Tons of Cyanide in Hold of British Freighter Docked in New York Provide Dangerous 17-Hour Fight for 300 Men

CYANIDE, as most firemen know, is a dangerous chemical. But a minute amount is sufficient to fumigate the hold of a ship and then all openings must be carefully sealed. Cyanide in an amount of several tons in the hold of a burning freighter presented a problem to the Fire Department and the immediate neighborhood that for danger was almost without parallel.

The Silverash, a British freighter had tied up at a pier in Brooklyn. Shortly after midnight on January 23, fire broke out from a leak in a fuel oil connection in the engine room and the blaze spread into the cargo holds, which, beside the cyanide in air tight cans, held 270,000 pounds of rubber, automobiles and automobile machinery. The thick, pungent smoke from the burning rubber added to the difficulties of the men.

British Freighter Silverash Settling at the Stern, Before Submergence to the Superstructure

In all, four alarms were sounded, calling out twenty-nine pieces of fire apparatus, including three fireboats. All the equipment and the three hundred firemen were in charge of Commissioner John J. McElligott, who responded. Water was pumped into the vessel from thirty hose lines and four holes were cut in the sides of the ship with acetylene torches to reach the seat of the fire.

Before the Firemen were through, they had to sink the 5,300-ton vessel until only the deck and the superstructure were above water.

At 3 a.m., just as the fire seemed to be under control, there was an explosion. Immediately the firemen were ordered to put on gas masks as a safety measure. The men worked in relays.

The cyanide was destined for the Philippine Islands to be used in the extraction of gold from ore, fumigating, electro-plating and industrial uses. The boat will be out of commission for from three to six months. It had been scheduled to sail on a four months’ trip around the world.

This was considered the worst waterfront blaze in five years.

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