J. Robert Godbout

J. Robert Godbout
Windham, Connecticut, USA
April 08
Freelance writer, classical musician, professional daydreamer. Lost in my own mind, care to join me?

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JULY 16, 2009 6:28PM

Weekly 10: The 10 Deadliest US Industrial Accidents

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Most of us never think that our workplace could be the place of our own deaths.  When death occurs in the work place it can have consequences that effect an entire industry, and even an entire country. Labor laws, unions, and workplace safety groups, such as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), have their roots deeply embedded in tragic industrial accidents.

Industrial accidents are defined as mass disasters caused by industrial companies either by accident or negligence. In this week's Weekly 10, I bring you the 10 deadliest of these industrial accidents.

1. Texas City Explosion (c.550-600 deaths): The worst industrial disaster in US history took place on April 16, 1947 in the port city of Texas City, TX. Shortly after 8 a.m. workers preparing to resume loading the cargo ship, SS Grandcamp, with explosives grade ammonium nitrate discovered a fire in the engine room of the ship. An estimated 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate were already aboard the ship at 9:12 a.m. when the first of two explosions occurred. The initial explosion was so massive, the damage so great, and heat so intense that 16 hours later at 1:10 a.m. a second cargo ship, SS High Flyer, also carrying ammonium nitrate exploded violently.    


The totality of the death and destruction from that day is best summed up by the official accident report from the Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas: "The loss of life was high. All firemen and practically all spectators on their pier were killed as were many employees in the Monsanto Chemical Company and throughout the dock area. At this date, April 29, 1947, 433 bodies have been recovered and approximately 135 (many of whom were on the dock) are missing. Over 2000 suffered injuries in varying degrees, among whom were many school children injured by flying glass fragments and debris in school buildings located about 6000 feet distant."


2. Port Chicago Disaster (320 deaths): On the evening of July 17, 1944 the enlisted men and civilian employees of the Naval Ammunition Depot of Port Chicago, CA were busy hand loading two cargo ships with munitions destined for the Pacific Theater war effort. At the time of the incident the cargo vessel SS E.A. Bryan, after 4 days of loading, had an estimated 4,600 tons of explosives on board. The second cargo vessel, the SS Quinault Victory, which had just begun loading that evening was docked at the pier, which had 430 tons of bombs waiting to be loaded onto the ship. Adjacent to the pier was a train of 10 boxcars filled with munitions also waiting to be loaded onto the vessel.


At approximately 10:18 p.m. an explosion, of undetermined means, occurred at the depot. The explosion was so massive that it was reportedly heard some 200 miles away, and measured a 3.4 on the Richter scale recorded at the University of California at Berkeley. Chunks of debris and burning ordnance were flung over 9,000 feet  into the air and the pier, along with its boxcars, locomotive, rails, cargo and men, were completely destroyed.


3. Piper Alpha (167 deaths): Though technically not on US soil, the 3rd largest industrial accident took place on an oil platform in the North Sea that was owned and operated by an American company. Los Angeles based, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, also has the dubious honor of having the largest oil platform accident in history. On July 16, 1988 an employee error resulted in an explosion and fire that claimed 167 lives.


4. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (146 deaths): On the afternoon of March 25, 1911 a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist company located in New York City. Fire rescue was quick to arrive to the scene but efforts to fight the blaze were hampered due to ladders not being able to reach higher than 6 stories.


By the time word of the fire made it to the 9th floor it was too late. With only 2 exits off the floor, workers found that the main stairwell was too engulfed in smoke and fire to exit. The 2nd exit door was locked trapping the workers and ensuring their deaths. Frightened workers not willing to succumb to the smoke and fire tried jumping out of the building to the sidewalk 9 stories below.


Prior to the terrorist attacks of 09/11, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the largest mass casualty event in New York City history.


5. Pemberton Mill Disaster (145 deaths): Massachusetts' worst industrial accident (and 5 on or list) occurred on June 10, 1860 in the mill town of Lawrence, MA. Suddenly, and violently, at about 5:45 p.m. the 5 story mill building gave way with as many as 600 people inside. Rescue workers worked into the night freeing many of the trapped workers, until an overturned lantern set the rubble ablaze. Family and rescue workers are reported saying they could hear the screams of trapped survivors as they were overtaken by the fire.

Pemberton's Sister Mill 

A sister mill was built on the site of the disaster and still stands as a testament to the American industrial revolution, and a memorial to those who lost their lives on that tragic June evening.

6. Grover Shoe (58 deaths): March 20, 1905 brought disaster to the town of Brokton, Massachusetts. An overworked steam boiler exploded at the Grover Shoe factory setting the 5 story factory ablaze.


The explosion and subsequent fire trapped and killed 58 of the Grover Shoe employees, and completely destroyed the factory.


7. Little Rock AFB Titan Missile Silo (53 deaths): Like something straight out of a cold war novel, on August 9, 1965, 53 workers were killed in a fire at a Titan missile silo. The cause of the fire was determined to be a welding rod damaging a hydraulic hose which allowed hydraulic vapors to leak and spread throughout silo, which were then ignited by an open flame source.


8. Imperial Foods (25 deaths): North Carolina's worst industrial accident took place on September 3, 1991 at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet. A fire caused by a failure in a faulty modification to a hydraulic line resulted in 25 deaths at the facility.


So many people perished at Imperial Foods because many of the fire doors had been locked. In the 11 year history of the plant, a safety inspection was never conducted by the state. Had just one been done it is believed that the loss of life would have been significantly less.


9. Phillips Disaster (23 deaths): At approximately 1:00 p.m. on October 23, 1989 a massive explosions rocked the Phillips 66 chemical plant of Pasadena, TX. The initial explosion was so violent it register a 3.5 on the Richter scale and had a force of 2.4 tons of TNT. The subsequent fire took 10 hours to bring under control.


The explosion killed 23 people, all working in the plant, and according to the Huston Chronicle sent debris as far as 6 miles from the site.

10. Boston Molasses Disaster (21 deaths): Boston's north end was the scene of the January 15, 1919 disaster in which a tank holding approximately 2.5 million gallons of molasses burst saturating the entire area in the sweetener.


A wave as high as 15 feet and traveling as fast as 35mph quickly drowned 21 people and gave birth to the urban legend that even now on hot days the scent of molasses can still be smelled in the area.








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great post. many who died at the Pemberton Mill Disaster were children. sad! rAted!
Sre, the death count wasn't as high, but the molasses one sounds most horrific!

I mean we can understand getting blown to smithereens - it's happened to a lot of good people, but who among us wouldn't have a "WTF? moment" if we saw a 15-foot wave of molasses coming at us at 35 mph!
in school, we did reading assignments out of a book called "disasters!". it included some of these stories. more kids should do that kind of reading: it's engaging and it gives you an appreciation for the laws of physics. i think this is the new edition:

Mustard - Yeah, those mill disasters really paved the way for child labor laws.

Fins - Oh I agree, and can you imagine the clean-up?

bstrangely - I'm glad I wasn't the only kid that found these kinds of things interesting (but I know I am not normal lol)
And let's not forget the BP Texas City, TX (again) in March of 2005. 15 people killed. A complete lack of safety control caused that one.
Very interesting post. Thanks.

When I was in college I worked for a while at a paint factory. Much of the paint produced was traffic paint, which requires a high volume of flammable solvents.

One day I was working in a warehouse in which hundreds of barrels of volatile solvent were stored. I asked one of the workers what he would do in the event of a fire. I expected him to relate to me some kind of official fire procedure.

He said "I would run and not look back until I was mile away."
I'm surprised that a fireworks factory didn't make the list. As for Texas City, was the SS High Flyer damaged from the initial explosion? Cause if I'm the captain and my ship's holding explosives and a nearby ship already exploded ... open sea sounds like a really great idea.
Horrible. The Port Chicago disaster was the most disgraceful in our military history. Three hundred twenty men were killed instantly - including 202 Black enlisted men. Two hundred thirty three Black enlisted men were among the 390 injured.

This led to the Port Chicago Mutiny.

And this one, in which my maternal grandfather survived after having all of his clothes and hair burned off and spending nearly 1 year in the hospital. He went back to work there and worked another 16 years until his retirement after 45 years of employment. Me, I would not have gone back.

Kind - that is amazing about your grandfather! I agree with you though, I would have found new work.

Zuma - yes Port Chicago those black men who refused to work after the incident really were heros - though the military didn't think so at the time.
While no deaths were recorded by this "incident", the Three Mile Island accident ought to be in your top ten.
From #4, Triangle Shirtwaist: "The 2nd exit door was locked trapping the workers and ensuring their death's. Frightend workes not willing to succumb to the smoke and fire tried jumping out of the building to the sidewalk 9 stories below."

Is it too much to expect quality writing and proofreading from a source which purports to be professional? The misteak's made by the writer of thi's peace dishonor's the memorie's of those "frightend workes" who died. I gues's this is what happen's when there is too much dependence on spell checker's and not enough skill on the part of the writer's.
@Eric - come on, no one likes a dick!
Not to be persnickety... but what about the mine explosion near Scofield, UT on May 1, 1900 that killed 200 men and boys. (http://evanwbrown.blogspot.com/2007/08/utahs-worst-mining-disasters.html )
WINTER QUARTERS NEAR SCOFIELD: (May 1, 1900) An explosion at the Winter Quarters coal mine near Scofield in Carbon County killed 200 men and boys. It is considered the worst mining accident in Utah history. The cause of the explosion was never determined, but it may have been caused by leaking methane gas or errant coal dust. As many as four people survived. The mine reopened in June or July of the same year, but is now closed.

Just a terrible reminder of how dangerous the mining industry was and still is.
Rattie - you are right, however mining accidents are a different class, like circus fires, and night club fires.
That's interesting, would you explain that more to me please?
Why doesn't anyone ever list the Binghamton Shirt Waist fire in Binghamton, N.Y., that killed 50 girls back in July of 1913? I have seen many lists of fire and other disasters and have never seen this one anywhere. There was also a passenger train hit by a milk train in Binghamton in the 1930's. My aunts and grandmother helped with the rescue. My mom had a broken ankle so she had to stay home. She said there were ambulances going by all night. Just curious is all. Rod Serling came from our area and went to Binghamton high so maybe Binghamton was part of his Twilight Zone.
Rattie - from what I understand, Mining accidents are different because there is such an implied hazard to the job. Workers know that they are doing a job that could potentially kill them.
@ Robert: Thanks, that's interesting. I'll have to look into that more.
Re: Port Chicago Disaster
Weren't there also some courts martial of black Naval personnel who had been arrested for mutiny for saying that there were incredibly dangerous conditions and then for refusing to continue work as ordered? Or am I thinking of somewhere else in WWII?

Interesting post by the way! Rated
@Rattie - thanks, shoot me an email with what you found as I would be interested.
Walter; They refused to go back to work after the disaster and demanded better conditions. The Navy as a whole had been having some of the most horrific examples of blatant racism at the time, including ordering the Black sailors to do the dangerous work. Also, safety, training, and other issues were sidelined in favor of pushing for the ships to be loaded.

Some were courts martialed to "send a message". But the Port Chicago Disaster was a major catalyst in a lot of changes and improvements in conditions for soldiers, including the eventual desegregation of the Armed Forces.

"Of the 328 men of the ordnance battalion, 258 African-American sailors refused to load ammunition. In the end, 208 faced summary courts-martial and were sentenced to bad conduct discharges and the forfeit of three month's pay for disobeying orders.

The remaining 50 were singled out for general courts martial on the grounds of mutiny. The sentence could have been death, but they received between eight and fifteen years at hard labor after a trial which a 1994 review had strong racial overtones.

Soon after the war, in January 1946, all of the men were given clemency.

On 23 December 1999, President William Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks of Los Angeles, one of the few still living members of the original 50."

For more details:

unless we reverse the trend of nonunion work, and declining position of the average worker, these things will become more common
thanks for this!
Missing from the list is the Brown's Island explosion.

On March 13, 1863 -- during the Civil War -- the Confederate States Laboratories located on Brown's Island, Virginia were producing ammunition. The workers were mostly women. An accidental explosion ripped through the laboratory. Forty-five people, most of whom were women and girls, died in the explosion.

Here's a web site with information on the explosion:
@ Allan wow can you imagine?! I wonder why it didn't seem to come up on the searches I did? Thanks again!
@Allan - I think it's because only 10 people died in the explosion, and the rest succumbed in the weeks to come.
What a story, and to think that mose were girls and young women.
Some of these "accidents" might well have been termed industrial homicide....Well done......