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The Black Tom Explosion

Issue 7 and Volume 11.

Before he even heard the blast, Fire Chief Roger Boyle felt himself lifted into the air, blown right out of his boots and up into a sky the color of pitch. He knew he was in midair, propelled by an apparent explosion. He was not surprised. The bad feelings had started a half hour earlier, when he’d received a call from Battalion Chief Gagely informing him of a fire on Black Tom Island (NY). Gagely stated he was having trouble getting the units close to the fire area. Boyle responded to the scene. Together with Gagely, they led the Jersey City (NJ) fire companies onto the nearly one-mile-long promontory.

Volatile Environment

The chiefs’ cars, a new gasoline-powered hook and ladder truck, and the horse-drawn pumpers made their way toward Pier 7 of the National Storage Company. The pier jutted out into the Upper Bay almost directly behind the Statue of Liberty. The fire, blazing around some railroad freight cars, had obviously been burning for some time and was rapidly consuming the wooden railcars and eating through the stout planks, the flames angrily licking their way closer to the volatile contents. Despite the fact that the fire was well advanced and that approaching it would be difficult, Boyle knew immediate action was needed.

He knew this place well. The green marsh filled with the birds and fish of his youth was gone, replaced with this time bomb. The gap between the former island and the shore, about 150 feet wide, had been filled to accommodate train tracks and a road. Shortly after the war began in Europe, it had all changed. Large warehouses, a huge grain elevator, a network of train tracks, and 800 feet of piers soon made Black Tom the most important point in America for the transfer of munitions and supplies to Allied vessels bound for Europe. The loaded freight cars ran up the northern side of the terminal, and the ammunition and explosive projectiles were then stored or moved onto barges to await incoming steamers. Safety rules were bent or broken daily. There was a war on, and there was big money to be made.

Up in the Air

The detonation wave, traveling at more than 24,000 feet per second, tore the chief and his men from their position close to the burning railcars, tossing them into the summer sky. Boyle struck the ground with a teeth-rattling, lung-emptying impact. Around him, a dry rain of dirt fell quick and steady like an unexpected thundershower.

A hoseline whipped about unmanned. Firefighters, tossed like leaves in a strong autumn breeze, struggled to regain their senses. Their faces were blackened and singed from the blast. Torn, tattered, and smoldering rubber fire coats hung from shoulders still shuddering. More than 30 yards from the chief’s empty boots, the firefighters staggered unsteadily to their feet, the once firm ground now a shifting landscape of debris and rubble. Their bloodied ears rang with the resounding force of the tremendous explosion, each enveloped in a noise-filled silence, unable to distinguish the cries and moans of those trapped within the piles of smoking destruction and the shattered remains of barges, buildings, and train cars. The salty harbor air was thickly laced with the biting odor of gunpowder; a mountainous cloud of wood smoke mixed with suspended dust and dirt hung like a pall over the devastated blast site.

The chief wobbled to his feet, then reached down to pick up his helmet. The shower of flaming splinters of wood, brick shards, and other debris continued raining down. A staccato cadence of exploding three-inch shells provided a muffled background to the hail of red-hot shrapnel that tore through the air like a swarm of angry bees. No amount of training could have prepared Boyle for this night. He was nearly surrounded by water, yet the meager amount supplied by the hydrant system would prove to be painfully inadequate. There was a tremendous quantity of flammable materials crammed into a small area. Limited access would make stretching hoselines difficult. The chief’s real problem was the vast amount of high explosives still encircling him, his personnel, and his equipment.

Hidden from Chief Boyle’s view behind the burning freight cars, another fire blazed two barges away-only a few hundred feet from where the firefighters were again frantically working their hoseline. Both barges were filled with high explosives including dynamite and TNT that have extreme shattering power, and the decks of these barges were burning furiously.

Life and Property Loss

So began a night that saw the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department respond to a reported “rubbish fire.” The fire, believed to have been started by German “destroying agents,” and the subsequent explosions would take the lives of seven people including James Doherty, a Jersey City police officer; Cornelius Leyden, the Lehigh Valley Railroad chief of police; Arthur Tosson, a 10-week-old infant; and a barge captain. The blasts shattered windows as far as 25 miles away, including thousands of windows in lower Manhattan and Times Square. Amazingly, the Statue of Liberty only suffered minor surface damage and popped rivets primarily on the statue’s extended right arm. However, the entire statue along with the rest of Bedloe’s Island was closed for the next 10 days.

Fireboats from New York City raced across the river and drove their powerful streams of water into the blazing wreckage. Every firefighter in Jersey City was at the scene trying to control the explosive flames. Reports would later state the fire might have been burning for an hour before the fire department was called. This coupled with the lack of adequate water supplies left the firefighters in a very dangerous position. Still, they manned their lines and fought the flames.

It is estimated the worst of the explosions on Black Tom Island that night would have measured 5.5 on the Richter scale (the World Trade Center’s north tower registered a 2.3 when it collapsed in 2001). The first major explosion was on Johnson Barge No. 17, which was packed with 50 tons of TNT and 417 cases of detonating fuses. Other blasts followed throughout the night as the flames ignited the stored munitions. Shrapnel rained down on Manhattan and the Jersey communities along the riverfront.

Terror Attack

As the sun rose the next morning, the extent of the devastation became clear. An area of blackened, twisted, and smoldering debris covered an area several city blocks wide. The Black Tom pier and most of the island that held it were gone. Deep-seated fires continued to burn beneath the remains of mangled buildings, barges, and train cars. It would take several days to fully extinguish the hidden pockets of fire.

The fires and explosions destroyed property valued at more than $20 million. The supply of munitions bound for the war in Europe was temporarily halted. It took years for investigators to determine operatives working for Germany were to blame. Despite America’s claim of neutrality in World War I, it was no secret where the munitions being used against Germany were coming from. So, rubbish fires, ignited on a relatively unguarded pier in New Jersey, would develop into what many historians believe was the first major terrorist attack on American soil by a foreign power. A high priority target: a pier filled with high explosives that detonated on the night of July 30, 1916.

German Destroying Agents of WW I