MILLION-DOLLAR PIER FIRE STARTED BY CALCIUM CARBIDE
Spilled Carbide, Coming into Contact With Water, Generates Acetylene Gas Which Becomes Ignited
A FIRE, starting about 5:45 A. M. on the morning of January 8, in Pier 3 of the New York Central’s freight terminal which stretches for a mile along the Hudson River at Weehawk_____n, N. J., demolished the 1.160-foot, two story wooden structure and 310 carloads of valuable freight including refrigerators, automobile parts, lumber, machinery and foodstuffs, some of it destined for the armed forces abroad.
Cause of the spectacular blaze was said to be a spilled drum of calcium carbide, which became mixed with water to form highly flammable acetylene gas. The calcium carbide, terminal freight agents report, was being transferred to a lighter from a box car standing on the rail spur running down the middle of Pier 3.
A fifty-pound drum of carbide fell into “the pit”, a depression the length of the pier, holding the rail spur. Only a few feet above the river level, the pit doubtless was damp, causing the spilled chemical to form acetylene gas. What ignited the gas is not known; smoking is said to be prohibited on the pier.
First efforts to fight the fire were made by 100 longshoremen, using emergency fire fighting equipment, including hose from a standpipe system on the pier, which was built in 1883. Fifteen freight cars of thirty on the pier, including the car containing the calcium carbide, were rolled to safety as the fire spread, and fifteen lighters and barges were towed to safety by tugs.
Weehawken firemen, who arrived at the ferry terminal (the Weehawken 42nd Street Ferry is located just South of Pier 3) are said to have found their way to the fire blocked by occupied railroad tracks and had to turn around. in a two-and-a-half-mile detour, to approach the burning pier from the north. Further de_____ays were experienced when water pressures in freight yard hydrants dropped, as incoming apparatus connected to the system. Assistance was asked of New York as quickly as the seriousness of the fire was realized, and the New York Fire Department sent fireboats “James Duane”, “John J. Harvey” and “Fire Fighter”. Numerous railroad tugs also converged on the blazing pier and exposures in the effort to control the spreading blaze. Because of the intense heat early in the fire, marine fire fighters could not enter the 150-yard-wide slip between Pier 3 and 4 to reach the heart of the blaze. Streams, however, were turned on Pier 2 to the south and this was saved from damage, the firemen being aided somewhat by the prevailing wind. As rapidly as boats could a_____proach blazing Pier 3, streams were di_____ected along its southerly side, and later, the fire was fought from both sides of the wrecked structure. Despite efforts to prevent extension northward toward Pier 4, fire communicated to the creosoted piling of its structure, and firemen fought it from rafts, floats and skiffs. This battle occupied all day and a most all the following night before all danger to this pier was removed.
The fire on Pier 3 was punctuated by explosive puffs of fire as calcium carbide and other chemicals flared up. At times flames rose almost as high as the Palisades, 200 feet above the river, and a towering funnel of smoke arose that was visible for ten miles. On Manhattan, a number of fire alarms were turned in by confused New Yorkers. At times it was feared the old wooden ferry terminal of the New York Central’s West Shore Division, a few hundred yards to the south, and a towering grain elevator, containing 521,000 bushels of grain to the north, would catch fire, but these did not become involved.
Ten firemen of the 110 mobilized from Weehawken. West New York, Union City, North Bergen and Gutenberg, all neighboring New Jersey communities, suffered injuries and were treated at North Hudson Hospital. Two railroad workers were also injured and hospitalized. Many other fire fighters received treatment on the fire ground, during the twenty-six hour conflict.
Losses are variously estimated from $2,000,000 to $6,500,000. Pier 3 was insured for $2,900,000 according to railroad representatives, and its contents, mostly designed for export, were said to be valued at $3,000,000.
Fire Chief William F. O’Neill of Weehawken was in charge of the fire fighting operations, assisted by Fire Chief Ernest L. Wevill of the New York Central Railroad. Coast Guard officials sent two fire boats and men, while railroad workers and locomotives were rushed in to clear the yards in the on-shore path of the flames. All available police and emergency forces were rallied at the scene to aid firemen and control the thousands of spectators who lined the Palisades and tied up traffic for blocks. Radio broadcasts of the progress of the fire brought increased numbers of the curious to jam the river ferries and New Jersey transportation systems.