Mystery in Chemical Blast
An air of mystery surrounds the destruction of a building of the Lucidol Division, Novadel-Agene Corp., at 1740 Military Road, Town of Tonawanda, N. Y., on September 23rd last.
Following four violent explosions, and ensuing fire, which brought death to 13 and injuries to at least 37 others, the ruins had hardly cooled before several separate investigations were begun by the company, by an insurance carrier, an explosives expert, and by representatives of the National Board of Fire Underwriters.
Sitting in on the first conference on the 24th were Buffalo’s Fire Commissioner Harold R. Becker, who is also Erie County Fire Coordinator: Chief Elmer C. Mang of the Town of Tonawanda: John W. Penniston, representative of the National Board of Fire Underwriters and John P. Wargo, chiei of the Sheridan Park Volunteer Fire Company in whose district the disaster occurred and whose men were first at the scene. Following this meeting, numerous other consultations were held and, while several different theories have been advanced as to the probable cause of the destructive blasts, no substantiating evidence has been released to this date.
The scene of the first explosion, which was clocked at 11:18 A.M., was the 100-ft.-longy two-storv brick building “C” of the Lucidol plant, located on the New York Central main line to Niagara Falls, about 200 feet east of Military Road. Successive blasts were timed at 11:20; 11:40 and 11:45.
The plant, which reportedly was used for the production of peroxides, was reduced to debris, much of which was scattered over a wide radius, with heavy damage inflicted on dwellings nearby, including the extensive Sheridan-Parkside Project. Some of the debris landed in the yard of the Western Electric Co., about a mile from the scene of the explosions.
The first company to respond was the Sheridan Park Volunteer Fire Company under Fire Chief John P. Wargo, who immediately transmitted a general alarm after sizing up the extent of the disaster. This brought aid front Kenilworth, Brighton, Kenmore, Ellwood and Grand Island. Tonawanda fire companies stood by at Sheridan Hose Company hall. Seven ambulances rushed to the scene from as far away as Lackawanna.
Homes and business places in a fourmile area were rocked by explosions and many startled residents, noting the cloud shaped like an atomic bomb blast which hovered over the plant, believed the area was the victim of an enemy atomic bombing.
Power and telephone lines were disrupted and persons seeking aid had to walk several blocks to reach workable telephones. Outside the plant itself, the bulk of the damage was done to homes on Crane Place Court, which is separated from the blasted building by only a few feet. A six-family house and two two-family dwellings were destroyed, as was another two-family house in the neighborhood. Most of the other dwellings suffered broken windows, fallen plaster, and damaged furnishings. A 50-gallon steel drum, apparently hurled more than 100 yards, was tilted crazily on the roof of one house.
In response of other emergency services, police, public works, medical and civil defense to call for help was rapid and efficient although these forces, and fire fighters, encountered various delays due to the rush of sightseers who jammed the roads to the scene. Extra police and sheriffs later managed to shut off the access roads, Hut even then, the morbidly curious swarmed into the area. Both the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army dispatched mobile canteens and crews to the site.
Firemen quickly controlled the flames in the wrecked plant and doused all exposures including Building D, a 300foot structure which was badly burned, while others turned their attention to searching for the dead and injured. The shattering force of the blasts made it impossible to immediately identify most of the victims and it was difficult to quickly gather any comprehensive pictiure of the total casualties. Over 20 casualties were taken to Kenmore Mercy Hospital alone.
The volunteer fire fighters received credit for their attack on the fire in the face of possible additional explosions of materials in storage in the plant. Kenilworth Fire Chief Francis X. Koch, a member of the Erie County Fire Advisory Board, said the men stood to it like soldiers in the face of acid fumes.
At one time there were firemen trapped on Building D, with acid boiling all around them, but they stuck it out.
Faced with total wreckage of the Building C, firemen and others were unable to even hazard a guess at the Cause of the disaster. El wood hire Chief lames P. Reidy said, “Right now there just isn’t any way for us to know.” Cecil Pettit, Eire Chief and assistant foreman at the Lucidol plant, who was hospitalized front injuries received in rescue work and fighting the tire following the first explosion, said he believed the cause of the explosion never would be known. He had left building C only a few minutes before the blast, after making a routine visit, He said employes in the building were all chemical operators with years of experience. He reported that construction workers also were in the building, one of whom was killed and others injured.