Update: for the 60th anniversary of this disaster, I wrote a retrospective for The New York Times. My friend SamDakota put together a really good-looking graphic image of some of the stories I collected in the wake of this post.
“Shortly after the fourth alarm, a terrific explosion occurred, shooting smoke and flame over 500 feet into the air. Thousands of windows were broken within a radius of a mile and serious structural damage occurred within a radius of a quarter mile. Buildings were shaken in the financial district of downtown New York two miles away and the noise of the blast was heard for 35 miles.”
– The New York Board of Fire Underwriters Bureau, 1957
It was a routine job: cutting the metal columns of a pier to replace the cables on the cargo-handling equipment. It went horribly wrong.
The date was December 3, 1956. The time was 3:15 p.m. As the flame from an oxyacetylene torch met the cold steel of a column of the structure atop the pier, sparks flew in several directions – including toward a mountain of 26,365 pounds of ground foam rubber scrap packed in 500 burlap bags. The fuzz of the bags quickly ignited, engulfing the entire pile in flames.
No one knew that 37,000 pounds of a Class C Explosive called Cordeau Detonant Fuse lay nearby. Twenty-six minutes later, it announced its presence – to the tune of 10 dead, 247 injured, and $10,000,000 in property damage.
The Luckenbach Steamship Co., Inc. pier at 35th Street was the longest in New York Harbor. Covering most of its 1,760 feet was a superstructure 175 feet wide, with walls of corrugated iron and a roof of tar and gravel, all set on a heavy timber and steel framework.
Earlier in the day, there had been an additional 11,415 pounds of rubber scrap on the pier, but some of the burlap bags had proven insufficient to the task. The investigators believe that pieces of the highly inflammable scrap had been strewn across the dock in the process of being removed, leaving a bread-crumb trail for the flames to follow. A westerly wind also helped.
The first alarm went off at 3:16 p.m., one minute after the fire began. Longshoremen and pier workers did their best to put it out with handheld extinguishers. The inferno – and the accompanying black smoke – proved too great for them. They waited for reinforcements.
It was “already of major proportions” when professional help arrived. These first responders found themselves unable to access the blaze from land, so they called in fireboat support. The firefighters sounded three more alarms before an enormous explosion erupted at 3:41. The central area of the south side of the dock was eviscerated.
Cordeau Detonant Fuse, also known as Primacord, was considered a minimal explosion risk – unless packaged with detonators or other explosives. Its placement so close to the rubber scrap was a serious oversight, one that resulted from a lack of knowledge of hazardous materials among the dock workers. It wasn’t until two days later that a review of the shipping records revealed the Primacord had been on the pier.
The explosion launched the steel frame of the superstructure in all directions. One piece landed in a cargo shed at Erie Basin half a mile away, starting a fire there. The flying steel caused all ten deaths; one victim a full 1,000 feet from the scene.
The shock wave was immense, rattling buildings miles from the epicenter. It shattered glass for a mile around, which was the source of most of the injuries.
Amazingly, no firemen died. They were too close to the blast, which ejected the shrapnel over their heads(!).
Within half an hour of the explosion, the fire was considered a four-alarm fire by Manhattan fire companies, with one lane of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel shut down to speed their access to the site. At least one company from Queens also responded.
At 6:41 p.m., the Fire Chief announced the blaze was under control. It would not be put out entirely for another day, and FDNY kept watch lines present on the site for a week.
The report suggested a few changes in policy to prevent similar future accidents. It called for training for all dock workers on recognizing fire risks. It proposed limiting hazardous materials to specified areas, “away from other materials that might augment their hazards in any fires.” It advocated special markings for explosives, and a periodic review of government codes and regulations.
When I visited Industry City Distillery – which is on 35th Street – last week, I noticed that the wrought-iron fire escape was twisted in some spots, and missing pieces in others. Rich, a partner at the distillery who shares my passion for history, told me of a rumor that a German artillery boat had blown up in the harbor during World War II.
I guess we can put that rumor to bed.
Brooklyn, N.Y. waterfront fire and explosion. Report by The New York Board of Fire Underwriters Bureau, et al., 1957.
Marine 1 FDNY has an excellent first-person view of the disaster, called, appropriately, Miracle on 35th Street.
The blast calls to mind the much-larger explosion of the Mont Blanc in Halifax Harbor in 1917, which killed 2,000 and injured 9,000 – many blinded by shattered glass.
Some additional images from the Fire Underwriters Bureau report: