Chicago Candy Plant Explosion Blamed on Dust

Chicago Candy Plant Explosion Blamed on Dust

Brach Candy Factory Ravaged With Heavy Loss in Pre-Dawn Holocaust. Seventeen Killed

Editor’s Note: To the average fireman, whose familiarity with the manufacture of sweets is limited to the corner candy kitchen, or the like, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are fire and explosion hazards connected with modern large scale candy making.

This fact was dramatically illustrated in September in the blast and fire that devastated part of the huge Brach Candy plant in Chicago. The fairly modern, fire-resistive sprinkled factory is said to contain the latest type candy processing equipment and, although it had been charged with violations of fire department regulations some time before, the factory was said to be as near disaster-proof as modern science could make it at the time of the fire.

Notwithstanding this fact, an explosion occurred in the early hours of the morning, either as a result of a fire, or from some undetermined cause, which had all the effects of a super bomb of World War II. And before nearly a third of Chicago’s fire fighters controlled the resulting fire and rescued all casualties, seventeen workers had died, several firemen were injured, a twomile square area was thrown into nearpanic and a new record for disasters of its kind had been established.

Dust explosions, in different industrial categories, have been responsible for a series of disasters involving large loss of life and property extending over a period of years. The National Fire Protection Association in its “National Fire Codes Vol. II, the Prevention of Dust Explosion, 1946” catalogs 888 total explosions, 322 of which resulted in 575 deaths and 1,364 injured. Of the total, 711 explosions caused property loss of over $79,000,000.

In this long record only six other explosions caused by dust equalled or exceeded the Brach catastrophe in number of fatalities, and none of these was in the same industrial classification. Actually, there were no fatal explosions of any kind listed as having occurred in candy plants. Therefore, the Brach tragedy may be said to have set a new record, and at the same time focussed the attention of the fire service on yet another hazard in the long list of postwar risks which the fire service must face.

The editors are grateful to the Chicago Fire Department and the Chicago Fire Insurance Patrol for most of the factual data and the photographs that make this one of the most interesting fire operations reports of 1948.

SEVENTEEN persons lost their lives and eleven others were injured in an explosion and fire which wrecked part of the vast E. J. Brach & Sons Candy factory, 4656 Kinzie Street, Chicago, I11., shortly before dawn on September 7, 1948.

The shock of the blast shook a twomile square area, showered bits of steel, concrete and debris over the adjacent Chicago & Northwestern main line railroad tracks, blocking these and nearby Belt Line tracks. Persons in the neighborhood were thrown from their beds by the concussion, which broke windows over a wide area and drove scores of near-hysterical residents into the streets.

A large section of the city’s fire department, responding on a 5-11 alarm and special calls, fought strenuously to rescue victims and control the threatening blaze.

All of the victims were employees of the plant. Four, all men, died in the initial explosion and fire or shortly after. Six succumbed the next day, one the day following and the remaining five during the week following.

The E. J. Brach & Sons plant, frequently referred to as the largest maker of popular-priced candy in the world, covers an area of 529 feet by 616 feet. Located on the premises are nine buildings of reinforced steel rod and concrete fire-resistive construction, ranging from one story and basement to four stories and basement in height (see diagram).

The entire group of buildings are fully sprinklered, with l 1/2-inch standpipe fire hose connected to the sprinkler system. The water supply for the sprinkler system consists of two gravity tanks (40,000 and 50,000 gallons); one 1,000 gallon automatic fire pump and three Siamese fire department pumping connections.

The first aid fire extinguishers consisted of 2 1/2-gallon soda and acid, 2 1/2gallon foam and 1-quart carbon-tetrachloride.

In view of the fact that the greatest damage centered around Buildings A, B and C, the following description of occupancy of these respective buildings may be of interest:

Building A—Four-story re-inforced steel rod and concrete fire-resistive construction, 100′ x l00′ in area, erected in 1925 and 1926.

North Side of Building A Looking South and West, Showing Damaged Portion of Third Floor Candy Drying Rooms. Blown Out Masonry Walls Were Eight-Inch Brick.


Receiving room

Lunch room

Machine shop


Candy scrap room

Candy sealing machines


East end—general candy making

West end—Cream department

Mogul machines 5 and 6

Drying rooms


Gum, cream and marshmallow departments

Mogul machines 1, 2, 3 and 4

Candy drying rooms

Candy mixing and cooking kettles


Candy cooking kettles and cookers Huhn starch dryers and starch cleaners Starch dust-collecting cyclones

Building B—Three story reinforced steel rod and concrete, fire-resistive construction, 60′ x 100′ in area, erected in 1926.


First-aid rooms, employees locker rooms

Various offices


Personnel offices

General candy packing


Executive offices

Purchasing department

Large dry room

Building C—Three-story reinforced steel rod and concrete fire-resistive construction, 100′ x 128′ in area, erected in 1926.


Chocolate tank room

Cocoa butter line

Transformer vault

Ammonia compressors


Chocolate processing and sugar grinding Caramel department

The general type of construction is shown in the accompanying illustrations. Masonry walls were generally 8 in. thick; windows were metal-sash and roof and floor sections were of reinforced concrete.

Starch Used in Processes

The explosion, according to Factory Mutual Record, originated in a continuous candy-making process. In a machine known as a Mogul, cream filling is automatically fed into trays of molded powdered starch. The trays next go to a conditioning room for curing, and then back into the Mogul, where the trays are dumped. The starch is conveyed to a dryer to remove excess moisture, and then is returned to the Mogul, where it is used to refill the trays, and the process repeated.

The process, it should be noted, involves the use of powdered starch, one of the most dangerous of the explosive1 dusts.

Origin of Blast in Doubt

There appears to be some difference of opinion as to the cause of the initial explosion and the events leading up to it. There is agreement that the destruction and fatalities resulted from an initial explosion of great severity. But reports appear to differ as to the origin of the explosion itself and propagation of the fires.

According to the Factory Mutual Record, “Evidence indicates that starch in the dryer apparently ignited and smoldered, and that when fans or blowers were started, sparks were blown through the system and touched off a mild explosion in the associated dustcollecting equipment. The primary explosion caused a more violent one, evidently in dust shaken loose in the Mogul, and this in turn dislodged starch from stacked trays, beams, piping and ductwork, in drying rooms and manufacturing areas and resulted in the final, terrific blast.”

The report of the fire department, however, throws a different light on it, and suggests that instead of the explosion being touched off when fans or blowers were started, it could well have been the result of attempts to extinguish a fire by plant workers.

1“The most hazardous, the most easily ignited and the most explosive dusts are from sugar, dextrine, coal, starch and cocoa.” Dominge and Lincoln, “Fire Insurance Inspection & Underwriting.”

This report, to Fire Commissioner and Chief Fire Marshal,2 has this to say: “It was apparent . . . that prior to the explosion, something of an unusual nature occurred.

“It was noted that four 2 1/2-gallon soda and acid fire extinguishers were removed from their locations; three of which were expended, and that the 1 1/2″ fire hose located on a concrete column at Bay 12 was partially stretched toward Dry Room 5, indicating some of the employees were attempting to extinguish a fire.

“It is apparent that in so doing, starch or other combustible dust stored in this vicinity was disturbed, whereby it became suspended in the atmosphere, forming an explosive mixture. This mixture became ignited and started a chain of explosions resulting in serious damage to the building and contents and the death of fifteen persons and injuries to others.”

The Fire Department report states that the exact location in which the explosion originated appears to be the third floor, in the vicinity of Bays 12 and 17 inclusive, of Building A. “It is apparent,” the report continues, “that the original explosion was followed by progressive explosions on the fourth floor and on the third floor of Building L. Fire followed the explosions, involving the entire third and fourth floors of Building A and communicated to the third floor of Building B.”

The extent of the damage caused by the explosions is graphically illustrated in the accompanying photographs. According to the fire department’s report, structural damage to the third and fourth floors of Building A was so severe it has necessitated the removal of these floors. During the height of the fire fighting operations, firemen were ordered off upper floors when it was found the blasts had caused them to buckle in places.

2Report of Frank A. Thielman Chief, 23rd Battalion, detailed to fire headquarters, Chicago Fire Department, following an investigation.

Third Floor, Building A, 26 Feet West of East Fire Division Wall, 60 Feet North of South Wall, Looking West; Showing Two 2 1/2-Gallon Soda and Acid Fire Extinguishers Set on Floor Adjacent to No. 4 Mogul Candy Machine. One Was Expended, the Other Unused.Third Floor, Building A, Showing Standpipe Location on Concrete Column, Located in Bay No. 12, Third Column from South Wall, Looking Northwest; Showing Two 2 1/2Gallon Soda and Acid Fire Extinguishers Alongside of Column; also Approximately 80 Feet of 1 1/2-Inch Fire Hose That Was Stretched Previous to Explosion. Both Fire Extinguishers Were Expended.Collector and Tin Clad Building Damaged by the Explosion, Followed by Fire, Which Communicated to Wooden Gravity Tank. Note Metal Canopies over Drying Rooms Blown from Position by Explosion.

Four separate investigations were undertaken, following the blast, to ascertain the cause. These inquiries were conducted through the fire department, in charge of Earle R. Downes, city fire attorney; the coroner’s office, police and representatives of the insurance companies.

According to John L. Fenn, chief of the fire department’s fire prevention bureau, the inquiries disclosed that an inspection last January 23, had turned up 37 violations of fire regulations in the plant; however, Chief Fenn is reported as having said he believed most of these violations had been remedied and that the company had a good record for compliance with fire department regulations.

The estimates of property loss varied from $500,000 to $1,000,000. That the actual loss will be heavy is certain because the disaster came at a time when the company was rushing orders to meet the heavy holiday demand.

The rapidity with which the officials of the Chicago Fire Department sized up the seriousness of the emergency is indicated by this chronological tabulation of alarms and the response:

Dawn Reveals Destruction at Brach Candy Plant, Chicago Overhauling continues as firemen pick up. Note evidences of blast and fire on third and second floors —blown out and twisted metal window frames and fire escape; burned trucks at loading platform (rear) and cluttered area which complicated rescue and fire fighting operations.

Time of Alarms

Nature of Alarms

4:13 A.M.—Still alarm—4656 W. Kinzie St. (via Fire 1813).

4:13 A.M.—Box 5279 (Kinzie and Kilpatrick). Struck by Fire Alarm Office.

4:16 A.M.—2:11, Box 5279 (second alarm). By Chief Quilter, 23rd Battalion.

Ground Plan—Brach Candy Plant. Darkened Area Indicates Buildings Involved by Fire. AS Denotes Automatic Sprinklers.

Sketch by Batt. Chief F. A. Thielman

4:17 A.M.—3:11, Box 5279 (third alarm). By Chief Quilter, 23rd Battalion.

4.20 A.M.—Special duty ambulances 1-23-6-7-S and Patrol 2. By Chief Quilter, 23rd Battalion.

4:28 A.M.—4:11, Box 5279 (fourth alarm). By Chief Powers, 2nd. Dlvision.

4:28 A.M.—5:11. Box 5279 (fifth alarm). By Chief Powers, 2nd Division.

4:35 A.M.—Special call, Box 5279 for five engines. By Chief Dahl, 2nd Deputy Chief Fire Marshal.

4:35 A.M—Special cal1 — Fire Insurance Patrol 1. By Patrol Officer in charge.

6:41 A.M.—Fire out. By M. J. Corrigan, Fire Commissioner.

These alarms brought a total of fortyeight units of apparatus to the scene, as follows:

It is reported that Ambulance 10, Ladder 64 and Engine 67 were the first fire department units on the scene.

The chief officers present at the fire were: Fire Commissioner M. J. Corrigan; Chief Fire Marshal A. J. Mullaney; 2nd Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Otto Dahl; Division Fire Marshal Thomas W. Powers, 2nd Division; Battalion Chief Richard Quilter, 23rd Battalion; Battalion Chief Patrick Higgins, 18th Battalion; Battalion Chief John F. Finnin, 28th Battalion; Acting Battalion Chief Michael J. Fitzgerald, 24th Battalion; Assistant Chief Officer C. Jenson, Fire Insurance Patrol.

Rescue Started Immediately

First arriving firemen encountered evidences of the blast in the debris which was “catapulted over an area two blocks square.” Frightened residents in the neighborhood rushed to the street clad in night clothes. Some injured victims were found outside the plant. Workers not badly injured, dragged or carried some companions from the ruins. Fire, which followed the initial explosion, rapidly involved the third floor of Building A (see diagram) and as progressive explosions occurred, the fire propagated in the fourth floor of this building and on the third floor of Building B. Before all the fire companies summoned on the multiple alarms reached the scene, the fire had involved the entire third and fourth floors of Building A, and the third floor of Building B.

No time was lost laddering the structures involved, while other firemen stretched in to standpipe connections and carried hand lines up ladders and fire escapes.

It was quickly ascertained that the explosions had ruptured the sprinkler risers and piping, reducing their effectiveness in controlling the fire, even though two hose lines were connected by the department into the Siamese sprinkler connection to augment the water supply.

In addition to the involvement of the upper parts of Buildings A and B, the tremendous heat of the explosion started other fires at widely scattered points. One such fire involved the wooden gravity tank on top of Building A. Fire also communicated to fifteen motor trucks which firemen reported were at the loading platform at the time of the blast. Flaming debris, which rained down over the area, also started other minor fires, all of which were quickly quenched.

According to Factory Mutual Record, several hundred sprinklers opened, overtaxing the systems, which were already partly crippled by broken branch piping.

Firemen had no way of knowing immediately how many victims remained in the blasted, burning structures; it was known that the plant employed a large number of personnel and that the night shift was on duty at the time of the disaster. First reports placed the total at the time of the fire at 200, of which it is said thirty were at work in the immediate neighborhood of the initial explosion. It is said that it was fortunate the blast came just before another shift of workers was due to report for duty. Total personnel employed by the company is said to be between 2200 and 2400 persons.

Firemen at imminent risk of their lives, dashed into the plant to reach victims, in some cases without waiting for the protective cover of hose streams.

Firemen attacked the blaze from the McKinzie and Kilpatrick thoroughfares and from the rear where streams were directed from the tops of freight cars. Turret pipes were brought into play from every vantage point, while hand lines were operated from ladders and roof extensions. A determined effort was made to prevent extension of the fire across the enclosed bridge, connecting Building A with other structures on the other side of the railroad tracks. In this, firemen were successful. Twenty-six hose streams were reported used.

Fire and police ambulances were employed to remove twelve victims to hospitals. One fireman was injured sufficiently to require hospitalization.

A heavy complement of the fire insurance patrol. Companies 1, 2 and 7, under the direction of Assistant Chief Officer Curt Jenson, spread 160 waterproof covers over stock and machinery and assisted the Fire Department in other operations.

Special details of police were required to handle the crowds of spectators, estimated at fully 15,000 in number.

West End of Building B” Looking Directly East, Showing Damage to Exhibition Offices and Gum Drying Room.

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