Marcus Hook, PA Tanker Explosion, Feb 1932

M.S. Bidwell Circa 1920.jpg




While investigators scanned the hulk of the oil tanker BIDWELL, which blew up at Marcus Hook early yesterday, the death toll today was placed at eighteen with one missing and a woman and three men battling for their lives in Chester Hospital. The boat was shattered by four terrific blasts while lying in dock at Marcus Hook.
Questioning of injured survivors, failed today to explain the tragedy.
Most of the crew were asleep or on shore leave when the blasts tore open one side of the ship.
The death list may mount today. OLAF RASMUSSEN, 32, of Forest City, Ia., is believed dying of his burns and injuries at the Chester Hospital, Chester.
Others in the hospital, less seriously injured, are MRS. VIOLA RIVERS, of Jamaica, N.Y., wife of the captain; LERO McMAHON, 27, of Fostoria, Tex., and WILLIAM MAJOR, of Chester.
Twelve dead were counted at the Chester morgue, and others were given up for lost and their names added to the gruesome list.
After a systematic search of the hold of the steamship BIDWELL for four missing members of the tank cleaning gang proved futile, it is now believed the bodies of the men were burled into the river and drowned.
Searching parties have been engaged by the Sun Oil Company to watch and grapple for the bodies. It is said by experienced rivermen that, owing to the cold weather, it may be some time before the bodies come to the surface.
As searchers finally were able to board the ship which for hours had been a raging inferno, bodies of men charred beyond recognition were found.
Still more bodies, blown into shapeless masses, were located aboard the ship of death.
More victims, injured beyond recovery, died at hospitals.
Sun Oil Company officials are at a loss to account for the cause of the blasts. In an effort to solve the mystery surrounding the origin of the first blast, which ignited the ship and led to the other explosions, a minute examination of the charred and warped debris of the steel vessel is now in progress.
As the toll kept mounting hourly, officials still were unable to determine what mischance had set off the first devastating explosion at 12:20 a.m. That first blast, which turned what had been an ordinary boat into a scene of horror, was followed by three other blasts within twenty-five minutes. The countryside within a radius of twenty miles had been shaken and rocked. Thousands of sleeping persons were awakened and terrified.
It "might have been" a spark which set off a gas pocket in the hold of the ship while the tanks were being cleaned of the residue of crude oil -- which had been brought from Texas and unloaded Tuesday -- so that gasoline could be put into them, some investigators said.
The list of known dead and the five given up for lost was compiled after a check; but because of the condition of some of the bodies it was impossible to establish exact identities. The list follows:
CAPTAIN JOSEPH B. RIVERS, 33, Hollis, Long Island, master of the BIDWELL.
EDWARD RUSSELL, 35, of 463 West Twenty-first street, New York City, seaman.
EDWARD GIELOW, 32, Michigan City, Ind., seaman.
STEPHEN MARKE, 31, 322 Gaskill street, Philadelphia, seaman.
STEVE GARDNER, 42, of 245 Hayes street, Chester.
LEROY HAMILTON, 21, Marietta, Ga., seaman.
MARION SARAGA, 36, of 1570 Huddell avenue, Linwood, Pa.
ROBERT A. NELSON, 29, of 123 Harvey avenue, Linwood, Pa.
T. E. DRESHAUER, 27, of 1642 Phanes street, Baltimore, quartermaster of the BIDWELL.
JOHN TESTICH, 44, of 3033 East Sixth street, Chester.
CARL MILDE, Hamburg, Germany, boatswain.
W. L. OLIVER, 32, Charlotte, N.C., quartermaster assistant.
EDWARD ANDERSON, 49, of 1427 East Front street, Plainfield, N.J.
GRANT PIERCE, 34, Elmira, N.Y., quartermaster assistant.
H. H. DERNDSTON, of 1525 Forest avenue, Wilmette, Ill.
A. A. McNAB, 55, of 210 Tenth avenue, New York City, chief mate.
HARRY T. ACKERMAN, 33, New York, second mate.
The injured:
WILLIAM MAJOR, 37, of 212 West Front street, Chester, oiler.
MRS. VIOLA RIVERS, 28, wife of the captain of the BIDWELL.
OLAF RAUSSMUSSEN, 32, Bar City, Iowa.
LEE R. McMAHAN, 27, Fostoria, Texas, wireless operator.
The charred body of Captain RIVERS was found in his quarters. He had gone back to salvage his logbook and personal records and paid with his life for his devotion to the duties of the sea -- to save the log if possible.
Several other members of the crew missed death or injury by having gone ashore for the night. Included among these are JOHN PETERSON, JOHN BALL, a cook, and TERRENCE O'CONNOR, 21, of 748 East Westmoreland street, Philadelphia.
O'CONNOR missed death through his devotion to his widowed mother. Her husband died only recently and she was supporting a family of six with the help of TERRENCE. He had gone home for the evening to take $5 to her to "help out a bit." That saved his life.
BALL, a World War veteran in describing the horror, said it "scared him" and reminded him of bombardments in France.
And so the stories of survivors went. Almost to a man those who had come through the thing alive had done their level best to save a fellow worker.
Into the record of the oil company, however, were inscribed a saga of heroism on the part of the members of the crew of the ill-fated ship many of whom braved death to rescue comrades who had been disabled by the first blasts. Another risked his life to save the life of MRS. VIOLA RIVERS, wife of the captain, the only woman aboard.
The first revelation of the heroism of the crew came when the charred body of Captain JOSEPH RIVERS, skipper of the tanker, was extricated from the blackened hull of the wrecked ship. True to the traditions of the sea, he had stood by his ship to the last, perishing in his attemptss to save his men.
Further disclosures of the bravery of the crew came last night when Coroner J. E. SCHEEHLE revealed how EDWARD CARTAIN, 29, of Buckman Village, near here, had rescued MRS. RIVERS from certain death. She had been tossed in the Delaware river and was being drawn towards the flaming ship when CARTAIN jumped from shore, where he had reached safety, and finally managed to bring her ashore, although he was almost exhausted.
"His was the most startling example of bravery," said Coroner SCHEEHLE. "The man, who apparently was on the dock, rushed to the ship when the flames started to rage, jumped into the water and swam to the hole which had been torn in the side of the ship."
"MRS. RIVERS was floating nearby unconscious, and was being carried slowly towards the opening. Undoubtedly she would have been drawn into the inferno in the hold. She wore a life preserver and bobbed in a sea of burning oil."
"In another minute she would have been in the flames, but CARTAIN, who certainly ought to be recommended for a medal, reached her in time and then swam heroically with her to the dock."
"Then with an unheard of modesty he disappeared," Coroner SCHEEHLE said.
Many of the bodies of the dead were charred almost beyond recognition.

Chester Times Pennsylvania 1932-02-05


My grandmother is Viola

My grandmother is Viola Rivers.
I am a genetic heir of Joseph and Viola Rivers. I have traced thru my DNA my grandparents past. My grandfather was a mystery since he died at 33 years old. The information I have traced is amazing. Joseph Rivers is not his real name, and his age and birthdate are also untrue. I have found his family and now I know the truth. I’m amazed. These were tough people from another era.

Bidwell explosion , Feb 4, 1932

Edward Cartain was a hero. Uncle Ted was not a blood relation to me, He dove into the icy Delaware River and saved my grandmother. We admired and loved him, he was a wonderful family man and a hard worker. We always felt he was part of our family. I didn’t know until I was a teenager that he wasn’t a blood relation. He certainly deserved that Carnegie Medal.

Bidwell Explosion

Don Collins, do you know any more about this explosion? My grandfather was killed in this accident and I'd like to know more.


Tell me about it!

Great Uncle Ted

Great Uncle Ted visited us in Salford, Lancs, GB sometime in the late 1960s / early 1970s (I cannot remember exactly when), and told us how he had jumped into Boston Harbour to save someone.

Actress Veronica Lake's Father Perished

Actress Veronica Lake's father appears to have perished in this explosion. However, it appears his name is misspelled.

According to Wikipedia:

"Her father, Harry E. Ockelman, of Danish-Irish descent, worked for an oil company aboard a ship. Her father died in an industrial explosion in Philadelphia in 1932 when she was ten. "

Bet you didn't know....

Actress, Veronica Lake's father, HARRY T. ACKERMAN, 33, perished in that explosion. The paper got her father's name wrong. It should read, Harry E. Ockelman. I lost my uncle that I will never meet, Marion Saraga.

Viola Rivers

My Great Uncle Edward Cartain was a kind and generous man and I am happy to know that his memory lives on.

Bidwell Explosion

What the story doesn't mention is that while it was a Sun Oil ship, the explosion happened while it was at the then-Sinclair refinery dock. Marcus Hook had two volunteer fire companies that responded to the scene. However, the Sinclair refinery had a policy to fight its own fires. But this was a massive fire that threatened the three refineries along the river at Marcus Hook. My father, who was a foreman of the Viscose Fire Co. No. 2 at the time, and later served two terms as borough fire chief, often told the story that the guards at the Sinclair gate would not open the gate to allow the borough fire engines in. Finally he ordered the driver of the LaFrance pumper to push the gate open with the bumper and the volunteers went in to fight the fire. This dock was the site of a disastrous Corinthos/Queeney tanker collision, explosion and fire in 1975.

Is Joseph Liberto related to

Is Joseph Liberto related to an old friend of mine, Betsy Liberato?