other chemical products, agricultural fertilizers. Oppau was a small community of about 6,500 people not far from Mannheim. A new process had just been developed by German chemical engineers to produce these fertilizers from ammonium sulfate. The traditional natural supply from organic waste was in short supply so this was a timely substitute for Germany’s agricultural industry. The country was prosperous with an expanding economy and needed a stronger agricultural base.

Since farmers use fertilizers almost entirely in spring the factory had to stockpile large quantities through the year in preparation for sales at the beginning of the following year. A large number of sixty-foot silos were built to store the ammonium sulfate. These were still in place ten years later as Germany tried to cope with the four-year devastation of World War I from 1914 to 1918.

The country was impoverished with its currency so low in value that little could be purchased beyond its own borders. Raw sulfur could not be purchased from abroad so the factory shifted its fertilizer production to ammonium nitrate, an acceptable substitute.

The new chemical was stored in the same sixty-foot silos that had been in use previously. Because there was no great outcry regarding the dangers associated with the new chemical, the same procedures that were in place for handling ammonium sulfate remained unchanged. There was, in fact, a widespread assumption that ammonium nitrate was non-explosive. To some extent this was true. Ammonium nitrate requires high pressure or very high temperatures before this chemical will cause an explosion. In the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, Timothy McVeigh needed starter explosions in order to make the ammonium nitrate explode.

Ammonium nitrate has a particular quality that workers in Oppau did not have to contend with before, namely its tendency to attract moisture from the atmosphere and become sticky. In the course of a year this can compress into a solid mass almost like concrete. In the context of sixtyfoot- high silos additional pressure was applied to the nitrate. After many failed attempts to loosen the ammonium nitrate with picks and shovels the Oppau workers decided to use low-grade dynamite.

They bored holes, set the dynamite, and blasted some of the very hard material into smaller pieces. This level of explosives was quite permissible for breaking up solid substances. It was a risky business and it would never have been employed if workers knew the properties of the new substance they were now handling. For a short time it worked and nothing went wrong.

On the morning of September 21, the method failed. Instead of the previous effects there was one large blast, followed a short time later, as other containers were heated and ignited, by a gigantic explosion. A column of fire shot upward into the air for a thousand feet and everywhere around there was total destruction. An eight-foot-deep hole, a third of a mile in diameter, was carved out beneath the factory. Much of the depression formed at that time can still be seen today. The entire town of Oppau disappeared. The blast was so strong that it shattered windows forty miles away. More than five hundred people were killed and 1,500 additional people injured.

Workers lived in three and four story apartments within walking distance of the factory so they and their families had no chance of avoiding the blast. Like many industrial communities of that time, a hard lesson was learned, namely that residential buildings must never be built close to factories. In many developing countries today this rule is ignored because it is cheaper to live close to work. In the Bhopal tragedy in India in 1984, thousands might have been saved had thus rule been followed. In spite of a local law that forbade it, workers persisted in living close to the factory.

In Oppau, the explosion was made worse by an absence of any medical facilities. The community had neither a hospital nor doctors so all the injured had to be taken to Mannheim. Because of the widespread damage and large numbers of casualties there were numerous delays. The roofs of buildings in Oppau were made of heavy clay tiles that lay on support beams that were not fixed to anything. As a result, these tiles became flying missiles, adding to the horrors of the time.

A great deal of suspicion accompanied the explosion and it took a long time for newspapers to get accurate information. For one thing, it was well known that the factory had been a producer of munitions and people thought that the explosion was the result of experiments with new explosives. It was also known that just before World War I this place had been manufacturing the poison gas that was used in the course of the war. This unsavory reputation may have isolated the community and hindered them from knowing more about the dangers of ammonium nitrate.


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Cleveland Gas Explosion – Ohio – October 21, 1944

In the dying days of World War II inferior materials, because of war shortages, were used to repair a gas tank. It exploded, killing 135 and injuring one hundred others.

In the dying days of World War II when all the media were concentrated on the final outcomes in Germany and Japan, a massive gas explosion in Cleveland was almost totally overlooked. It was a devastating blast, killing 135 and injuring one hundred others. Liquefied natural gas was a fairly new thing at that time, Cleveland being only the second commercial installation in the nation.

Liquid natural gas (LNG), which is mainly methane gas, is a popular fuel for homes because it is odorless, colorless, noncorrosive, and nontoxic. It is used as a gas but stored in liquid form for compactness. LNG was formed from the buried remains of tiny plants and sea animals that died more than two hundred million years ago. These energy-rich materials slowly decayed and then changed form until all that was left were concentrations of natural gas in layers of rock. Natural gas is removed from the earth by drilling wells into the rock, then using pipes to bring the gas to the surface.

Liquid propane gas (LPG) is also, like LNG, composed of the remains of plants and animals that inhabited the earth millions of years ago. Propane is gaseous at normal temperatures and under moderate pressure it becomes a liquid that vaporizes into a clean-burning gas when released from its storage container. Propane is sometimes referred to as the kissing cousin of natural gas and petroleum because it is usually found mixed with natural gas and petroleum deposits. Cleveland’s commercial LNG installation in 1941 was the second in the country and it served the community well for the following three years despite the fact that little was known at that time about the dangers associated with its use.

In 1944, a larger tank was added to meet the demands of Cleveland’s consumers but, because it was wartime, steel could not be obtained for the LNG container and an alloy was selected in its place. This alternative material was unsuitable for storage at very low temperatures and before long it began to leak, releasing super cold gas into the atmosphere.

A fog began to form over the east side of Cleveland but authorities and residents were unaware of the extreme danger it posed. When mixed with air, LNG becomes a time bomb ready to explode on first contact with a spark. A spark did come and everyone on the east side of Cleveland knew what happened next. A massive explosion was triggered, America’s worst from LNG in all of the twentieth century.

Emergency repair workers were called in but there was no spare tank into which they could transfer the gas. All were filled to capacity because winter was approaching. The only alternative was to repair the leak. No one knows what happened next since all the men and all the equipment vanished after the blast.

There was a spark either in the course of the repair or elsewhere, and the conflagration followed. A home one block away from the gas tanks exploded into flames and the occupants managed to run away before they were incinerated. Others joined them and as they looked back they could see that flames were raising high into the air.

A series of explosions followed the first one as tank after tank succumbed to the heat and exploded like powerful bombs. Every building for several blocks was flattened and beneath the ground the main gas pipes were ripped out. Manhole covers were flung into the air like toys and must have added to the damage before reaching the ground again. The firestorm from all the explosions destroyed more than 150 homes and left ten times that number without a place to stay, all the more tragic because they were the poorest residents of the city.

Cleveland’s tragedy was little known at the time because of the war. Even the news of 135 dead and almost as many additional ones injured did not seem important. It was a time when large numbers of deaths were being reported from the war fronts. The biggest entry in one newspaper was a short statement on the loss of hundreds of cars in one parking lot.

For about twenty years there were no additional commercial installations but extensive research was undertaken to ensure that a major explosion would not occur again. New regulations were introduced governing choice of materials for storage tanks, procedures for transportation of LNG, and locations of storage tanks at a distance from residential sites. Other rules prescribed ways of testing tanks and installing safety valves on main pipelines.

Today there is widespread confidence in the safety of LNG plants and it is of interest that Cleveland has featured, once again, in pioneer usage of this fuel. In 1995, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority was the first to adopt natural gas as its alternative fuel of choice for buses. It had the biggest natural gas fueling station in the country and served as a model for the rest of the country. Gas-powered buses were being added to Cleveland’s streets year by year and air pollution was being reduced a little as each new bus joined the fleet. Worldwide, today, LNG provides a quarter of the world’s energy needs.

There was a similar story of inexperience in dealing with LNG seven years before the Cleveland tragedy. Had it been better known in Cleveland, perhaps the 1944 accident might never have occurred. The 1937 accident happened at a New London, Texas, school, known as the world’s richest school because seven oil wells stood on its grounds. A gas explosion on March 18, 1937, demolished the whole building and killed 280 children, fourteen teachers, and two mothers. The tragedy was caused by the accidental ignition of large quantities of LNG that had leaked into the building.

The school was set in the middle of the oil fields of eastern Texas and it shared in the wealth-producing output of these oilfields that were at their peak of production at that time. The students at the school came from the homes of workers in the oil fields, some of the students arriving daily from as far away as fifteen miles. A natural gas line in the basement was the source of heat for the school but on the day before March 18, 1937, this line sprang a leak.

Natural gas was a new thing at this time and the dangers associated with its use were little known. Even as recent as 1944, it was still only partially understood. In New London, Texas, natural gas was used in the form in which it came out of the ground; that is, it was odorless. Gas leaks were, therefore, not detectable by humans. In later years, some odor was always added for safety.

On Thursday afternoon, March 18, 1937, some classes had been dismissed for the day but about six hundred students remained. A group of mothers were at a meeting nearby. The gas leak that developed on the previous day was still there and natural gas had already filled every room of the school but no one was aware of this because it did not give off any detectable odor. As is now so well known, all that was needed in such a situation was a tiny spark and a huge conflagration would follow. A teacher in the manual skills section switched on a main power switch in order to start a power lathe and on contact there was a small spark.

The whole building became a bomb. Walls buckled, the floor lifted and the roof broke up and then collapsed. There was no time for anyone to escape. It was all over in a very short time and the damage was evident. Everywhere around there was dense smoke and rubble. Parents rushed to the school and some tried to tear away at the mountain of debris in search of their children. Others were just paralyzed. An army of workers from the oil fields arrived and began to dig for survivors.

They brought in heavy lifting equipment and moved away the larger pieces of concrete. Some bodies were so badly broken that identification was impossible. Every available building in the New London area became a temporary morgue. Some bodies had to be taken to Dallas, almost a hundred miles away.

The search for bodies went on into the night of March 18. Giant floodlights were mounted for the workers. A line of helpers passed buckets from one to the other. In the middle of their night work a storm that broke over the area slowed them down but by morning the site was cleared. Eighty-five were found still alive and 294 dead. Two more died later from their injuries. A new school was built in due course and a memorial was erected nearby, a reminder of the terrible events of 1937. Investigators concluded that no one person was responsible for the tragedy.

They decided it was the collective faults of individuals who were ignorant of or indifferent to the precautionary measures needed. Years after both the New London and Cleveland tragedies, another explosion from gas occurred, this time from an LPG installation in Mexico. On November 19, 1984, a store of LPG exploded, sending a cloud of gas into the air followed by a series of explosions and fires. One of the explosions was so powerful that it registered 0.5 on the Richter Scale at the seismograph station on the University of Mexico Campus. Five hundred people were killed and 7,000 injured as a result of this event.

In the 1940s, the Mexican government, through its state oil company Pemex, decided to store LPG in selected centers and distribute it to consumers by truck rather than build a gas pipeline from the gas fields to specific markets. San Juan Ixhuatepec was one of these storage centers in Mexico City and from it twenty-four-gallon drums were loaded daily and trucked to the surrounding communities. It was a good arrangement from the consumers’ point of view. Gas reached most people in most places quickly and most Mexicans cook on propane stoves. The explosion early on November 19, 1984, was triggered by a gas leak in one of the storage tanks.

Pressure had built up in that tank and a relief valve was forced open. Mexico City is in a warm climatic zone and temperatures can rise very high at times. To allow for the impact of temperature on the storage tanks they are designed to cope with pressures much higher than they normally encounter. A rise in internal temperature means an increase in internal pressure because some liquid gas always vaporizes under these circumstances. This can easily happen if the insulation is weak. Whether the quality of insulation was inadequate, or because of some other weakness in the storage tanks, pressure did rise high enough to force open a relief valve and allow a cloud of gas to escape.

This was not a surprise to the workers. They encountered danger signals and tragedies before, all of them related to Pemex. A few months earlier eighty-nine Mexicans died and hundreds were injured in four separate accidents at Pemex installations in other parts of the country. The residents at Ixhuatepec knew about these and lived in constant fear of an explosion. Smell of leaking gas was a constant complaint but management staff took little notice of it.

A worker, on the night of the accident, reported that the pilot flame at the plant had gone out, something that should never happen, and in its place was a loud hissing noise. Several other workers noted that a strong smell of gas had been detected over the whole area on the previous night. Evidently a substantial amount of gas had escaped and a spark from somewhere set off the first explosion.

A series of fires followed; then a much more powerful explosion as two very large cylinders were heated by the fires and blew up. More explosions and fires followed as other tanks were caught in the conflagration. Fireballs erupted all around the plant whenever another cylinder or pipe blew up. Masses of fragments of metal rained down. One six-foot section of piping was flung two miles away.

Another section landed on a house half a mile from the plant, killing twenty-one people. In one nearby area two hundred houses were totally demolished by a fireball. Most of the occupants died in their sleep. For several hours there was no organized evacuation. People just fled to the hills to get away from the fires. Some badly hurt people were left to die on the street.

Nine months after the explosion and all that followed, there was still no report from Pemex on the tragedy. The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research which tracks accidents of this kind from all over the world did report however in a detailed analysis of the event. The claim from Pemex that the disaster started at a neighboring plant was rejected.

The Netherlands confirmed that a leak from a pipe in the installation at Ixhuatepec was the cause. The term used for the type of explosion that occurred is BLEVE, meaning boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion. Four of the explosions were big enough to be recorded on the local university’s seismograph as the equivalent of a 0.5 on the Richter Scale.

The true count of dead will never be known. The official figure stands at five hundred but some were sure that the number was higher. Almost no attempts were made to identify those who were killed. A day after the tragedy, coffins containing the remains of the first three hundred victims were placed in two huge holes, each five hundred feet wide, in the hillside of a cemetery close to Ixhuatepec. Investigators from Holland who had been brought in to assess all aspects of the accident confirmed that only 25 of the three hundred had been identified before burial. For most of them, therefore, their families have no official record of their deaths.

About 150,000 people had lived close to the plant, against all the rules governing industrial safety. In a large LPG plant like this one at San Juan Ixhuatepec there should have been no homes near the plant. However, in Mexico, land costs within the city are prohibitive for those who work for Pemex. They take the risk of living next door to the huge LPG cylinders and company officials do not interfere. They were the ones who were killed or injured. Even in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, when what remained of the neighboring homes had been cleared away, new homes began to appear where they had previously been illegally located.


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Halifax Explosion – Nova Scotia – Canada – December 6, 1917

The explosion that ensued was one of the world’s greatest prior to the arrival of atomic bombs. It shattered the port of Halifax and surrounding area. The death toll was 1,600, while 9,000 others were injured, and 6,000 homes were destroyed.

Two ships were approaching Halifax harbor on the morning of December 6, 1917, one arriving, loaded with ammunition, and the other on its way to Europe with a load of coal. Some confusion existed between the two ships, in spite of the fixed rule about how to pass, over whether to pass on starboard or port sides of the ships, which caused a collision in the narrow entrance to the harbor.

The incoming ship, the Mont Blanc, had just come from New York and was about to add some coal to its cargo in Halifax before sailing for the war zone in Europe. The usual red warning flag that is always flown on a munitions ship was missing. The captain did not hoist it because he feared it would make his ship a special target for lurking German submarines. The ships collided and set off a gigantic explosion. Within minutes the whole surrounding area was shattered.

There were other reasons for some carelessness on the part of the outgoing skipper. His ship, the Imo, had been delayed and he was anxious to leave with his load of coal for Belgium. Traffic was heavy in the narrow channel because this was December and in a northern country like Canada there were only a small number of daylight hours available. Ships and tugs alike always wanted to get out of the channel before dark. Captain Le Medec of the Mont Blanc signaled a port passage to the Imo as the ships approached each other. The Imo captain replied, suggesting a starboard passage, then sailed on without waiting for a reply. One of the sacred rules of navigation is that you do not act, in a case like this, before the other side agrees.

A few minutes later the Imo’sprow cut into the Mont Blanc ahead of the main hold where all the TNT was stored. Captain Le Medec tried to swing his ship around in a desperate effort to avoid the collision. He knew what could happen if his ship were to be hit but in the narrow channel it was impossible to get away from the other ship. A drum of solvent was broken open in the collision and a spark ignited it. As the liquid ran down into the hold the fire spread to the huge quantities of TNT. The Imo captain backed his ship away and beached it.

Years later a man who lived close to the harbor reflected on the event of December 6, 1917. He lived to tell the tale and he remembered wondering at the time why two ships could come so close to each other without trying to avoid a collision. He noticed that the Mont Blanc tried to swing away but it was too late. One moment after the collision it was clear that the munitions ship was about to explode. Halifax harbor is only half a mile wide so the amount of space available for altering course was minimal. The tide carried the Mont Blanc toward a pier on the south side where a telegraph operator was on duty.

He watched the ship come closer and closer and he knew about its lethal cargo. Instead of running away he stayed at his post, sending out warning signals, and just before the explosion he shouted a goodbye. His body was found later in the evening. The power of the explosion swept away churches, factories, and every other kind of building. Nothing was left standing. Fires broke out all over the place and shells and other ammunition rained down on people with some of it exploding in the process. Terror-stricken men and women and children, all of them covered with black soot and bleeding from numerous cuts from flying pieces of glass, were the common sight everywhere.

When the Mont Blanc exploded it just vanished in a cloud of smoke— blast of air and debris rose a mile high. Devastation was everywhere within a one-mile radius. Some bodies were thrown half-a-mile on to the shore. A thirty-foot tsunami erupted and, carrying rocks scooped up from the seabed, destroyed all the piers together with their contents. The tragedy was all the worse because of the war. Large numbers of military personnel and supplies were assembled at the harbor, awaiting transportation to Europe.

Two further complications made circumstances especially difficult for victims. The worst blizzard in living memory had just hit Halifax and temperatures were well below freezing. Many victims who were trapped in buildings froze to death. The second crisis was a forced evacuation because of the danger of fire at the munitions’ stores. Out of a total population of 50,000, about 1,600 lost their lives, a further 9,000 were injured, and 6,000 lost their homes. It was the most violent human-made explosion prior to the appearance of atomic weapons. The blast shattered windows one hundred miles away. Damage amounted to $35 million, an enormous sum at that time. Subsequent investigations concluded that the captains of both ships were to blame for what had happened but only minor penalties were given. The city of Halifax had to be completely rebuilt.

Halifax was not the only place in North America where accidents involving munitions occurred both during World War I and in the years immediately afterward. On May 18, 1918, in a suburb of Pittsburgh, an explosion shattered the neighborhood around the factory of the Aetna Chemical Company, a manufacturer of TNT. The accident was triggered by an error in the part of the factory where various chemical components of TNT were being mixed. Workers nearby heard a low popping sound, something that would normally be ignored, but those familiar with the manufacturing process reacted immediately. They knew that in a matter of seconds the whole building would explode. A few managed to escape but most died. By the end of the day 241 were dead or missing and four hundred others were injured. The first building to explode was the one in which chemicals were being assembled.

As the building went up in flames it set off the next building in the complex and so the fires and explosions continued like a series of gigantic firecrackers until, within a few minutes, the whole neighborhood was wrecked. Heavy machinery, walls, roofs, and rafters were shot into the air, to descend minutes later on those trying to escape the inferno. Ambulances were dispatched to the scene from every hospital in the Pittsburgh area while company guards and local police set up a barrier to protect people from the burning factory. A morgue was set up near the factory and a train arrived to supplement the work of the ambulances by bringing the injured to hospitals. This train could only come to a point four miles from the accident scene because tracks had been covered with debris so the injured had to be carried to the train. All telephone and telegraph lines had been severed so there were no means of communication with places beyond the factory area, resulting in delays in getting help for the injured.

Eight years after the TNT explosions at the Aetna Chemical Company, on July 10, 1926, a lightning strike hit the depot at Lake Denmark, New Jersey, where the entire U.S. Navy’s store of munitions was kept. Everything was blown sky-high in one gigantic explosion. It all happened during a thunderstorm in the late afternoon of July 10. A lightning bolt struck one of the storage units where TNT was kept and started a fire. It could have been contained but the officer in charge had been assured that the protective system in place would prevent damage from any lightning strike. The result was that the little fire mushroomed quickly into a catastrophe. The lightning-arresting system which had been installed for just such an event, for some reason failed.

Lake Denmark’s Naval Ammunition Depot was located about thirty miles west of the Hudson River in New Jersey. The navy’s entire supply of munitions was stored here and ships came up the Hudson River for supplies. They were then transferred by rail from the depot to the ships. In those years the fleet was concentrated on the Atlantic Coast so this location was accessible at all times. The army also had a munitions supply depot alongside the navy’s depot. In all there was a complex of 180 buildings, including some manufacturing. Because of the huge quantities of explosives kept at this center and because of the frequency of summer thunderstorms in this part of New Jersey, a lightning-arresting system had been installed.

On July 10, 1926, near a storage unit that housed a million pounds of high-intensity TNT, a lightning bolt struck. That should not have been a problem as the lightning rod had been installed within a few feet of that location. For reasons that were never clear, something failed to work because within a few minutes a small fire appeared and almost at once a fire alarm rang out across the whole complex. One officer half a mile away from the fire looked out of his office window in time to see a huge white flash. He ducked down under the window and lay on the floor, knowing that the blast from the explosion would momentarily smash into his building and demolish it. A few seconds later that was what happened.

One after another high-explosive rounds exploded and fires sprang up. The entire area within half a mile of the arsenal including all the buildings was destroyed with all surface objects swept away into the distance. Of the 180 buildings that comprised the arsenal only sixteen survived. For about ten hours, fires and explosions continued unabated and none of the fires went out during that time. Not until the following morning were the flames finally doused. Residents as far as fifty miles away heard and to some extent felt the blasts. When it was all over damage added up to more than $150 million. Thirty lives had been lost and two hundred others injured.

The countryside was all torn up around the arsenal, leaving it like an old-style battlefield. Deep craters were torn out of the sandy soil. Steel girders were thrown a mile from the blast site. A large piece of a charred wooden beam was found on a farm three-and-a-half miles from the blast site. New Jersey’s governor together with its two senators requested that the whole arsenal be moved from the state. Both the general public and the media supported the governor. The War Department was so moved by the event that it thought it had been the world’s worst explosion. It certainly was the worst explosion in U.S. history up to that time.

The navy was rightly blamed for not taking adequate safety precautions. The lightning-arresting system clearly was inadequate and the high concentration of explosive material in so small a space was, to say the least, unwise. There was severe criticism of the navy from the U.S. government, both for the cost of the tragedy and for the dangerous position in which it placed the navy. Two years after the explosion the Department of Defense Explosives Safety Board was established. It was instructed to provide oversight on all aspects of explosives, including maintenance, transportation, and storage. Never again would so high a concentration of munitions be found in one place. Arsenals were subsequently placed in low population density areas across the country.


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Monongah Explosion – Pennsylvania – December 6, 1907

Monongah was an exceptional example of the great risks that have always faced miners. While some reduction in risks has occurred as technological improvements are brought into use, the risks still remain at an unacceptably high level.

Pennsylvania and West Virginia were major producers of coal in the early years of the twentieth century. In Monongah, West Virginia, on December 6, 1907, the full horror of mining’s dangers was brought home to everyone when 363 miners went down below to work and only one returned. Work began early on that morning soon after five o’clock. Coal dust, a potentially lethal material unless it is thoroughly dampened, lay all over the floor of the pits and was used by the men to pack the holes they had drilled and loaded with black powder explosives to loosen the coal.

It was always a risky business as they used carbide lamps with open flames as their only source of light. Five hours after work began a huge explosion shattered the two connected pits. The explosion rocked the buildings above ground and was heard eight miles away. The devastation below was total and it was amazing that even one man escaped. He happened to be at the site of an open-air vent that reached the surface. For all the others death was instantaneous.

Dozens of bodies were so badly dismembered by the explosion that they could not be identified. The night before the explosion, instructions had been given to have the coal dust watered down but the person responsible for that work was moved to another mine shortly before he was due to do this work. The whole tragedy was the worst coal disaster in the nation’s history and it marked the beginning of, for that time, new safety regulations.

Connecting of underground mines in order to make them a single operation was made illegal immediately in West Virginia. Three years later the United States Bureau of Mines was established and it stopped nationally both the use of black powder as an explosive and the tamping of drill holes with coal dust. Accidents continued to occur across the United States for one of three reasons—explosions, fires, or roofs collapsing— and, in the years from 1900 to 1910, human error led to many tragedies. Knowledge of the dangers and ability to cope with them were both poor.

Throughout Europe, North America, and Australia, coal was the early twentieth century’s primary source of energy for industry and transportation. It was mined intensively and often with inadequate attention to safety. The accelerating demands of industry led to shortcuts that increased output but endangered the lives of miners. Coal still remains a major source of energy, particularly for generating electricity, and there are enormous quantities available across the United States. At present rates of consumption supplies could last a thousand years. The room and pillar method of mining, in which in which masses of coal seams were left standing to support the overlying rock while the coal around them was taken out, was in widespread use. In this environment miners had to encounter and get used to new areas of work all the time.

Death rates were very high. Even today they are higher than in most other industries. In 1946, immediately after World War II, these rates in U.S. mines were still high, over seven hundred annually. Thirty years later, the death rate every year had dropped to one-third of the 1946 figure. Sometimes a whole underground region was endangered when a mine was not carefully closed down. In one place in Pennsylvania a mine was abandoned after a fire but some smoldering embers were ignored. Twenty years later the underground fire was still slowly burning.

Prior to the devastation at Monongah, similar disasters were occurring in different locations across the United States. Coal resources were widely available and the demand for coal continued to grow. Local initiatives could be launched to meet the needs of the market. In the period before 1910 there was little federal regulation of operations, and there was also limited state supervision. Mines were planned and worked by their owners and supervised by owner-appointed inspectors. On May 1, 1900, at the Pleasant Valley Company’s Schofield Mine in Utah, two hundred lives were lost when a series of explosions occurred in two shafts.

The cause of the tragedy was either ignorance or indifference. Thirty containers of black powder had been stored in one of the pits. None of the miners at work on an adjacent pit, using explosives, were told of the bomb next door. The story was often similar in other countries. Australia, like Britain and the United States, was heavily dependent on coal in the first part of the twentieth century. On July 31, 1902, a gas explosion occurred at a mine on the coast, fifty miles south of Sydney, killing ninety-six and injuring 152 others.

At this particular Australian mine, operations date back to 1883 where an eight-foot seam of coal was being worked. It was located some distance below ground and access was gained via a horizontal shaft below the coal seam. By the very nature of the site it was clear from the beginning that an explosion and fire would trap every miner and make escape or rescue almost impossible. An explosion would release quantities of coal, adding fuel to the fire and blocking off exits. For this reason, responsibility lay heavily on the mine manager to ensure that no one went underground if there was the slightest indication of gas, especially since, at the time of the explosion in1902, open-flame lamps were still in use.

As the explosion occurred roofs collapsed and coal cars were thrown about like toys. Blasts of hot gas swept through the work areas. Subsequent inquiries revealed that the mine manager was aware of small pockets of gas in the mine, despite his assurance to the miners, on the day of the explosion, that there was none. The explosion and subsequent tragedy was caused by contact between a miner’s lamp and one of the gas pockets.

For the most part, in the early years of the twentieth century, most mine disasters were the result of either not dampening coal dust or not checking carefully for the presence of gas. With open flame lamps as the normal type of lighting it is easy to see now that these two things should have been given top priority. On July 10, 1902, at the Johnstown Mine in Pennsylvania, 112 men lost their lives in an explosion because no one checked for the presence of gas even though the mine was known to have gas.

At the Hanna Mine, Wyoming, on June 30, 1903, the same neglect occurred and 169 miners were killed in the explosion and fire that ensued. Conditions were even worse then elsewhere in this case. Work was stopped for a time because of the accident but later resumed on a different level without attending to the problem that had led to the work stoppage. There was a second explosion and fifty-nine miners died. Local outrage forced the permanent closure of the mine.

In Alabama the men who worked the mines were often black chain gang inmates who were serving time in hard labor. There was little recourse open to these men if something went wrong and this may explain why managers often took greater risks there than they should. Short fuses were sometimes used to save costs but that meant that workers had less time to get away from a blast site. On March 23, 1905, too much dynamite was used in one blast, triggering a general explosion that killed 112 men. Two years later, at another mine, an explosion took the lives of thirty-seven convicts because the management had not dampened the heavy layers of coal dust on the pit floor. Four years later, on April 8, 1911, at Alabama’s Banner Mine, the same neglect of failing to check for gas and not dampening the coal dust caused an explosion that killed 128 men.

The story of inadequate safety can be traced to other states where attention to the presence of gas and dry coal dust was neglected. In Colorado on April 27, 1917, managers of a mine with a history of tragedies allowed 120 men to go below without first checking for gas. All 120 were killed in the explosion that followed. It was the same outcome and again due to the same neglect of the mine’s lethal elements that caused the death of 170 miners in Utah on March 8, 1924. The similar tragedy of 1900 in Utah seemed to have been forgotten.

Other factors than gas and coal dust can sometimes lead to catastrophic mining events. The Cherry Mine in Illinois had an excellent record for safety. On November 13, 1909, however, because there was a temporary problem with the electrical power circuit, electric lamps could not be used so open-flame gas lamps were introduced for the day. Mules were being used at this time to haul the mine carts and fodder for them, bales of hay, were stacked at the mine’s entrance.

A miner’s lamp touched one of the bales but no one took any notice of it for some time. The hay smoked a little but there was no fire. Quite suddenly a flame shot up into the air and workers scrambled to get the hay away from the mine entrance, unaware that the big ventilation fans had already boosted the fire. It was too late to stop it and the heat forced everyone to step back.

Flames soon spread to the mine’s wooden support pillars and almost simultaneously triggered gas explosions within the mine. The mules panicked and ran back into the shaft to get away from the smoke and heat. So did the miners who knew the lethal power of gas and smoke in the small spaces where they worked. The small handful of men who were outside the mine when the fire broke out decided to go down in the cage and rescue those trapped below.

They were overcome by gas fumes and were all dead when the cage was pulled back up. In an equally futile and ill-informed move, the mine superintendent sealed off the entrance thinking that this would smother the fire. Underground damage was widespread and nothing could be done until the morning of November 14 when it was safe for rescuers to go down below. Rescuers found 170 men still alive. They had been able to get into small crevices away from the smoke. Another 259 men had died. It was the worst mine disaster in the history of Illinois.

In all of the above instances the tragedies were due to one of two things, carelessness or lack of experience on the part of miners, or failure by mine managers to take adequate safety precautions. The idea of a safe mine is now a top priority throughout the industry. The growing environment movement is expressing concerns about pollution and health risks.

Companies are determined to show that, whatever environmental damage they may cause, at least they are deeply concerned for the safety of the miners. There is greater understanding of the geology of mine structures, better and safer equipment for all aspects of mining, and emergency resource kits. All these make it easier to safeguard the lives of those who work below ground.


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Chicago Fire – Illinois – December 30, 1903

The theater that was claimed to be fireproof went up in flames shortly after its first opening. Of the 1,900 people in attendance six hundred lost their lives.

Chicago’s deadliest fire of the twentieth century occurred shortly after the opening of the new, fireproof, Iroquois Theater. On December 30, 1903, when the Iroquois Theater was packed for a holiday matinee of the popular musical ”Mr. Blue Beard, Jr.,” a fire suddenly broke out. The management was quite unprepared for the panic that ensued. Out of the 1,900 people in attendance, mostly women and children, six hundred lost their lives. The United States had a long history of fires, and this was not the only twentieth century urban fire, but it was a particularly tragic event. The new fire precautions had been well established and were well known. Several theaters had already implemented them.

Sadly, at the Iroquois, there was indifference to two extremely important safety procedures: ways of getting people out of the building quickly and stationing firemen close to the stage with fire extinguishers and hoses ready for use. Neither of these procedures was in place on December 30. There were firemen on duty in the theater at the time of the fire but the only firefighting equipment they had was a quantity of powder to sprinkle on a fire. The powder proved to be quite useless. When a velvet curtain ignited at the stage, an asbestos backup curtain, standard equipment in all theaters of that time, failed to drop down and contain the fire. Someone had raised the curtain higher than its usual position in order to provide a better view of the stage for those on the balcony. It got stuck in the higher position.

Additionally, there were no ushers at the exits to guide people out and avoid panic. Iron gates had been installed over exit doors and some of these were locked. Those that were unlocked were difficult to open because of a lever that was unfamiliar to most patrons. The result was a combination of panic and pileup at the exits. A large number of casualties, perhaps the majority of the six hundred, were people and children who had been trampled to death at the doors or were killed when they jumped down from the balcony. The speed with which everything happened added to the rush and confusion. Canvas backdrops on stage, painted with highly inflammable oil paints and mounted in the air, had caught fire instantly and created a firestorm. It was all over in fifteen minutes.

The Cook County Coroner’s Inquest documented the tragic sequence of events and came down hard on the theater’s management. It listed 571 deaths and hundreds of people injured. Thirty of these latter died in the weeks that followed. The fact that the casualties were mostly women and children, and that it happened so near to Christmas, made it all the more poignant and blameworthy. It was Chicago’s worst tragedy since the fire of 1871. Out of the tragedy came new, stronger regulations for theaters. New laws about fire safety were passed. Among them was the requirement that all exits had to be clearly marked and their doors so arranged that they could be pushed open from the inside. The largely undamaged Iroquois building reopened less than a year after the fire and ran on for a further twenty years.

Both before this fire and after it there were other urban fires across America. Wood was still the dominant building material in use for homes, for piers, and even for walkways in some of the newer communities. The New Jersey shore of the Hudson River was a busy shipping center at the start of the twentieth century. There were many wooden piers at which ships tied up while awaiting the loading of their cargoes. On Saturday afternoon, in June 1900, stacks of baled cotton and about a hundred barrels of whiskey were stacked on one New Jersey pier when a fire broke out in one of the cotton bales. Cargoes of flammable materials lay around waiting to be put on board. Fire immediately erupted.

Dozens of kegs of whiskey were ignited and these exploded and added fuel to the fire. The cause of the fire was not known; it could have been smoldering for some days before bursting into flame. In spite of efforts to limit the spread of the fire things got out of hand within an hour. Several ships and numerous smaller vessels caught fire as most of the crews from ships were ashore and large numbers of visitors were visiting the ships. There were also many canal boats and barges loaded with oil, coal, cotton, and gasoline, all highly inflammable materials which were being transferred to the ships. These added fuel to the already raging fires, helping to spread the flames to neighboring piers. All the ingredients for a devastating fire were at hand.

The piers were old, already saturated with oil from previous shipments. Cargoes of flammable materials lay around waiting to be put on board. Tied up at a pier, on the New Jersey side of New York harbor, were four ships of 5,000–10,000 tons in size. A 14,000-ton liner, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, held the Blue Riband, the much-coveted Atlantic-crossing record. This ship was the pride of the German marine fleet. It was built in 1897, carried a crew of five hundred men, and had an average speed of 20 mph. It was the first ship built with four stacks and the first to be fitted with remote-controlled watertight doors. It was also the first ship to carry a radio. In 1900 it carried a radio that had a range of twenty-five miles.

The Kaiser Wilhelm plied the Atlantic sea lanes for years after the Hoboken fire then, at the outbreak of World War I, it was converted into an armed merchant vessel but was sunk within a month of the war’s outbreak. A red and yellow plume shot skyward as flames spread from place to place and longshoremen soon realized that the wooden piers under them were catching fire They shouted a warning to others and ran for their lives. Forty men who did not move fast enough were incinerated. Trapped on the ships, some on deck and others below the level of the deck, were hundreds of visitors. Many of the casualties were people who were unable to get away in time.

The nearest horse-drawn fire-fighting carriage arrived within six minutes and the men on it fought the fire all evening and through the night until they finally got it out by the morning. The Kaiser Wilhelm had hundreds of sightseers on deck and many of them panicked when flames engulfed her bow. Tugs rushed to the rescue from both sides of the harbor and pushed the big ship into mid-stream. The stern also caught fire but the crew was well organized and fought every outbreak persistently, even using their uniforms to smother the smaller fires. No lives were lost. It was a very different story on the other ships. All of them were completely on fire and the tugs attempting to pull them away from the pier caught fire too and had to give up.

The damage to the three ships was extensive and they had to stay in port for some time for repairs. Since the piers in this area of Hoboken were under the care of the North German Lloyd Steamship Company, owners of the Kaiser Wilhelm and the other three ships, the company had to make arrangements for the burial of those who died. For most of them it was almost impossible to establish any identity. The tools that are at our disposal today were not available at that time. A mass burial was arranged at the Flower Hills Cemetery nearby and the shipping company, to its credit, looked after the maintenance and repair of this burial site for the whole of the twentieth century.

Lack of attention to fire regulations and inexperience in dealing with new hazards were also evident in ships at sea. One of the favorite trips of the 1930s was a pleasure cruise from New York to Havana. Cuba was a very different place at that time than it is today. Costs were low compared with their equivalents in the United States and large numbers of New Yorkers made the short two-way trip to the capital, Havana. The Morrow Castle was one of the ships that plied regularly between these two places and, in September of 1934, it was returning to New York when a small fire broke out in the writing room in the middle of the night. Instead of notifying the captain, three sailors decided to put out the fire on their own.

When they found that the fire was spreading and they were unable to control it they sent an urgent message to the captain who should have been on the bridge because the ship was quite close to New York at this the time. What they did not know was that the captain had had a heart attack and died a few hours earlier. His chief officer, in accordance with standing regulations, had immediately taken command but he was quite inexperienced and did not know what to do about the fire. A second message went to the bridge but again there was no response.

Within an hour the fire was out of control and the new captain sent out an SOS message. Chaos followed. A few managed to get away in lifeboats. Out of the total of 550 on board, one hundred thirty-five either drowned or were incinerated. All of these fires occurred in places of entertainment and commerce. It was a very different story in a fire that broke out in New York in 1911, in a place where new immigrants to America had just secured their first jobs, where pay was at a minimum level, and where working conditions were poor. These new immigrants fitted the traditional description, “tired and poor,” and probably spent their last nickel to get to America. The garment industry in Lower Manhattan gave many of them their first job in the new world, a job that required little prior experience and hence paid little.

They had to work long hours each day to make enough money. The history of New York’s clothing industry is full of examples of poor working conditions and inadequate safety precautions. It was common practice for management to lock the emergency doors during working hours, as was done in one tragic instance. This was to prevent workers stealing things and leaving the building via fire exits instead of the main doors. Shirtwaist, or ladies’ blouse, was a popular item in the early 1900s, worth a significant amount of money, the sort of thing that workers might be tempted to steal. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the thousands of clothing factories in lower Manhattan.

They employed the immigrants, mostly Jewish and Italian, who streamed into New York and factory managers were able to take advantage of these new arrivals. Even after fifteen hours of work a day many of them had to take clothing home to be finished there in order to make enough money. No health or insurance benefits were provided, no extra money for working overtime, and frequently children were employed. “Sweatshops” and “fire and death traps,” were the terms often used to describe these places of work. It was in these factories that some of the strongest trade unions took shape to fight for better working conditions. They had to work hard for the right to present workers’ grievances to managers.

In many cases the managers refused to recognize their existence and even threatened workers who supported them. In 1909, facing persistent refusal from management to listen to their complaints, 20,000 shirtwaist workers, mainly women, went on strike. There were no laws guaranteeing them this right so business leaders persuaded the police to arrest them for lawless behavior. There were also acts of brutality by the police to intimidate them. In spite of the conflict the strike secured some concessions and there was a general pay raise and the workweek was fixed at a maximum of fifty-two hours. The Asch Building at the south of Manhattan Island, New York, was a modern structure and had a reputation for being fireproof.

It had ten floors and the top three floors belonged to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Five hundred women worked in these three floors. Shortly before five o’clock in the afternoon of a day in March of 1911, as workers were about to leave, a fire broke out on the eighth floor. Like the two other floors above it, this floor was filled with sewing machines crammed so close together that little aisle space was left for moving about. Scraps of cloth and paper patterns lay around and they soon increased the spread of flames and smoke. The fire had started quickly and flared out just as rapidly. A number of workers from the eighth floor rushed to the stairway in time to see the whole floor erupt in a mass of flames. Many of them managed to escape with their clothes on fire. It was a different story on the ninth floor. The elevator quit and never reached that floor.

The emergency door leading to the fire escape had been locked previously and by the time someone broke it down the fire escape had collapsed under the heat of the fire. A few who reached the fire escape were killed as it collapsed. Others, desperate and with nowhere to turn, chose to jump to their death rather than be incinerated. Firemen had difficulty bringing a ladder into position because of the bodies strewed over the pavement, not all of them yet dead. Furthermore, their ladder, when it was erected, could only reach as far as the eighth floor. Life nets were brought in to try and catch those falling down but the women fell with such force that they went right through the nets. In less than two hours 147 bodies lay dead on the sidewalk below.

The events of March 1911 were exceptional because of the large number of workers killed but other aspects were typical of the times. The fire and its effects were all over in two hours and firemen were left with the task of removing the bodies of those who had died on one of the upper floors. By the standards of the time the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was not held responsible for the fire and loss of life even though it was quite obvious that it had failed to ensure safety for its workers.

Action was taken immediately by city authorities to institute factory inspections, fireproofing, and installation of sprinkler systems. The union representing the garment workers was not satisfied with these moves. They felt they could no longer trust anyone but themselves for their safety and took action within a few days of the tragedy. Parents and friends of the victims of the fire met with the Ladies’ Waist and Dress Makers’ Union a few days after the tragedy to give them support. They were completely in favor of the union’s demand that the company owners be brought to trial.

They were also concerned, as was the union, about the disposal of the $100,000 that had been collected for the families of the victims. These two issues galvanized the union. They were convinced that appeals to authorities for corrective action were simply not working and they resolved to be more militant in the future. This is what their president said at the time: “Just because a safety committee was appointed and newspapers devoted pages to the problems in the factories, we cannot assume that the 30,000 shops in the city will suddenly become perfect. As long as the enforcement of labor laws is in the hands of political people, factories will remain unsafe and unhealthy. We must depend entirely upon ourselves for improvements.” In later years other trade unions referred back to them as pioneers of the trade union movement.


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Chicago Fire – Illinois – October 8, 1871

A bigger fire, compared with all the previous ones, broke out in the center of the city of Chicago. Inability of firemen to get to the fire quickly gave the flames a quick start from which, aided by a brisk wind, they were able to push the fire beyond the control of the fire department.

This fire began in the barn of a farmer near the center of the city in the evening of October 8, 1871. There was considerable delay in responding to the fire. The alarm was not sounded for more than an hour and then the firemen were sent at first to the wrong place. These factors allowed the fire to make a quick start. Additionally, weekends seem to be favorite times for tragedies of this kind. It was on a weekend, early Sunday morning, that the great fire of London of 1666 broke out and it was also on a weekend that the tragic Coconut Grove Club fire in Boston occurred, killing five hundred of the people who had packed into that club for the evening of November 28, 1942. There was an additional troubling factor affecting the Chicago fire: weeks of extremely dry weather had caused a rash of fires. Daily the city’s fire bell kept ringing every three or four hours. Firemen were completely exhausted by the time the big fire broke out on October 8.

Chicago, the windy city, unfortunately lived up to its reputation on this occasion. Soon after the start of the fire a strong wind began to blow from the southwest. This was the trigger that accelerated the conflagration, pushing it beyond control within a couple of hours. The wind rose to 60 mph, flaming bits of debris were blown from one building to another, and soon large numbers of people were running toward Lake Michigan’s beaches for safety. The reality that firemen had to face was that Chicago was a city almost entirely constructed with wood and all of this wood had become as dry as tinder in three months of drought since early July. Less than three inches of rain had fallen in those months. Wood was the universal raw material for homes and streets at that time and writers often referred to Chicago as being all wood. The arrival of blacktop was still a long way ahead in time. Walkways, paths, and even streets, were made of wood planks. There were hundreds of miles of wood in Chicago and every home and almost every building was a wooden structure.

The city in 1871 had become the national center for the meat packing industry and so the entire ground area in the newly opened stockyards were paved with wooden blocks to prevent damage to the feet of cattle, sheep, and hogs. The ships in the Chicago River were made of wood and so were the bridges that spanned it. There were wooden fences and wooden barns and outbuildings, wooden stables behind the wealthier homes and even among the large buildings of the city most of them were built of wood. The poorer residential homes stood next to lumber and coal yards, paint sheds, furniture factories, and other buildings of an industrial kind that were filled with flammable goods, so they constituted a fire trap in the given situation. That situation included widespread neglect of such fire and safety regulations that were in place. The considerations with which we are familiar today were absent in these early days of burgeoning western cities. Nowadays, the cost of a fire in a major city is so great that strict controls and high penalties for neglect are installed in all vulnerable sites.

By the time the fire eased, which would be eighteen hours later, there was a huge population of homeless people. Late on Monday evening, that is almost a day and a half after its inception, the fire burned itself out. Flames had swept over more than 2,000 acres of land and destroyed an estimated $200 million worth of property. The worst feature of all was that the areas that had been destroyed were the ones that the city could least afford to lose. The center of the city’s commercial, cultural, and civic life was destroyed. As so often happened in situations of this kind, it was hard to control looters. The authorities did what they could and the military units that were drawn in to control the situation were given orders to shoot at sight anybody who was looting. However, that did not seem to inhibit the amount of looting. There was a national and international outpouring of charitable contributions and a remarkable amount of work was accomplished in a short period of time for the many who were homeless. Reconstructing the city was a big task. Eighteen thousand buildings had been destroyed, three hundred had died, and there were a hundred thousand people without homes.