Bridgeport, CT Magazine Explosion, May 1906

MAGAZINE EXPLOSION MISTAKEN FOR A QUAKE

When Bridgeport Plant Went Up Central Connecticut Shook.

FISH KILLED IN THE SOUND

Windows Broken and Crockery Smashed for Miles Around, Even on Long Island---One Life Lost.

Special to The New York Times.

BRIDGEPORT, Conn., May 14.---More than twelve tons of black and smokeless powder exploded in the magazines of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company in the woods to the north of this town at 4:27 o'clock this morning. Four storehouses were blown to atoms and several others shattered.

Although the explosions were the most serious the powder manufacturing company has experienced since the disastrous one of twenty-four years ago, up to to-night the only casualty recorded by the police was the death of a telegraph signalman at Milford. This man, believing that it was an earthquake, dropped dead from shock. He had a weak heart. Fish were killed in Long Island Sound.

The explosion shook the earth a distance of forty miles to the north, east, and south. Thousands who felt the shocks believed for a time a tremendous seismic disturbance had occurred. As far east as New Haven, as far north as Meriden, at Eastport, and New Moriches, L. I., and at Middletown, Conn., the shocks following the explosions shattered windows, destroyed dishes, stopped clocks, and sent the people from their beds to the streets in wild confusion.

The 30,000 pounds of gunpowder which exploded were stored in 1,200 canisters, each containing twenty-five pounds. These were packed in four magazines situated in an isolated wood about three-quarters of a mile to the north of Lakeview Home, which is the almshouse of Bridgeport. There were in all ten magazines. Six failed to blow up. This is considered one of many remarkable features of the explosion, inasmuch as several of the unexploded magazines were torn up and scattered. Another strange fact about the explosions is that their force injured towns twenty miles to the east and did very little damage in Bridgeport.

Crash In Almshouse.

Shortly after 4 o'clock Supt. Cowles of the Lakeview Home and the nurses of that institution were getting out of bed when the almshouse began to rock violently. The screams of panic-stricken patients, forty of whom are insane, and the collapsing of windows were sounds distinctly heard before the roar of the first explosion traveled over the short distance. Then came a rumbling noise which increased until it culminated in a terrific crash.

Supt. Cowles and the nurses quieted the patients as best they could, while some pointed through the broken windows to the smoke that tended to bear out their assertion that it was not an earthquake. When the nurses looked out they were amazed to see a flaming cloud hanging over the place of the explosion and traveling eastward. It was later learned that this cloud was caused by gaseous vapors still burning.

In the residential section of the city, in the meantime, the thought of an earthquake was the first thing that came to mind. The rocking of the houses, the clattering of household utensils, and the occasional crash of collapsing windows convinced the startled residents that the town was doomed to a fate similar to that of San Francisco.

Before the shock of the second explosion came hundreds of persons were in the streets thinly clad and crying out in terror. The police reserves were rushed out by Lieut. Redman from Headquarters, with the idea of calming the people. When the true nature of the disturbances was learned more police were sent to assure the citizens that no earthquakes had occurred nor were likely to occur.

The situation was rendered more puzzling by the arrival of telegrams from towns to the north, east, and south to the effect that earthquake shocks had shattered windows and stopped clocks. Eastport reported that it had suffered severe shocks, while telegraph operators at Meriden called Bridgeport to ask if it had felt "two serious vibrations."

Shocks Killed Many Fish.

Villages on the Long Island side of the Sound, too, telegraphed that hundreds of dead fish were floating to the shore. Supt. Birmingham, Chief of Police here, told a reporter for THE NEW YORK TIMES that he could not account for the vagaries of the shocks and the seemingly irregular course of them.

"I am of the opinion," he said, "that the explosion of the magazines was a result, not a cause. I think nature had a hand in this. A farmer has just reported to me that there is a crack and inch wide across Park Avenue four miles out of town."

The earthquake theory was not sustained, however, when the scene of the explosions was looked over. Here it seemed as if a giant force had hurled itself upon a woodland area of fifteen acres. Trees had been taken up by the roots and used, as it were, to belabor the surrounding country. The track as of a huge missile could be traced through the torn timber. The wood, green and pleasing to the eye yesterday, now arose as gaunt bare poles. Where the magazines had been there were black pits from five to fifteen feet deep and from ten to thirty yards wide. For furlongs the ground was strewn with bits of the corrugated iron walls, charred woodwork, and twisted pieces of powder cans, and for miles it was not difficult task to find one or more of the heavy caps from the 1,200 powder cans. These small but weighty missiles had traveled far.

Supt. Jerome Orcutt of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company is now in California, but Acting Supt. George Thorpe made the following statement:

"I have no knowledge as to the cause of the explosion. The theory that yesterday's atmospheric changes caused spontaneous combustion does not appeal to me as probable.

"The earthquake theory I cannot entertain. Possibly a stroke of lightning was seen early this morning. It certainly took something to ignite that powder. The affair is without precedent in our history, and we have detectives engaged in solving the mystery.

"The Union Metallic Cartridge Company will recoup for all damage done to property. The damage in the city is, we estimate, about $7,000. Our own loss will be about $15,000."

The shocks caused by the explosions were felt most strongly at New Haven eighteen miles to the east of this place, with the exception of the shock at Lakeview House. At New Haven many persons rushed into the streets, clocks stopped, and a stove in a show window on Broadway crashed through the plate glass.

Signal Operator Drops Dead.

At Milford, where the shocks were also severely felt, Patrick Doherty, a signal operator of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, dropped dead while running from his house to the signal tower to discover what had happened. In Milford, too, plate glass windows were shattered.

A message from Riverhead, L. I. said the earthquake theory was re-established for a time this afternoon when dead fish began to float in from the Sound. Later, however, the residents thought that whether it was an earthquake or an explosion that killed the fist they might still be good eating. Hundreds were taken home and cooked for supper. The greatest excitement prevailed in Long Island for many hours, the news of the explosions not arriving until nearly noon.

Several experts on seismic matters were asked to give their opinion to-day as to whether the shocks resulted from explosions or the explosions resulted from seismic disturbances. The earthquake theory was scouted. The question was freely discussed, however, as to the probability of the magazines having been fired by an incendiary. Acting Supt. Thorpe said there had been no labor troubles at the company's works.

The greatest damage reported is at the Lakeview House. Here windows and timbers were wrenched outward as if by air suction. This was taken to indicate that the force of the explosion traveled mainly to the east and north, creating a vacuum which drew in a great air current from the west.

The New York Times, New York, NY 15 May 1906