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BROOKLYN EXPLOSION ENGULFS A SCORE
20 NOVEMBER 1908
Men, Women, and Children go down under Flood, Fire, and Earth in Gold Street
Sewer. Victims buried under tons of debris fifty feet down, while many slide
into death pit.
Accompanied by an explosion of gas which shook the neighbohood, the
walls of a huge sewer trench in Gold Street, between York and Front Streets,
Brooklyn, caved in yesterday morning, burying it is believed, at least
twenty persons fifty feet below the surface. The victims met death either by
suffocation, fire, or drowning. Blazing woodwork and a flood of water from
broken mains added to the impossibility of their escape.
With Mayor McClellan and other high officials of the City Government
looking on, big forces of firemen, policemen, and employees of other
municipal departments ready and eager to do rescue work, were forced to
stand idly by until the possibility of a spread of the calamity could be
removed by the shoring up of undermined buildings, which seemed in danger of
toppling over into the horror pit. Although the accident happened soon after
9 o'clock in the morning, it was not until early this morning that the
actual work of digging out the unfortunates supposed to be entombed there
could be begun.
Just how many workers in the trench or persons who were passing in the
street at the time of the cave-in were missing was hard to learn last night,
and was still in doubt at midnight. It is believed, however, that at least
ten workmen, a woman, and three children were buried under the great mass of
earth, stone and debris. The only body recovered was that of Samuel Abrams,
who was burned while trying to rescue the woman. He died in full sight of
scores of persons who were unable to get to him. His body was found near the
POLICE LIST SHOWS 24 MISSING
At midnight the list of missing compiled by the police of the Fulton
Street Station from reports made to them showed twenty-four persons missing.
Here is the list:
ABRAMS, SAMUEL, blacksmith, Gold and Front Streets
ANDERSON, GUS, foreman of carpenters
ARMANDO, FRANCESCO, laborer
ARMANDO, JOHN, laborer.
BACHMAN, EMIL, laborer.
BRADY, CLARICE, 7 years, 107 Gold street
CORSINE, CHRISTOPHER, laborer.
CRANE, JOHN 107 East Ninth Street
DALTON, WILLIAM, 6 years, 109 Gold street
DOHERTY, VINCENT, 6 years, 107 Gold Street
FARRELL, CHARLES foreman,
______, FRANCESCO, laborer No. 56
GREEN, HENRY, laborer, 107 East 100th Street
LANE, GUS, laborer
NELSON, CHARLES, laborer
O'GRADY, JOHN 6 years, 107 Gold street
SCHIFFMEYER, FRED, Borough Inspector of Sewers 1425 Bushwick Avenue.
WOMAN, name unknown
THREE CHILDREN, names unknown
___________,__________, laborer, No. 52
CONFUSION TILL MAYOR CAME
The presence of Mayor McClellan at the scene of the disaster was in a
measure due to a confusion as to authority which arose among the heads of
various departments who were on the spot. The Police, Fire, Sewer, and
Building Departments each asserted his right to take charge, and there was
an argument between Deputy Fire Commissioner Wise and Building Supt. Moore.
Further confusing matters, Police Inspector Schmittberger's men refused to
pass Supt. Moore's subordinates through the police lines on their badges.
While this tangle prevailed, practically nothing was done toward rescuing
the victims of the disaster.
Word of the situation reached the Mayor, who earlier had been before
the Grand Jury in Brooklyn, and he hurried to the scene. As soon as he
arrived he read the riot act to his subordinates and quickly brought order
out of chaos by announcing that Sanitary Superintendent Bensel was to be in
charge of the work of getting out the bodies and that the heads of other
departments present should take orders from him.
To insure that there should be no further confusion Mayor McClellan
issued this formal order:
Nov. 20, 1908
Hon. Thomas Darlington, President Board of Health:
Sir: I hereby direct the attention of the Board of Health to the
accident in the excavation at Gold Street, Borough of Brooklyn, and request
the board to take such measures as in the opinion of said board are proper
and necessary. Respectfully,
GEORGE E. McCLELLAN, Mayor.
The Health Board has extraordinary powers in emergencies, and the
Mayor directed the Police. Fire, Street Cleaning, and Bridge Departments to
co-operate with the board and render Dr. Bensel all the assistance he
required. The result was that fifty policemen and four of the mounted
Traffic Squad were kept at the scene throughout the night. There were also
many laborers of the Bridge Department on duty, and a platton of firemen,
four of whom assisted at the suction pump which was worked at the foot of
Front Street to draw off the water and sewage which had flooded the
With Dr. Bensel in charge, the work of shoring up the abutting houses
was pushed rapidly forward. It was a big and difficult task, however,
because of the fact that the street had dropped away into the trench almost
to the very doors of the buildings on either side, and at a late hour the
work of rescue had not progressed to a state where it was possible to
determine with any certainty what the loss of life had been.
CAUSE NOT DETERMINED YET
Just what caused the disaster may never be determined exactly. Various
theories were advanced, but all lacked proof. A question which puzzled those
who examined into the matter was whether the cave-in occurred before or
after the explosion. An idea which received consideration was that the
falling in of the trench walls caused the gas main, which had been
temporarily placed on the surface, to sag and break, permitting the gas to
escape. According to this theory, the gas came in contact with a smith's
furnace or a worker's torch, or the simultaneous breaking of the electric
light conduit in the street released electricity, which ignited the gas.
Officials of the gas company who investigated asserted that there was no
leak in the main until it was broken by the cave-in. People living in the
neighborhood, however, declared last night that there had been a leak in the
gas main for days.
There were twenty-five men at work in the trench between York and
Front Streets when the accident happened. The excavation there was about
fifty feet deep and thirty feet in width. It had been dug for a trunk sewer
thirteen feet six inches in diameter. The buildings on either side of the
cut are mostly two and three-story frame tenements, and nearly all old
structures. In the work of building the sewer many tons of sand had been
piled up: but Chief Engineer A.J. Griffin of the Sewer Department in
Brooklyn expressed the opinion last night that the cave-in was not due to
any carelessness on the part of the contractors. Engineer Griffin said that
he had carefully inspected the construction work and had found it to be
excellent. The sheathing was well placed, and every precaution against
accident had been taken, he added.
The sewer, a concrete construction with a brick lining, was fast
nearing completion. Those who insist that the cave-in was due to an
explosion of gas say that the workmen had been complaining for a week that
gas was collecting in and around the sewer main and under the "false work"
in the trench. These theorists point to the fact that both walls of the
trench fell in and the sewer construction and the "false work" were blown
out simultaneously to prove their theory that an explosion of escaped gas
caused it all.
SEEMED LIKE AN EARTHQUAKE
The collapse of things came without warning to the workers in the
trench.There was first a deep, dull explosion, and then it seemed as if an
earthquake had occurred. The concrete and brick work of the sewer main, the
"false" woodwork, and the sheathing were blown up into the air of through
the trench and down upon the stunned and helplessmen in the cut there
descended a double avalance of earth and rocks, heavy timers, and machinery,
as both the walls of the excavation caved in . Tons upon tons of sand,
stone, bricks, and wreckage rushed down into the deep cut, but how many
persons were buried alive under the mass no eyewitness has been found who
can say. One man, Timothy O'Shea, of 252 Pacific Street, who was standing on
the corner, says he saw a woman and three children go down with one of the
sidewalks. Samuel Abrams, who lived at Front and Gold Streets, according to
O'Shea, made an attempt to savce the woman, but fell under a pile of blazing
timers in the middle of the trench. None of the horror-stricken people who
rushed to the scene seemed able to get to poor Abrams through the fire and
flood, and the man was burned or smothered to death while they looked
From out the broken sixteen-inch gas main there was roaring a great
flame, which fired everything inflammable around it, while from gaping
breaks in the two-foot water main, there was issuing a torrent which was
fast flooding the trench. Following the explosion the people in the
surrounding tenements rushed to the street doors, to find that the sidewalks
had fallen away into the cut. Frightened many of them made their way out
through rear tenements, while others, with more nerve, remained to pack up
their most valued possessions.
The first policemen to reach the scene found the neighborhood in an
uproar. They saw at a glance that a calamity of great proportions had
happened, and lost no time in sending in calls for the firemen, police
reserves, and ambulances. When the reserves from the Fulton Street Station
arrived they found themselves utterly unable to handle the situation, and
forces of policemen were ordered to the scene from the Adams Street,
Flushing Avenue, Amity Street, Butler and Bergen Streets Stations. News of
the disaster had traveled swiftly, and crowds were soon hurrying to the
spot. Inspector Schmittberger took command of the police, and later Deputy
Commissioner Bugher arrived to direct the work. In the meantime fire engine
and truck companies were rushing to the scene from the different districts
in the lower section of the borough and preparing for work, with Deputy
Commissioner Wise and Deputy Chief Lally in command. When the gravity of the
situation was communicated to them, Supt. Moore of the Building Department
and Chief Engineer Griffin of the Sewer Bureau hastened to Gold Street with
forces of men.
500 RESCUERS AT WORK
In a short time there were more than 500 firemen, policemen, and other
city employees at the scene ready for action, but held back from work by the
danger of being buried under buildings which threatened to fall.
The police first drove back the fast-growing crowds of onlookers and
then went through the weakened tenement houses, forcing out the tenants who
still remained in them. One woman barricaded herself and her two children in
a room on the top floor of a house, and the door had to be forced to get the
panic-stricken family out. The excitement in the neighborhood was increased
by the outpouring of hundreds of children from St. Ann's Parochial School
and Public School 7, in York Street. When the explosion occurred the
teachers decided that it would be best to get the children out, and they
marched to the street in fire drill and in good order.
At first it was thought that forty or fifty men had been buried in the
trench, but some who were said to be missing turned up later. The only thing
which the firemen could do was to put out the blaze in the woodwork in the
cut. Like the police, they could make no effort to get to the victims
supposed to have been buried under the mass of earth and debris.
LUCKY ESCAPE OF FOUR WORKMEN
A wise man among the sewer laborers, thinking that some of the workmen
might have escaped into the completed part of the main, went down the street
and opened the manholes. His thoughtfulness resulted in guiding to safety
four men who had managed to get into the finished portion of the main. They
were John Green, Abel Johnson, Frank Sohnwald, and Arthur Strand, all
employed by the sewer contractors. The four had been working at a spot
somewhat removed from the place where the explosion occurred. Hoping to find
an outlet, they ran through the sewer, pursued by the water which was
rushing into the main. Light from two of the opened manholes guided them to
the river and safety.
With half a dozen officials each trying to take command of operations,
practically nothing to any end was done for several hours. Deputy Water
Commissioner Cozier ordered the water shut off from the broken main and the
flood in the trench gradually subsided. Then somebody got word to the gas
company and after a long delay, men arrived who succeeded in stopping any
further escape of gas. With various officials disputing as to authority and
other things, the rescue work remained at a standstill until Mayor McClellan
dashed up in his automobile. He had been in telephonic touch with the scene
and started right in to straighten the tangle out.
Learning that a number of bodies were supposed to be buried in the big
trench the Mayor decided that the Health Department should have charge of
the work of getting them out. He remained on the spot for some time after
placing Dr. Bensel in charge of the work. The shoring up of the weakened
buildings was then begun. Arrangements were made for the placing of electric
lights and gasoline torches in the street that the work might be continued
during the night. A big force of men worked all night shoring up the houses
and the trench, and making ready for the digging. It seemed at a late hour
that the actual work of removing the earth and stone and wreckage from the
trench could not be started until early this morning. It is believed that
the bodies of those supposed to be buried are at least twenty feet down.
Besides the electric lights which were placed in the street, two
searchlights of the Fire Department were played on the scene last night. Big
shoring frames were erected early in the evening, and the plans were to
shore and prop up every building in the block. After the quicksand which
had formed in the trench had hardened, an exploring party composed of
firemen of Truck Company No. 133 went down into the cut, but were unabale to
reach any of the bodies. Father William McGronin, one of the Chaplains of
the Fire Department, remained on duty at the scene most of the day and
night, that he might be near in case his services should be needed. There
was no hope, however, that any of the persons supposed to be pinned or
buried under the wreckage would be taken out alive. Inspector Titus was
placed in command of the police at the scene last night.
ARREST DELAYS THE WORK
The police arrested John J. Haggerty of the firm of Haggerty & Rogers,
the contractors who were building the sewer, and Peter McEvoy, a foreman
employed by the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, on charges of criminal
negligence. The charges against the two men were not very clear. McEvoy was
arrested while he and his men were trying to stop the leak in the gas main
on the theory that the gas company had been negligent. Gen. James B.
Jourdan, President of the company, was indignant at the arrest of McEvoy.
He asserted that the accident was in no way due to negligence on the part of
his company. The arrest of McEvoy while he was at work caused a further
delay in the work of shutting off the flow of gas. It was charged against
Haggerty that his firm had not made proper provision for the protection of
the men in the trench. Haggerty denied this, and statements made by Chief
Engineer Griffin of the Sewer Department seemed to support him. Both
Haggerty and McEvoy were held in $2,000 bail each in the Adams Street Court,
bonds being furnished for them.
Agnes McNanara, 6 years old, of 109 Gold Street, was reported missing
up to 9 0'clock last night. Her parents had almost given her up at that time
when she walked into her house and asked for something to eat. She told her
parents this story which was afterward verified by the other persons
Her mother had sent her to the grocer's for some coffee and sugar, and
on the way there she stopped at the House of Kate Curry, 96 Gold Street, 7
years old, who consented to go with her. The two set out, but had only gone
a few steps when there came a tremendous explosion. Everything slipped from
under them. They fell, slid a few feet, and clung to the dirt on the edge of
BRAVE GIRL SAVES TWO CHILDREN
Miss Margaret Hickey, who was in the girl's house, looked out of the
window at the time of the explosion and saw the two girls sliding down in
the debris. She rushed out, lay flat on her stomach on the sidewalk, and
pulled up the Curry girl easily. The other had slipped further down. Miss
Hickey leaned far over, caught her hand, and finally, though all was sliding
under her, pulled her up too.
The McNamara girl was too frightened to go home immediately and walked
about the streets till 9 in the evening.
It is believed by the police that some of the persons reported as
missing will yet appear.
An interesting story of the flight through the sewer and escape of
himself and three of his fellow-workers was told last evening by Arthur
Strand of 166 East 127th Street, Manhattan, who is employed by Haggerty &
Rogers, the contractors. With Frank Sohnwald, John Green, and Abel Johnson,
all of whom live in Harlem, Strand was at work in a portion of the trench
nearest to Front Street.
"We heard a loud explosion," said Strand, "and saw the shoring twist
and fly upward and inward. A sheet of flame shot out just beyond us, and
there was a grinding noise as things began to come down and close in on us.
Our foreman, Gus Anderson, who was a short distance away from us, yelled
warningly and then disappeared behind the wall of flame. We did not see him
again. Realizing that something dreadful was happening and that our escape
by way of the trench was cut off, the four of us dashed into the completed
section of the sewer. There was a rush of water behind us, and we saw that
the main was fast being flooded as a result of a break in the water mains.
WATER UP TO THEIR CHINS
"With the water gaining in depth under us we ran for dear life through
the big main in the direction of the river. Stumbling over things which had
been left in the main by workmen, we made our way, with a fear of being
drowned like rats upon us, to the river, three blocks away. When we reached
the outlet the water in the main was up to our waists. We found a bulwark
which had been built to keep the water out of the sewer while the main was
building, and climbed to the top of it. When we reached it the water had
risen almost to our chins, and we thought we were goners. From the bulwark
we climbed to the pier and were safe. It was an experience I shall never
forget, and one I would not care to repeat for anything."
WARNINGS SENT BY TELEPHONE
The Brooklyn Union Gas Company informed the New York Telephone Company
at noon of the disaster, and requested them to tell subscribers in the
danger zone of the necessity, in view of the accident, that all those who
used gas should turn off the gas cocks until the great break in the main had
been repaired. This was immediately done.
A call was sent to reserve employees of the Burridge, Flatbush,
Bedford, Eastern, and other telephone districts to report instantly at the
main office. Sixty telephone girls were requisitioned. As fast as the gas
company could prepare lists of the subscribers in affected districts the
telephone operators informed them over the telephone that there had been a
serious break in the gas main, warned them that it might affect the gas
supply for the night, and urged them to turn off all gas cocks in case the
gas failed to light. In this way, it is estimated, they reached 10,000
persons direct through the emergency telephone boards, and the word was
probably transmitted verbally to 3,000 more.
This completes the total transcribing of the article "Brooklyn Explosion
Engulfs A Score" from the New York Times, dated November 21, 1908.
Researched and Transcribed by Miriam Medina
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