Fire Service Traditions and History, Firefighting, Hazmat

‘A Terrible Spectacle’: The 1919 Boston Molasses Tank Collapse

"A Terrible Spectacle": The 1919 Boston Molasses Tank Collapse

From the Fire Engineering Vault

Imagine the hearing a low rumbling sound, gunfire, followed by an eight- to 15-foot wave of viscous brown liquid.

This unusual disaster occurred on January 15, 1919, when a leaky, poorly designed and constructed tank collapsed, sending a flood of two million gallons of molasses through an area of Boston’s North End neighborhood. Read “Molasses Tank Explodes in Boston” in the January 29, 1919, issue of Fire and Water Engineering, which offers an account of the emergency response, and the editorial comment, “Remarkable Disaster.”  Ultimately, 21 people (among them a firefighter) were killed and 150 were injured. Several structures were destroyed or damaged, including a fireboat station and the nearby elevated railway tracks.

January 15 was unusually warm; the temperature had risen above 40°F from a low of 2°F a few days before. The molasses in the tank apparently fermented and the resulting pressure built up, causing the substandard 50-foot tall tank to rupture, its rivets popping off with a sound akin to gunfire. Its poor quality was evident soon after its construction in 1915, with the appearance of numerous leaks. The tank was eventually painted brown to hide them.

FROM THE JANUARY 1919 ISSUE: Molasses Tank Explodes in Boston

In a report on the response, Boston Fire Commissioner John Grady credited those who helped firefighters in their rescue efforts, particularly the personnel of a nearby Massachusetts Nautical School training ship for “the splendid energy and zeal displayed in rendering aid to this department in time of need. Their work should be classified as distinguished service. The Red Cross, clergy, and physicians should also be commended for their efforts…great credit is due all those who participated in rendering aid on this occasion as they worked quickly and intelligently under conditions which were of great danger to themselves.”

Eric Bachman, hazardous materials administrator for the Lancaster County (PA) Emergency Management Agency, said that any substance can be a potential hazmat in given circumstances, regardless of how official regulations may define them. “Emergency services should regard hazmats as ANYTHING that can harm property, the environment, and people (including us).” In the Boston incident, a seemingly benign material, improperly contained, was subjected to extraordinary stressors and disaster followed. “Contemplate ALL incident potentials, including the proverbial ‘outside-the-box,’ or in this case, ‘outside-the-tank,’ situations. A fire department’s ability to more effectively protect its community and personnel depends on the potential incidents it’s prepared for. Do not discount any incident scenario, as Murphy may pay you a visit when you least expect or are unprepared for it.”

“This is a wake-up call for those who think that they were only hired as firefighters,” Chief Bobby Halton said. We firefighters exist to save lives, whether from fire, flood, explosion, or natural disaster. The Boston (MA) Fire Department was well aware of this in 1919. We should be proud to continue this legacy of rendering aid under all conditions to all who need us.”

Download this archival material as a PDF HERE (3 MB).