Day of Explosions and Fire Finishes Shell Plant Ruin


Publication: The New York Times

New York, NY, United States



Metropolitan Area in Fear for Hours as Blast Follows Blast and Buildings Tremble.


River Tubes and Bridges Closed in Fear of Shock from 80,000 Pounts of TNT.


Will Be No Halt of Shells for Army—Government Moves to Speed Up Other Plants.


Explosions that rattled windows, set buildings a-tremble and broke glass many miles away continued at approximately half hourly intervals at the T.A. Gillespie shell-loading plant near South Amboy, N.J., until well into the afternoon yesterday. Fear that a giant explosion of 80,000 pounds of trinitrotoluol in a storage magazine at the plant might cause East River bridges to collapse and under-river subway structures to crumble prompted New York authorities to close for a time all traffic and throw the city back upon the ferries and surface lines as of forty years ago.

Estimates of the casualties at the plant put the number of dead at 50 and the wounded were at 150 or more. Tall buildings downtown were evacuated early, as explosion after explosion rocked them on their foundations, and persons afoot were kept well out from the building line on the sidewalks for fear of a shower of heavy glass from windows high up.

Literally the entire population of the metropolitan district was kept in a state of apprehension from the time of the initial explosion on Friday evening till late yesterday. When danger of widespread disaster was declared by the army authorities to be past.


No Halt of War Effort

While the $18,000,000 plant that was loading more than 30,000 shells a day is badly wrecked, the American Army in France will suffer no lack of ammunition for its drive toward Berlin.

Twenty Thousand persons were ordered from their homes in South Amboy and nearby towns, and railroad operation in the vicinity was stopped by army officials as precautions against the new and greater explosion which they feared.

Flames sweeping over the wreckage, covered hundreds of acres at the plant, were driven by a southwest wind in the direction of two central malting plants heavily stocked with TNT, whose explosion, it was feared, would cause a shock sufficient to set off the 80,000=pound magazine. The force of such an explosion can be judged by the fact that the earlier explosions which created so much havoc and were felt as much as forty miles away were made by comparatively small quantities of TNT in groups of small containers used in loading shells. The bulk of the TNT in the magazine was probably one hundred times as great as that consumed in any of the terrific single explosions of Friday night and yesterday.

The danger of such a great explosion was reported to be practically at an end late yesterday afternoon, after Major H.L. Armstrong, the designer of the plant, and Captain W.W. Watson had made a observation flight over the burning plant in an airplane. All land approaches to the threatened magazine were cut off by the fire, which surrounded it on all sides, but from the air it was reported to be over, as the buildings nearest the buried magazines did not appear to be in peril.

The machine circled again and again around the big tract, while the airmen leveled field glasses at the scene of desolation beneath. They kept at their task for fifteen minutes, and then alighted outside the danger zone. The observation showed that five of the thirteen units of the plant had been destroyed, but that the 200 plant guards who began fighting the fire had the situation well in hand, and that unless there was a furious windstorm the fire would not reach either the barges with their dangerous loads or the storehouse more than a mile away in another direction.

T.A. Gillespie, President of the company, said yesterday that the plant had been putting out shells at the rate of 32,000 a day. While this is by far the greatest production from a single plant, and its temporary loss may mean a present reduction of as much as 10 per cent, in certain types of shells sent to France, great reserves of heavy ammunition have been accumulated beyond the estimated needs of the American Army by way of preparation for such accidents, which have been the experience of every nation in the war and are looked upon as inevitable incidents in the supplying of armies on a gigantic scale.

This is by far the most destructive accident of its kind in this country. The loss of life is at least seven times that attending the Black Tom explosion, where seven persons were killed. The immediate property loss in the Black Tom explosion was nearly as great, but the principal loss there was in shells, while the great loss in this case is in munitions producing capacity. The output of the plant that was destroyed yesterday was more than 1,000,000 shells a month, and probably that capacity has been destroyed for two months or more.

The plan under which the great collection of buildings composing the Gillespie plant were built of wood and placed in such relation that the destruction of one building meant the destruction of all was devised by the Ordinance Department. Under this plan it was found possible to break all records in the almost magical creation of a vast plant, while the production achieved at the newly-made plant in three months was considered to be one of the greatest industrial feats of the war.

The purpose of the great concentration of explosives in one group of buildings was the superior efficiency expected from so vast an enterprise, and before yesterday the plan had justified the hopes placed in it.

Work on the plant was started in March. Production of loaded shells began in July, and speeded up through August and September to the daily output of 32,000 shells, which included three-inch, six-inch, eight-inch, twelve-inch, and sixteen-inch sizes. The plant was not completed, but it was expected late this Fall to achieve a minimum output of 50,000 shells a day, and a possible maximum of 74,000.

The destroyed works were really an assembling plant, hundreds of carloads of empty shells arriving daily from Pennsylvania mills, while carloads of TNT came from New Jersey chemical works. At the plant in Morgan the TNT was loaded into shells and taken on barges and by rail to munition ships waiting at anchor.

Criticism began to be voiced yesterday of the scheme under which so large a percentage of America's munitions output was concentrated in a plant where, as it proved yesterday, the mistake of one workman, an unavoidable accident, a stroke of lightning, or the work of a German could start o chain of explosions wiping out the entire system of factories and severing an important artery of supply to the American armies.


Record Time and Production

The Gillespie plant was the greatest of four great plants, designed and built at the direction of the Ordnance Department, for loading shells. The plans called for the loading of 179,000 shells a day at the four plants, each of which is greater than any similar plant of the kind which previously existed in this country. Each was run up in record time, wood being used in the construction. All four of these plants are described as being of the same type of construction, so that the disaster to the Gillespie plant may lead to radical changes in the others in the interest of safety.

An investigation to ascertain the cause of the explosion was started yesterday under Colonel Douglas I. McKay, former Police Commissioner of New York City, now attached to the Ordnance Department.

All the inspectors of the Ordnance at the Gillespie plant were directed to report last night at the New York District Ordnance Office, 1,107 Broadway, Only eighteen of the seventy men employed in Unit 61, where the explosion started, are known to have survived, and it is feared that all who actually witnessed the cause of the first explosion are now dead, The conditions which made it possible for one explosion to set in motion a long series that leveled practically the entire plant will also be studied.


Casualties Hard to Estimate

Estimates of the number of dead continued to vary yesterday. All employes who could be rallied were kept at work saving barges and trains of shells near the plant and in attempting rescues in the wrecked buildings. Several hundred men on the night shift at the time of the explosion are missing. Many of these are supposed to be alive, but scattered. To add to the difficulties, it was reported yesterday that the office records had been destroyed, thus increasing the task of making up a roll. Efforts to find bodies could be prosecuted only in the ruins of a few of the buildings where the fires had died out, and this was a work of raking among the ashes and twisted steel supports. Very little could be done because of the frequent bursts of isolated high explosive shells scattered over the entire site, together with occasional terrific eruptions as the fire reached accumulations of shells and TNT containers in buildings, freight cars or motor trucks.

Fourteen bodies have been recovered so far and taken to the Perth Amboy Police Station. One of these is the body of a Coast Guardsman. The head and leg were blown off and the identification tag was missing, preventing the establishment of his identity.

T.A. Gillespie, President of the company, who was at a conference in Perth Amboy, said:

"Probably the disaster was caused by the explosion of a kettle in Unit 6-I. There were seventy men at work in this unit and eighteen of them have been accounted for."

The property damage was equally difficult to ascertain. Officials of the Gillespie company estimate the damage to their plant at about $12,000,000, which does not include the loss in shells and TNT. Several millions of dollars immediate damage was caused by the destruction of glass, doors, chimneys, and household furnishings, South Amboy was the heaviest sufferer, but the loss through breakage of glass extended as far as Lower Manhattan and Newark and to Asbury Park, down the coast.

The persons injured, aside from those suffering from minor hurts, were numbered at 150. There care has been taken over by the red cross, which, with other war agencies, sent scores of ambulances and automobiles, with doctors, nurses, and relief agents, to look after them, and to find food and shelter for those rendered homeless. Many of the injured, will die. Most of those in hospitals were burned or struck by fragments of bursting shells and other missiles, while a considerable number were suffering from shell shock following the terrific concussions.


Day of Terrific Bombardment

The individual explosions since Friday evening at 7:40 when the initial blast occurred, numbered hundreds. All last night and yesterday New Jersey and New York for miles about the plant were rocked at intervals. The greatest after the first big series of bursts on Friday night occurred at 4:10 A.M. and at 10:09 A.M. yesterday. The last explosion of great force was reported at 7 o'clock last night. During the afternoon end evening the fire slackened, and the explosions came less frequently and with less violence, furnishing grounds for hope that the danger was over. As long as the fire continued, however, the bursting of occasional superheated shells and containers is expected.

Hardly a house within five miles of Morgan was inhabited last night or yesterday, with a large part of the population within a radius of ten miles had left their homes to get surely out of range of the nerve-shaking crashes and showering missiles. Crowds of homeless people who were found wandering aimlessly were shepherded to places of comparative safety by the soldiers and bluejackets who were dispatched to the scene from all military and navel stations, and later were taken care of by the Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., and other relief organizations.

By yesterday morning several thousand soldiers were on guard, holding the danger zone for miles on every side of the explosion in a state of siege, guarding all roads and aiding in the work of salvage and rescue at the plant.

Efforts to combat the fire would have been as hopeless as an attempt to put out a volcano. In addition to the fire and big explosions shells were bursting at times in quick succession as if a terrific artillery battle were in progress. Sometimes it seemed at a distance that the shelling had the rapidity of machine gun fire.

Most of the area of the plant was covered with a thick layer of splintered wood from the smashed frame buildings, which had been hurled into the air and distributed over hundreds of acres. Under the debris were railroad ties, while part of the open space bore dry grass and brushwood. The trees of two orchards were still standing on the site before the blaze began. Over all this the fire burned irresistibly, producing giant upheavals when it reached stores of trinitrotoluol which had survived earlier shocks.

A detachment of Coast Guards returned from South Amboy last night after having been relieved by soldiers from Governors Island. They said the soldiers had taken a 3-inch gun with them to blow down buildings in the path of the fire, which menaced the central magazine. Searchlights were thrown upon the buildings, it was said, and the battery put into operation from a safe distance.


German Tried to Blow Up Plant

It was pointed out yesterday that the explosion might have been caused in any one of a countless number of ways. Since the workers who were near at hand when the initial explosion took place are probably dead, it was thought that the real cause would never be established.

Last week an explosion, in which three women and one man were killed, was caused when a partly-loaded shell fell from a table at which a woman was employed, She and two others working nearby were blown to pieces. Luckily there were no shells or TNT containers close enough to be set off by the shock. The dropping of one partly-loaded shell in the vicinity of others, it was pointed out, might have started the chain of explosions.

The T.A. Gillespie Loading Company had one experience with a German who sought to destroy the plant. This man, who had no accent, easily obtained employment. He managed to smuggle matches into the works, and one day was caught trying to commit suicide and blow up the plant by touching a match to a loaded shell. The screams of the girl who saw him brought men, who overpowered him. He had a speedy trial, and was sent to jail for twenty years.

All employes are carefully searched. And not allowed to bring in matches of any bit of metal which might be used to cause a spark. In spite of this the chances of accident are countless. The danger does not end when the shell is loaded and plugged with wood. After that it receives a coat of shellac to prevent the steel from rusting. The shellac contains a high percentage of alcohol, so that it is extremely combustible, and great precautions are taken in handling it. Before the shellac is applied the shell is cleaned to remove any traces of TNT which adhere to the surface while being loaded. This, too, is dangerous, because friction or a blow on a splash of TNT on the outside of the shell might produce an explosion powerful enough to set off the charge inside. Any explosion, under the conditions prevailing at the plant might have been the first of an endless chain such as that of Friday night and yesterday.


A Long Chain of Dangers

Another source of danger is in the transportation of the melted TNT from the main magazines and the melting plant to the factory units, where it is placed in the shells. The melted TNT is poured into large metal containers and carried in motor trucks from the melting plant to the loading buildings, danger besetting every stage of the operations. The melting of the TNT is, of course, one of the most dangerous processes of all.

When the TNT is introduced into the shell it is carefully molded at the top of the chamber inside of the shell in order to leave a perfectly shaped space for the insertion of the metal cap and fuse, which is not screwed into place until the shell arrives in France. No operation in handling the shell is safe, and the workers were under no delusion as to the danger. A timekeeper who went through the explosion, said yesterday:

"It is impressed on all men and women employed at the plant from the first that they are doing work as important as if they were in the trenches, and that their danger is as great as that of soldiers. When a man takes a place there he is required to sign a statement to the effect that he works at his own risk.

"The government undertakes, in case a man is killed, to ship the body to any part of the United States and pay the funeral expenses. If a man is maimed, he is pensioned. But no allowance is made to his family, if he is killed, and of course, it is impossible for any man employed to be insured.

"The employe is reminded at every turn of his danger. Every building is placarded with warnings. The buildings are nearly all made of wood, run up at the greatest speed. When the plant was built there was nothing in mind except speed production of shells needed by the army, and everything was sacrificed to speed. The building of the plant was begun in March. Deliveries started in July. We had no way of knowing the rate of production, but understood that it was more than 30,000 a day during September.

"The hospital facilities were inadequate. A hospital was being built, but was not completed, and small first-aid stations in the different plants were the only immediate provisions for accident.


Dangerous As Field of Battle

If a man did not realize the danger himself, it was impressed on him every day in talks to the workmen. Officers of American and different allied armies visited the plant nearly every day, telling the workers that the fate of the war depended on them as much as upon soldiers and that no man could do more patriotic service then keep his production at the height of his capacity. These officers said there was little choice, from the point of view of safety, between working in the plant and serving on the battlefield.

"The pay was liberal. Illiterate Polacks, Russians, Italians, and others, many of whom could not speak a word of English, were making $8 or $10 a day. They received 47 ½ cents an hour, but when a man had loaded 250 shells, he was credited for a day's work and was paid a cent a shell for each additional one. The girls got 37 ½ cents an hour, with the same privilege of earning extra money. Besides this they received time and a half for overtime.

"I ran out of plant 92 when the lights went off after the first explosion, which was not as terrific as the later ones. I am alive because the unit which I worked was near the outer edge of the group of buildings, so that I did not pass near any of the exploding units. Most of those killed were blown to pieces while running from the center of the maze, buildings, freight cars, and motor trucks blowing up and wiping them out, scores at a time.

"I believe that the dead will number between 250 and 300. The exact number will probably never be known. Many of the workmen who survived have gone to other places. The payrolls and other records were destroyed when the office buildings were wrecked and burnt. Some of the bodies are blown to bits and others burned to ashes. Barracks in which some of the workingmen were asleep were shattered and burned, probably with some loss of life.


Much to Aid a Conflagration

"There was a moat or canal around each building, but there with the idea of making it difficult for a fire to spread, but there was nothing to stop a conflagration and many things to help it. The explosions covered the whole area with splintered boards and timbers of which the plant was built. There were fields of dry grass and shrubbery between some of the buildings and two old orchards still stood on the factory site. There were great quantities of loose lumber being used for erecting additional units. There were thousands of ties under the network of railroad tracks which runs through the plant, and hardly a square foot without inflammable material on it.

"The great explosions last night and today were not single masses of trinitrotoluol, but the simultaneous explosions of quantities of shells and containers in the buildings, in freight cars, and on motor trucks. The explosion would be hundreds of times as terrific if the great storage and melting plans went off in Units Nos. 92 and 71. All the TNT which is used comes to those two buildings. It would go off there in one explosion, or two, so close to each other as to be practically one, and I believe that little would be left of any town within miles.

"most of the girls were working on the day shift, but some were employed at night, and I believe some have been killed."

Attempts to save the hundreds of freight cars loaded and partly loaded with explosives and shells were rendered impossible from the first, by smashed locomotives and torn tracks, as well as by the hurricane of steel and flying splinters. One attempt was made by John H. Manderville of 220 Second Street, Union Hill, Superintendent of Transportation at the plant, but it was fruitless.

He was in his room in the officials' building at the plant, changing his clothes, when the explosion tore out the side of his room. He made his way through the broken timbers and plaster down the stairs and called for men to aid in getting what they could out of the yards. Some started to help him, but most of them thought better of it, when blinding flashes and explosions, which knocked them off their feet, came one after another.

One crew followed until they got to the yards, but here his engineer refused to go with Manderville aboard a locomotive. The firemen, however, volunteered to go with him, and they started the engine. They had got only a few feet when another blast sent a large fragment of shell that tore off the top of the locomotive. They left the half demolished engine and joined other officials and employes in rescue work.


Jersey Central Train Under Fire

Train service over the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Central lines running near the Gillespie plant was discontinued Friday night, after the tracks had been deluged with debris and were being swept at intervals with fragments of steel.

The Owl train on the New Jersey Central and the Pennsylvania fast mail, which is known as the "Bull Beef," were the last to get through. The New Jersey Central newspaper train, which arrived at about 3 A.M. had taken on several baggage cars, with bedding, and it loaded up with refugees and took them back to South Amboy. Nearly all of those picked up were women and children, and some hysterical because of the fear that their men folk had been killed.

When it started on its trip again the newspaper train was held on the trestle over Raritan Creek because of the danger of approaching nearer. When it came to a stop a dazzling flash of light revealed soldiers and employes of the plant at work moving valuable property as far as possible from the danger zone. One crash came after another, each temporarily putting out the lights on the train, deafening those inside, and causing splashes from the showering debris as if fell into the Raritan.

The train remained on the trestle from 4:30 to 8:30, when General Supt. L.W. Berry arrived on a wildcat engine, examined and cleared the track, and ordered the train to proceed with windows open. When the train reached Morgan, those on board cheered for two companies of American soldiers, drawn up as if on parade, on the very edge of the inferno.

All along the tracks were families resting under trees, others plodding on foot with a few blankets, and some with household belongings in automobiles and vehicles. Explosions, first breaking windows, then shaking down the plaster, smashing chimneys, and turning over furniture, had driven every family in the vicinity from home. Their faces reflected their terrifying experiences.

A short distance out of Morgan a party of bluejackets landed from a scout patrol boat and waved at the train before starting for their dangerous work at the Gillespie plant.

Towns along the railroad track were deserted. The inhabitants shunned buildings and were asleep or talking in groups under trees. Every town and cross-road bristled with bayonets. Carrying out the suggestion of a terrific battle, which was the scenes of devastation along the road.

The first series of explosions, which destroyed much of the plant and caused nearly all of the loss of life on Friday night, was followed by a comparative lull. At 2 o'clock yesterday morning the fire reached new supplies of the high explosive and there were further tremendous blasts. Many at South Amboy and other places, who had gone back into their homes late on Friday night thinking the worst was over, were thrown from their beds and covered with plaster and broken glass. In one house in Perth Amboy a kerosene lamp was overturned, setting the building on fire. Hastily dressed women carrying children began to run into the streets. As the explosions increased vehicles jammed the streets—automobiles crowded with women and children, and delivery wagons filled with refugees, while others cling on the sides.

With each shock more windows fell, and families ran from their homes into the middle of the streets for safety. Stores were lighted while the owners removed the wares from windows. After 4 o'clock the explosions became so rapid and so violent that Perth Amboy seemed to be under bombardment. There was a constant thunder as of great guns. To prevent live wires from falling upon persons in the streets, the lights were cut off and the town was lighted only by the red flares from the explosions. The sidewalks were literally paved with shattered glass. The side streets were filled with silent people, who stared at the fire and put their hands to their ears when a bright flash gave warning of the roar to follow.

A headquarters for refugees was the Packer House. Every room was filled, and mattresses were spread on the floors of the public rooms. The city underwent all the nervous tension of a bombarded town except for the actual destruction wrought by shells. The boom of shells, the blaze of destruction, the silent weeping refugees, all were there.

It was estimated last night that the damage on Staten Island would amount to $150,000. In the towns of Tottenville. Richmond Valley, Pleasant Plains, Huguenot, Great Kills, and Princes Bay windows in practically all the houses were blown out and many smaller buildings were wrecked. Chimneys were thrown down and the earth was rocked as if by an earthquake as far as Stapleton and Tompkinsville, twenty miles from the shell plant. The shock from the explosions was so great in Richmond Valley, Huguenot, Pleasant Plains, Great Kills, and Princes Bay that the inhabitants were advised to leave their homes by the police at noon yesterday. Many of them went by automobiles to Stapleton and Tompkinsville and others to Manhattan.


Red Cross at Work

The Atlantic Division of the Red Cross established headquarters at Perth Amboy yesterday afternoon. Fifty ambulances from New York and Newark, with a corps of doctors and nurses, arrived with them. Eight central depots were opened in churches, schools, and other public buildings for taking card of the homeless and injured. Commandeered automobiles and cars driven by members of the Women's Motor Corps, under Captain Helen Bastedo, went along the roads leasing away from Morgan picking up refugees and taking them to Perth Amboy. The Red Cross sent from New York five motor trucks loaded with six tons of supplies.

Governor Walter Edge and detachments of the New Jersey State Guard arrived and acted in co-operation with the army authorities and the Red Cross reported last night that there were fewer than 500 of a population of 10,000 left in South Amboy.

One of the saddest phases was the distress of women and children whose husbands and fathers were missing, and who went from hospital to hospital seeking information.

Fear of explosion is not shared by the women who were employed in the loading plants, numbering in all 1,000. These women held a meeting in Perth Amboy in the afternoon and unanimously voted to return to work in the plant as soon as the call comes for them.

"Most of us have boys over there," said one of the women, "and we are all very anxious to do our part to aid in bringing the war to a speedy close. All of us know the danger to which we are constantly exposed, but it is nothing in comparison with that of our boys in the front. We want them to know there will be no delay as far as we are concerned."

Keywords:Brookfield : Fire
Researcher notes:According to the August 1990 Crown Jewels Article "Just two weeks after resuming insulator production the Brookfield plant was struck by catastrophe again — this time on October 4, 1918.....The Thomas Gillespie shell-loading plant at Morgan (Old Bridge) was being blown to the sky — the result of sabotage. The explosion, 71 years ago last October, was one of the largest and most devastating man-made disasters in American history. And the Brookfield Glass Company, a neighbor of the Gillespie shell loading plant, was severely damaged. All of the windows were smashed and Brookfield shut down again due to the devastation in the area." This article does not specifically mention Brookfield, but the subject and date match.
Supplemental information:Article: 10259
Researcher:Bob Stahr
Date completed:November 14, 2009 by: Bob Berry;