P.S. Purifier Detonates in South Camden

Down the narrow stairway on the side of the purifying box, policemen and firemen carried the victims of the mysterious blast as fast as they were removed. Photo shows the body of one of the victims being taken down the stairway.

Camden Courier-Post – March 9, 1932

Explosion at Locust and Cherry Traps Workers in Structure; Victims Mostly Temporary Employees Cleaning Metal Tank


A terrific explosion in the purifying plant of the Public Service Gas and Electric Company at the Southeast corner of Locust and Cherry Streets killed 14 men today and injured four others, one of whom may die.

All the dead were trapped in a huge box-like tank about 25 feet square. Most of them were neighborhood unemployed who had been given a day’s work scraping off a caked substance which forms during the process purifying illuminating gas.

Poisonous sulfur fumes hampered firemen in the effort to extinguish a blaze which followed the explosion. Two hours were required before the first body could be removed.

The explosion occurred at 7:15 AM. By 11:00 AM two charred and horribly mangled bodies had been taken out by use of a block and tackle. Firemen were digging out the third body buried under smoldering debris.

Six of the known dead were regularly employed by Public Service. They were:

The other known dead, who were employed only temporarily were: E. Anderson, colored; George Williams, colored; Tony Bilank, F. Kralich, T. Watson, colored; J. Pollard, colored; T. Coleman, colored, and L. Carcione.

The police and officials of the company were unable to determine the cause of the tragedy but one of the workmen who escaped said that he saw a “little fire” burning in one corner of the tank minutes before the explosion.

One of the Injured May Die

The injured, all of who were taken to Cooper Hospital were:

Read and Hall were permitted to return to their homes after being treated.

While racing to the hospital with the injured, the patrol car of the Second District collided with a truck at Broadway and Opine and was delayed several minutes. The truck driver, Meyer R. <illegible>>, 25 of 1732 South 7th Street, was injured slightly and also treated at the hospital.

Worker Tells of Blast

Rudolph Walker, 40, colored, of 1060 South Front Street, was the only worker to escape unhurt.

“We went in the tank about 7:00 o’clock,” he said. “About 15 minute later I noticed a little fire burning in one corner. I said ‘Come on fellows, let’s get out of here.’ I climbed out and just as I reached the ground I heard an awful explosion.

“I looked up and flames were shooting way up into the air. I didn’t know what to do, so I <illegible> and notified some other <illegible>. There were 15 or more other men in the tank with me”

Chemicals Cake On Tank

Workmen who described the purifying box said that a substance consisting of sawdust, sulfur, and noxious chemicals was used to clean gas which was pumped into the tank from storage tanks across the street.

This substance caked upon the sides and girders about halfway down the box, they said, and had to be scraped off with pitchforks about every three or four weeks.

There are, they declared, two tanks in the box, each about 15 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The blast was in the west tank.

According to officials, the tanks are used in a process that has been in operation for only two years.

Access is gained through removal of a large hatch-like lid at top of the box. There is no other entrance or exit.

Walker and the four injured were working on top of the girders. The others were trapped at the bottom without a chance to escape. They probably died instantly.

The entire neighborhood was aroused and more than 1,000 persons gathered around the plant. The police roped off Locust Street between Cherry and Walnut. No windows were broken or other damage caused to private property in the vicinity.

Grocer Saw Man On Fire

Benjamin Plevinsky, a grocer at Locust and Spruce Street, said that he was opening his store when he heard the detonation.

“I looked up and saw a man running down a stairway leading to the top of the tank,” he said. “He was on fire from his feet to his head and looked like a human torch.

“I called the fire department and told them what happened. They asked me if I was sure there was a fire. I told them I was looking right at it. I don’t know whether they thought I was crazy or what, but I certainly think that was a peculiar thing to ask when you’re sending in an alarm.

The crowd which gathered was thrown into intense excitement, when Frank Pizzitilla, Walnut Street near Third, was taken to the top of the tank by firemen, looked in and fainted.

He recovered consciousness while being carried down the stairway, firemen said, and murmured, ”My God, my father and father-in-law are in there.”

When the ‘hundreds of persons saw Pizzitilla they believed he was one of the dead and began shouting. One man was seized with a fit and was carried away by firemen.

Rescuers’ Driven Back

When firemen first arrived they attempted to get into the tank but were driven back by sulfur fumes. They put on gas masks but the poisonous gases penetrated even these and they were unable to reach the bodies.

James Bevan, foreman at the plant, said that 13 of the men were temporarily employed and the others were regularly employed. In all, he said, there were 19 workers in the tank when the blast occurred.

Before the bodies were removed firemen said they counted 12 floating in the water pumped into the tank to extinguish the blaze. Two others were believed hidden by debris.

Coroner Benjamin Denny, Prosecutor Clifford A. Baldwin, Director of Public Safety Charles V. Dickinson and Fire Chief Thomas Nicholas arrived at the scene before the bodies were taken out. They described the sight as “ghastly.”

Coroner Denny announced that he will open an investigation after today in which he will summon officials of the Public Service Company, firemen, workers, And other witnesses. County Prosecutor Edward B. Rodgers also will attend he said.

Denny said that because many of the workers were day laborers, families probably would not know of their deaths until they failed to return home at the end of the working day.

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