Weekly fire and safety precautionary drills paid off on December 26th, to save the lives of employes of the Linde Air Products Co.’s Prest-O-Lite Division, who fled only seconds before a series of blasts demolished the 200-footlong one-story metal-sheathed building at 539 Concord Ave., West Cambridge, Mass.
Fire, caused by friction from escaping gas as workers were loading one of the tanks, touched off the explosions among some 200 cylinders about 1:15 P.M. to rock the neighborhood for 30 minutes and smash windows a half-mile away.
The first blast sent half the metal roof flying 150 feet through the air. Sixtypound acetylene and oxygen tanks were blown as far as 400 yards away. Vivid green, brown and orange flames rose 200 feet above the building, and over them hung a huge mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke that resembled an atomic explosion. The burning gas generated heat at such intensity that heavy metal girders were twisted.
The alarm was sounded by Mae Grieves, 24, an employe, who was at work in the office of the structure. The eleven employes were working at the other end of the building. Hearing the cry of fire, Miss Grieves reportedly “turned on the sprinkler system” and sounded the alarm. The frequent fire drills had taught employes what to do. Men manned first aid fire appliances and attempted to extinguish the fire, but when it was obvious this could not be done, and the explosions threatened, they fled.
Firemen under Deputy Fire Chief Henry Kilfoyle were quickly on the scene, and the Chief ordered a second alarm immediately. Further alarms would have been useless, it is reported, because no amount of equipment could have coped with the situation. Efforts were concentrated on preventing extension of the blaze to the main building of the Linde firm, 250 feVt distant, and to other nearby property.
The intense heat and flying missiles kept fire fighters well back from the blaze. Hosemen lay flat on the ground. shielding their heads as best they could while directing hose streams. Those who set up a battery of deck guns aimed their nozzles, locked them into place, and withdrew to points of safety.
Fire Chief John F. Collins, who with Chief Kilfoyle directed operations, said it was a lucky thing the plant blew up before the firemen arrived. Otherwise, they would have been inside, and some certainly would have been killed.