Thursday, October 4, 2018

TNT Blasts Cause Day of Terror; Jersey Quakes 50 miles Around -- October 4, 2018

New York Sun, 06-October-1918
On this day 100 years ago, 04-October-1918, an explosion at the TA Gillespie Shell Loading Plant turned out to be the first of a series of explosions that lasted for three days.


America's Greatest Munition Disaster Costs Probably 50 Lives, 150 Injured and $30,000,000 in Property Damage


Five Barges of TNT and Largest Magazine Escape Ignition -- Projectiles Rain on Country -- Big Exodus of Families

Recurrent explosions, at irregular intervals, through Friday night and all of yesterday, made the destruction of the T. A. Gillespie & Co. shell loading plant at Morgan, N.J. twenty-nine miles from New York, America's greatest munition disaster

Each of the "big explosions'' which, as distinguished from a peppering series of little ones, quaked the earth for fifty miles in all directions, flattening the town of South Amboy near by, breaking window glass so far away that house holders were unaware of the cause, meant that one of the thirteen units of a great shell finishing factory covering 2,300 acres or a carload of loaded shells had blown to pieces.

Last night most of the 100 frame buildings of this mushroom powder community were an utter ruin. A plant where 21,000 shells a day have been filled with the high explosive, trinitrotoluol, or TNT, was destroyed. -

Twenty-eight hour after the first detonation, that is to say at midnight, explosions still were occurring at intervals of three or four minutes, though none of them was severe. At that hour. It was discovered that there still were a number of refugees in South Amboy, and trucks were sent from Perth Amboy, manned by volunteers, to bring them out.

Estimate of Casualties.

The loss of life is estimated by Mr. Gillespie as between 25 and 50; and the number of injured at possibly 150. For an accident -- if accident it was -- of this magnitude, the human casualties are comparatively slight. From the standpoint of America's interest in the war the outstanding fact Is the source of 21,000 big gun shells a day, which were lightered from Morgan to ships and so sped on their, way to the battlefields, is suddenly cut off. But it will be restored swiftly. The War Department announced yesterday that the moment the fire still searing the ruins of the plant is put out and the debris cleared away rebuilding will begin.

So If any person thought that by touching off the Gillespie factory he could seriously impede the flow of munitions to Pershing's army, he is mistaken. And big as it was, this factory was only one of a myriad that are engaged in its kind of work.

A worse explosion than any that had occurred was feared.

In an underground magazine along the bank of Cheesequake Creek, which flows through the 2,300 acre plant at Morgan, were said to be stored 100 tons of TNT. On five barges moored In the Raritan River were between 600 and 1,000 tons of the hellish stuff. There was danger on two counts: that the fire might spread to these stores and touch them off, that shells which were flying all over that part of New Jersey might do the trick. The resulting explosion would be frightful.

Two Aviators Inspect.

It was because of this danger, as well as the explosions that were actually occurring at the plant in a sort of drumfire, that the Government allowed no civilian to get within five miles of the Gillespie wreck yesterday. However, late In the afternoon two aviators, taking their lives in their hands, braved in an airplane the wicked currents and cross-currents of superheated air that ascended from the pyre and circled above and all around it. Aa well as they could see through the smoke and fumes and flame It appeared that the underground magazine and the barges were in no Immediate danger and probably would not be exploded.

Late last night an army officer reported that the danger of another explosion was remote, provided the wind did not change. At that time the wind was blowing away from the underground magazine, where many tons of TNT are stored.

Major-Gen. C. C. Williams, Chief of Ordnance, U. 8. A.; Capt. Wilson, also of the ordnance division, and Lieut. Nufflize arrived In Perth Amboy from Washington last night and consulted officers who had been on the scene all day. All declined,, to talk at the end of their conference.

Fire Chief Severely Hurt.

Among the Injured at the Lakewood Hospital are Chief Hayes and Capt. Ainsworth of the guards who protected the Gillespie plant, and Chief Donahue of the Perth Amboy Fire Department. All were hurt while working at the scene of the explosions. Chief Donahue's wounds are serious.

After several hours of comparative silence another explosion shook New Jersey at 10 o'clock last night. A series of three more were felt, beginning at 10:45 P. M.

The property damage will probably run up to almost $30,000,000. The plant, owned by the Government, cost $12,000,000. The explosives stored for manufacture were worth $8,000,000. The village of Morgan, near the plant on Raritan Bay, was wiped out. The town of South Amboy, where most of the 2,500 Gillespie employees lived, looks to-day, like the pictures of French villages after long bombardment by both sides.

In Perth Amboy, a city of 60,000 persons five miles from the scene of the explosions, there are windowless houses and streets filled with broken trees. On all the area of land within fifteen miles of Morgan the hand of destruction was laid. In Newark, Elizabeth; New Brunswick, across Raritan Bay on Staten Island, up the Jersey shore, and even in downtown Manhattan, real estate suffered more or less.

Exodus of Families.

All this apart from the terror of the munition workers, and other families of South Amboy driven from their homes, streaming through a night illuminated by monstrous orange colored torches that cleft the sky above Morgan, tugging at their babies and chattels, beaten to earth by new and greater explosions as they toiled along, stumbling across the long bridge that spans the Raritan between South Amboy and Perth Amboy, finding shelter where the Red Cross and a hundred other agencies of relief and the people of Perth Amboy could supply it, or sleeping huddled in shawls in the public park.

Observers who have been in France said the scenes were comparable to an exodus of refugees from the war zone and the likeness was probably exact. Just as In France, the refugees are forever begging the authorities to let them go home, or where their homes were, so the exiles from the shore of Raritan Bay clung to army officers yesterday and told of chickens that had not been fed, of cows that had not been milked, and sought permission to return.

"And It would have done your heart good," an army man said, "to see the number of these poor devils from the TNT plant who( said they would go back there to work the moment the new plant was built"

Inquiries for Relatives.

Women with children who had been homeless in South Amboy all day received the new warning of danger in the afternoon hysterically, but were relieved when told that as far as could be ascertained the danger was passed. In the meantime those who had not been driven from home by fear of the explosions or marched to safety by the military forces who took possession of the district were running about inquiring for word as to their relatives, who were reported to have been working in the plant last night when the first explosion occurred.

Army officers said that they thought the dead numbered about fifty and the injured not more than a hundred. Workmen from the plant said this was a very low estimate, but could not give figures to support their own belief. The Gillespie company employed about 2,500 men and women. They worked In three shifts.

The shift on duty at 7:45 on Friday evening when the great blowup started was smaller than usual. No women were there and only about 600 men. About seventy men were in the building where the fire started.

As there was no Immediate explosion the company believes that most of them got out and that the rest of the 600 workers had time to run a safe distance before TNT began spouting. They admit that this is guesswork.

Fourteen Bodies Recovered.

Fourteen bodies are known to have been taken from the plant thus far. Major Smith, In command of the Eleventh Battalion of the United States Coast Guard, was reported last night as having not been seen by his men since 3 A. M. yesterday, but was not definitely reported missing.

The Department of Justice took charge of the investigation of the cause of the catastrophe. Its agents swarmed all around the wire fence that surrounds the Gillespie enclosure. So far as known they have not yet reached anything like a' conclusion. Nor has Mr. Gillespie or his partners.

A workman who says ho was in one of the buildings asserts that a kettle of chemical mixture which should be heated only to 90 degrees, got Up to 105 degrees, that the mixture exploded and set fire to the Interior of the building and that the flames from this ignited another building and that the first of the tremendous blasts followed.

Lull In the Explosions.

In tho following three hours the bombardment from the TNT plant was regular and terrific. At about 10 o'clock Friday night there came a lull and everybody hoped that the worst was over. But at 2 o'clock In the morning came a shock that was felt as far away as Islip, fifty miles down Long Island. A bigger one was felt at 4 in the morning, another about 10 A. M. and the heaviest of at a few minutes after noon.

Not only was TNT exploding in mass, but loaded shells were being fired by the heat and driving helter-skelter through the New Jersey atmosphere, adding to the general terror. One of these shells, according to a correspondent hurtled through a window at Ford's Corner, twelve miles from where it started.

The fire department of Perth Amboy sent all Its force to Morgan to help fight the flames, but was ordered back by army officers. It would have been folly to risk their lives near the magazines, which were going off like a string of colossal firecrackers. The firemen were told by one of the guards at the plant that the situation got out of hand because in all this treasure house of high explosives no dynamite could be found with which to raze other buildings and stop the flames.

But as the electric light went out and the darkness was not really relieved by the fire for an hour or ta after the first explosion. It Is difficult to see how the guards could have found the dynamite even If It had been there, to say nothing of the idea of blowing up buildings which, were blowing themselves up about as fast as one could want.

Other Theories Advanced.

Another Gillespie employee thought the first explosion was due to a defective valve that he said was in use to ascertain the heat and quality of the TNT. Still another spoke of an excess of steam which caused the mixture to explode before the temperature should have reached a dangerous degree. These and yarns about mysterious men and an airplane swooping over the plant early Friday evening are being looked into by the investigators.

The danger of a whopping big explosion that would shame any of its predecessors was investigated by airplane, because the hundreds of soldiers, sailors, militia, home defense men, Gillespie guards and others who were risking their lives in trying to get near the blazing acres could not get near enough.

The situation was at last relieved when an airplane was seen approaching. Aboard It were Major H. L. Armstrong and Capt. W. W. Watson. It spiraled again and again over the big enclosure, the aviators, with field-glasses to their eyes, leaning over the edge of their fuselage, peering down at the lurid pit beneath, then swooping upward and circling again to get a higher view of the spectacle.

Fly Low Over Barges.

The notion that these men were not mere sightseers took hold of the crowds that watched on the ground from a safe distance. It gradually dawned upon them that an airplane was being put to a new use. Where the loaded barges were tied in Cheesequake Creek, not far from the Raritan Bay, the flying men circled low. They scrutinized this particular spot for more than fifteen minutes, then selected a landing place without the danger zone and landed.

They then talked with army officers at the administration building of the Gillespie plant, which was far removed from the TNT loading houses and was unharmed. It was then that the army officers said the danger of the greater explosion seemed to have passed and that the terrified residents of the South Amboy district could return to what was left of their homes.

This information being flashed to Manhattan reopened the tunnels and bridges and set the traffic tides flowing again. But meanwhile the refugees who had been struggling homeward from Perth Amboy, having heard the news that New York was scared to death, and figuring that if New York was in danger they certainly must be, turned back toward Perth Amboy Instead of going home and milled in panic.0

It took some time to convince them that they were comparatively safe after all, or as nearly safe as anybody could be when war's fiercest explosive, TNT, was shattering the firmament almost in their midst.

Morgan. N. J., which Is the post office name of the Gillespie works, is in the edge of a zone that is of vast importance in the war. Directly westward are the plants of the California Loading Company and the Oliver Loading Company. Further away, but not too far to be out of danger of communicated explosion, are the plants of the Hercules Loading Company, the Parlin shell plant, one of the Du Pont plants and the plant of the Gillespie Loading Company. The United States Department of Labor recently said that 61 per cent of the shells that leave the United States are handled by the T. A. Gillespie, California and Oliver companies.

Site of the Plant.

Morgan is on the western shore of Raritan Bay. Cheesequake Creek runs through it to the bay. The town of South Amboy, whose population is about 10,000, occupies the flats just to the north of Morgan and further north, across the Raritan River, is Perth Amboy, whose normal population of 45,000 has been swollen to 60,000 by the war. Behind Morgan, above the river, rises a bluff which is the edge of a plateau that was waste land until the Government built there a shell loading plant and installed T. A. Gillespie & Co. to load shells on the basis of cost plus 10 per cent

Near the river stands the Gillespie administration building. Southward of it are about sixty rough wooden buildings in which shells were loaded. The materials were started at one end of these lines of buildings and came out at the other as loaded shells. In other parts of the enclosure of about sixteen square miles were forty other buildings, including barracks for guards. From an airplane the whole plant would resemble an army cantonment.

The building where the first blast went off, according to the best information, was known as No. 6-11. About seventy men were at work In that building. The company officers believe that most of the dead were there. No women were at work at night.

Gillespie on Scene.

President T. A. Gillespie and Vice President Yeats were in the administration building when the first shock occurred. Running forth, they saw men scampering from all the buildings across the enclosure and through the high wire fence into the darkness.

There was too much confusion and danger then to try to find out what had actually happened. Later Mr. Gillespie and the Government men were told that a few seconds before the upheaval in building 6-11 the electric lights suddenly wont out and then flashed on again, as if somebody was tampering with the wires. The men in that building were loading three inch shells.

Romaine Heuer, foreman in building 9-2, where nine inch shells were being filled, agreed that the thing started at 7:45 o'clock in building 6-11, and that the next to blow up was building 6-S, and then, after an interval, building 6-4, where eight inch shells were being loaded.

At 2 :30 A. M. a shell dropped on another unit which contained 8,000 nine inch shells. The electricity plant, or wiring was put out of business by the first explosion. The company's electricians stuck to their post.

They crawled about in the darkness trying to find an emergency switch and turn it on to to find the break in the wire that they thought may have interrupted the current. Meanwhile another brave man kept a searchlight at one end of the enclosure playing here and there over the plant, guiding toward, the wire fence the hundreds of men who were frantically endeavoring to find some way out of this place of death.

Pillars of Flame.

This was the only illumination the place had until the mounting flames from the buildings and the pillars of dazzling orange colored light from the burning powder, which blossomed into beautiful, if terrifying, sunbursts at the top, gave all the light that any one could ask for. These flame pillars were visible for miles. Col. Douglas I. McKay, ex-Police Commissioner of New York, arrived yesterday from Washington to investigate for the Ordnance Department. He was one of those who talked with Major Armstrong and Capt. Watson after their airplane observation trip. He would make no statement, but from others it was learned that the TNT laden barges were about a mile from the nearest flames and seemingly were in no danger of going up.

The early explosions devastated the village of Morgan and the later ones made a mess of South Amboy. Miles away at Rahway, N. J., the steeple of the Second' Presbyterian Church swayed under an atmospheric blow administered at 12 :06 o'clock in the afternoon and bricks showered to the street. The last major explosion came at about 4 P.M.

By that time the town of South Amboy resembled a village In France. Houses were roofless and chimneyless, doors and door frames had been blown away, shingles littered the streets. Very few of the population had stayed to witness this disruption. In the darkness, herded by military guards, they had escaped to the open country or crossed the bridge to Perth Amboy. which is about three-quarters of a mile long and seemed about fifty miles to the refugees.

Removal of Injured.

The injured were taken to a temporary hospital in Perth Amboy and later distributed among other hospitals in towns as far away as Elizabeth and New Brunswick. The plateau where stood the Gillespie plant has been known as "the battlefield" ever since a skirmish was fought there In the Revolutionary War. It was as from a battlefield that the inhabitants of the region fled and as after a battle that the wounded were succored.

Agonizing stories of huge loss of life, of fearful incidents back In the TNT inferno added, to the fright of the exiles. It was reported, for instance, that there was a trainload of TNT on a branch railroad track within the Gillespie enclosure, and that while an engineer who stuck to his throttle was trying to get the train away two carloads had exploded, killing a lot of men.

Realization that flames, creeping through the ruins and the dry grass of the plateau, might reach other shell factories and send the whole northern New Jersey world Into the air, did not tend to lessen the terror.

As a matter of fact, these other plants were in little danger, but everybody seemed intent on believing the worst that anyone could tell him. As to the underground magazine near Cheesequake Creek, It was provided with an automatic flooding system, but as no one could get near the magazine It was impossible to say whether the system had worked all right or not.

Injured Unable to Explain.

At noon thirty-eight Injured had been taken to the Perth Amboy Hospital. All were able to talk but were unable to explain the disaster. Others who were hurt were taken to the Colonia base hospital, St. Peter's In New Brunswick, the army convalescent hospital at Lakewood, the Alexian Brothers Hospital at Elizabeth, to Keyport, Newark and Staten Island.

The Central Railroad of New Jersey discontinued its regular schedule, refusing to take passengers further than Sewaren, eight miles from Morgan station. The nearest to Morgan that newspaper men could get was Perth Amboy, five miles 4way. While a Sun reporter was telephoning from Perth Amboy the old Packard House lost a door.

There were, eight bodies in the undertaking rooms of Coroner E. L. Mason at Perth Amboy last night, and it was said there were fifteen bodies at Garretson's morgue in 8outh Amboy. The only body definitely Identified up to that time was that of John Miller of Newark, an inspector at the Gillespie plant.

Mr. Gillespie said he believed the company's payroll was saved and that by checking up names to-day he probably could tell definitely who among his employees were lost. Three hundred soldiers of the Regular Army went to the outskirts of the plant last night to relieve Coast Guard men and militia who had been working twenty-four hours.

Girl Braves Peril to Help.

A girl, Mignon Brickman, living near the Gillespie enclosure, stayed up all Friday night making hot coffee for the guards and refugees under shell fire until the guards compelled her to leave.

In Perth Amboy they were also telling of the bravery of George Francisco and Richard Lamb, mechanical engineers on duty at the plant, who after the first explosion crawled through the darkness and shut off the live steam supply of the entire plant so that it might not overheat and explode TNT in buildings whence the workers had fled.

An elderly man, the last of the refugees, limped Into Perth Amboy last night. He said that South Amboy is in darkness except for the glare from the burning munitions plant. Few persons are there except soldiers, sailors and a few officers of the company.

Lack of sleep and shock made the old man slow in answering inquiries. He was oppressed by the fear that other and worse explosions were inevitable. He said unexploded shells littered the road over which he had come.

It was said last night that three large magazines containing unexploded TNT have been located. They are underground and under concrete roofs.

Takes TNT Out of Plant.

Lieut. Sayre of Company B, Fifteenth Battalion of the United States Guard, with a railroad employee who knew only enough about a locomotive to start it, ran twelve freight cars filled with TNT out of the yards of the ammunition plant yesterday to South Amboy.

Sergeant William C. Schilling of Lieut. Sayre's company went back to bed, Friday night after the explosions had stopped and it was thought that there was no more danger. The first of the big explosions that began about midnight lifted him out of bed. He dropped to the floor thoroughly awake.

Schilling was ordered to save the patients in the camp hospital. He got automobiles and took some of the patients to Keyport, where he commandeered a hotel. Afterward the patients were taken to the Government hospital at Lakewood. During the journey to Keyport the glass In all of the automobiles was broken.

Miss Hazel Yaeger of 485 Ninth avenue, a nurse who responded early yesterday to the call for relief workers, was stationed at a temporary hospital in South Amboy. She said that while twenty injured men were on operating tables an explosion broke all the windows in the building and glass sprinkled the patients.

Three Prisoners Released.

In the camp hospital were three men held as prisoners. When the other patients were taken out, these men remained. An officer ordered them released. Nobody had time to watch them. They quickly made a getaway.

The chief electrician of Unit J-11, where the first explosion occurred, was blinded. He said that 200 men were working in this unit. If this is true the number of dead exceeds present estimates.

The Rev. Father Quinn of Perth Amboy went to South Amboy, arriving there at midnight Friday. He accompanied Chief of Police Burke of Perth Amboy. Father Quinn went into the burning buildings of the munitions plant and administered the last sacrament to men dying of burns. When the peril became too great Chief Burke forced him into his automobile. Father Quinn jumped from the moving car and ran back toward the plant. Chief Burke caught him and again forced him back into the automobile.

It was said by Government officials yesterday that the Morgan plant had been particularly careful in weeding out enemy aliens from among applicants for work. A man who said he was familiar with the situation in all the munitions plants in the metropolitan district declared that hundreds of enemy aliens work in them. He admitted that he had no particular knowledge of the plant at Morgan.

Perth Amboy Is under martial law and the entire district In the control of more than 1,000 Regulars and members of the Coast Guard. No search for bodies will be made until the ruin's cool.

An inspector who was in Unit 6-11 two hours before the first explosion said that in the building were nine kettles, each containing about 2,400 pounds of amatol, a half and half mixture of TNT and ammonia nitrate. The amatol was fed from kettles on the second floor through pipes to the first floor, where 155 millimeter shells, known as "grave diggers," were filled.

Amatol exerts its force downward when exploded. The inspector believes that all the men in the building, except four, who have been accounted for, were killed. He said there were only fifty men in the building. There were about 3,000 "grave digger" shells in this structure, and BOO more In a car alongside. Carloads of shells caused the loudest detonations yesterday.

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