Chestertown, MD Munitions Plant Explosion, July 1954



Chestertown, Md. (INS) -- Nine persons are known to have perished and at least 50 were injured today when a series of horrifying "atomic-like" explosions demolished a 40-acre munitions plant in Chestertown.
Fire Chief Alex Herzberg said nine charred bodies had been recovered shortly before 2:30 p.m. (EDT). Others were believed to be in the smoking debris of the Kent Manufacturing Co.'s plant, where nine large buildings were leveled by the explosions.
Herzberg said he believed the disaster was caused by two jet planes which flew over the explosives factory seconds before the first of six major blasts which turned the installation into a gigantic shambles.
The fire chief told International News Service: "At about 10:30 a.m., I was across the street from fire department headquarters a mile from the Kent plant, when I saw two jet airplanes streaking just above the roof-level of the munitions factory.
"Seconds later there was a tremendous blast. I am convinced that the explosion was caused by the vibration caused by the planes."
A wall of fire sealed off rescue workers from the wreckage of the plant for more than two hours.
One of the first bodies pulled from the debris was that of a woman with a leg blown off.
A "mushroom cloud" of white smoke, like that created when an A-bomb is detonted, arose from the first explosion. Dense black clouds arose from successive blasts.
A smoke pall shrouded Chestertown, picturesque Maryland eastern shore community about 55 miles east of Baltimore and 83 miles northeast of Washington, D.C.
Half the town's 3,000 inhabitants were evacuated from the immediate danger zone while firemen braved death or serious injury to wet down a huge powder storehouse which company officials said contained enough explosive to "blow up the whole countryside."
Martial law was involked. National Guardsmen, state troopers and military personnel from Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Grounds and other defense installations patrolled the area.
Frank O'Neill, Baltimore News-Post reporter, one of the first newsmen on the scene, told of "crunching behind a concrete wall at an abandoned filling station near the scene, momentarily expecting a large building containing black powder to go up."
O'Neill saw building after building burst into flames and shared the terror of other eyewitnesses who feared that the powder storehouse would explode any minute.
Firefighting and rescue equipment were dispatched from Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., Dover, Del., and other large cities in a 100-mile radius of the catastrophic blasts. Red Cross bloodmobiles and disaster teams were sent from Washington.
Persons several blocks away from the factory were hurled to the ground by the explosions. Thousands of windows were shattered. Houses in Bridgeville Md., 40 miles away were shaken.
The factory, which has Navy munitions contracts and also manufactures fireworks, occupies a 40-acre site on the western edge of Chestertown, which is about 10 miles inland from Chesapeake Bay.
Towering pillars of smoke soared 1,000 feet above the wrecked plant.
Nine big brick and frame buildings and smaller wooden ones were leveled by the blasts or gutted by fire.
Members of the Chestertown infantry unit of the Maryland National Guard were called from their jobs to set up a cordon around the plant area.
Other military detachments and Army doctors, nurses and ambulances were rushed to the stricken town from Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., 15 miles away.
Disaster relief headquarters were established at the Chestertown Telephone Company offices.
The town's hospital was jammed with injured survivors. Many of them were given first aid treatment on the hospital lawn. Others were taken by ambulance to nearby cities.
Chestertown police said few of the plant's 300 employes who fled in panic when the first explosion blasted the main building were found sobbing but unhurt, cowering in a marsh a few hundred yards from the plant.
They were MRS. NELLIE NICKERSON, MRS. SALLIE HURD and MRS. HILDA BENNETT, all of Chestertown. MRS. HENRY D. JONES of Broad Neck, Md., and MRS. MARY YOUNGER and MRS. ELLA THOMPSON of Sudiersville, Md.
President Eisenhower, informed of the disaster, ordered Mrs. Katherine G Howard, the nation's deputy civil defense administrator, to fly to Chestertown with an offer of federal aid.
The cause of the explosions could not be determined immediately.
The initial blast occurred in one of the 40 buildings, a long, low structure flanked by two-score others which were built under a dispersal pattern planned against just such a catastrophe as occurred today.
Within minutes of the first explosion, evacuation of the area adjacent to the plant was ordered.
Fear-stricken townsfolk began streaming out of Chestertown and traffic was clogged on all roads leading to the stricken community.
A B-17 bomber from Aberdeen radioed that the entire area was blanked by smoke, but that through the pall a number of buildings could be seen ablaze.

Casulty List In Disaster:
Chestertown, Md., July 16 (AP) -- Following is a list of identifiable dead in the explosives plant blast and the manner of identification as furnished by Sheriff Bartus O. Vickers.
NELSON LORD, bridegroom of three weeks, identified on sight.
MRS. MARY E. FALLOWFIELD, by a wedding band inscribed "MHF to MEF" and dated April 12, 1914.
MRS. NELLIE E. STARR, 47, by keys and a watch band.
LINA MAE TAYLOR, 41, of Chestertown, Md.
She was the wife of Charles Taylor. Identification was established was established through a watch and keys.
EVA L. FISHER, 65, wife of James Fisher and mother of eight children, identified by members of her family on sight.
MAGDALINE SEILER, 57, of Henderson, Md., identified by family doctor on sight.
These five were listed as missing:
MRS. IDA BENTON MENCH, 57, Rock Hall, Md.
These five were hospitalized:
MRS. FANNIE ROBBINS, Millington, badly injured eye, Easton Memorial Hospital.
And these four in Kent-Queen Annes Hospital here:
ALBERT HARRY FOREMAN, Chestertown, badly lacerated forehead.
MISS VIVIAN MAE ASHLEY, Rock Hall, badly lacerated right arm.
MRS. ROSE BOULTER, Rock Hall, burns on face and arms.
MRS. BLANCHE HAGUE, Chestertown, fractured left wrist, possible fracture left pelvis.
All others injured were treated at hospitals and at the scene and sent home.

Kingsport Times Tennessee 1954-07-16