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The period from 1915 to 1930 was marked by several explosions connected with the Solvay Process Company and its Semet-Solvay division.There were other incidents — unfortunately, explosions and fires were all-too-frequent at chemical plants in the early 1900s — but spotlighted here are the most spectacular from this 16-year period.

The July 3, 1918 explosion and fire at the Semet-Solvay plant in Split Rock took the lives of at least 50 men, several of them workmen killed by the blast, but most of them workers and company police and security people who died while attempting to put out the fire, or at least prevent it from spreading to a building where a large quantity of TNT was stored.

Semet-Solvay was one of several plants throughout the country making TNT for military purposes during the first World War. The TNT made at Split Rock was for depth charges (bombs) being used by the Navy against German submarines.

The death toll at Split Rock varies from source to source. Fifty is the usual number given, but lists of the men killed indicate the actual toll might have been slightly higher. Some early estimates were that as many as 70 or more may have perished.

Cause of disaster was not determined, though Onondaga County Coroner Ellis Crane, who conducted an inquest, censured the Semet-Solvay Company for not maintaining a guard in the granulator room where a fire broke out, triggering the explosion. Crane also noted the lack of a sprinkler system which might have snuffed the fire and prevented the explosion.

However, on the day of the explosion the water pressure at the plant was so low that a sprinkler system might not have done any good. There were a series of explosions and then a horrific fire. Company hoses proved useless in fighting the fire, forcing workers to use buckets. Some buildings were deliberately destroyed in a successful effort to keep the fire from spreading to a building known as "Dry Canada" where TNT was stored.

Company officials intended to resume operations as quickly as possible, but five weeks after the accident the United States government relieved the Semet-Solvay Company of the manufacture of TNT. Instead the plant would be rebuilt for the manufacture of other products for the war effort. Chief among those would be picric and nitric acids.

Before the fire and explosion the Split Rock plant was producing 30,000 pounds of TNT a day, which represented a small percentage of the amount being produced in the United States for the war, which finally was drawing to a close.

 

Binghamton Press and Leader, July 3, 1918
SYRACUSE — Sixty-five are dead, more bodies are believed in the ruins and 50 or more are injured as a result of the explosion which destroyed half the plant of the Semet-Solvay plant, making trinitrotoulol, commonly known as TNT, for the government, at Split Rock last night. Fifty bodies have been brought to the morgue in Syracuse and 15 more are awaiting ambulance to bring them to the city.

Property damage is estimated at more than $1 million.

The first explosion occurred at 9 p’clock last night after a fire had raged 40 minutes. This was followed all through the night by further blasts. The fire is known to have been accidental.

Forty bodies were recovered early this morning, many being headless and otherwise so mutilated that recognition is believed impossible. Others were horribly charred by the fire.

The ruins are still too hot for searchers, and many more bodies are believed to be in them. It probably will be late in the day before the exact toll of life will be known.

The explosion shook the entire city. It sent hundreds into panic. Within a mile or more of Split Rock, scores rushed from their homes to get out of the danger zone. It was feared that the northern section of the plant, known as “Canada,” would be ignited. If “Dry Canada,” containing the big storage plant, had been ignited the entire city would have suffered.

At least 15 buildings of the great establishment were wiped out. Many were killed or injured while fighting the fire. When the fire started, hundreds of workmen left the building. Had the explosion come without the warning fire, the toll of dead might have been much heavier.

The entire night was one of terror for many after the big explosion. A general exodus followed the blast. Besides the fleeing workmen, many families moved away from the scene.

The rush to rescue was general. While some started out of curiosity, scores of doctors and others went in the errand of mercy. Some of the injured were found in grave condition. Others were less injured. One man had a leg blown off and it was necessary to amputate the other leg.

Many women in the houses of workmen on the hillside had narrow escapes. They rushed out in panic, some with children in their arms. The company kitchen, where women were employed, was damaged, but it was said that all of the employees escaped.

Reports say that two workmen were blown through a wall and others were buried under debris. Flying pieces of building struck many.

Flames mounted high into the air and could be seen for miles, topped by a column of smoke that seemed to extend southward 20 or 30 miles.

 

The Syracuse Herald, July 5, 1918

With fifty bodies at the morgue and forty-one workmen missing, it is feared that the death list from the Split Rock disaster will reach seventy. Only twenty-nine of the fifty bodies have been identified.

Search is being made of woods and fields a considerable distance from the explosion. The finding of a coat belonging to Eugene L. Rice of Split Rock half a mile from the plant widened the search which had been confined to the ruins.

District Attorney Walrath and Coroner Crane began an inquest at 2 p.m.

During the morning they held a conference and later went to Split Rock.

Relatives of missing men were urged by morgue attendants to have their dentists make charts of the teeth of the ones missing. With the aid of these charts many of those at the morgue can be identified.

While many thronged to the morgue again during the morning, only those with relatives missing were admitted.

Mr. Walrath and Dr. Crane’s visit to Split Rock was to advise what witnesses are wanted for the first day of the inquest.

The investigation will be determine the cause of the fire preceding the explosion and to find the direct cause of the explosion. Investigators also want to know why the water supply failed.

Only chemists and those acquainted with the manufacture of TNT were summoned for the first day. It is expected that expert testimony of chemists will take all afternoon.

Tomorrow’s witnesses will be men who were on the ground and escaped injury or were slightly hurt. Then those less seriously injured and now in a hospital will tell their story.

Assistant District Attorney Barrett, with a court stenographer, has secured statements from many of these and it is understood he has obtained considerable important information.

According to District Attorney Walrath it is desired to know just how low the water supply was and why. The small hose, according to statements made, would throw no water on the fire and only small streams came from the large hose.

The information obtained from injured workmen was reviewed this morning in preparation for the inquest, which started this afternoon.

If there is any evidence the water supply had been tampered with this will give ground for suspicions the fire was caused by a German sympathizer or spy. Thus far there is no confirmation for any thought the fire was started with the purpose to destroy the plant.

It is believed several bodies or parts of bodies will be found a half a mile or a mile from the scene of the explosion. The Semet-Solvay Company has worked untiringly to find bodies in the ruins, but no search has been made further away.

At the morgue is a tray full of feet, fingers and hands awaiting identification. These may be the only parts remaining of men who were blown to pieces.

Three more bodies have been identified:

Isaac H. Blessing, 305 Glenwood Avenue, Syracuse.

Milford O Moore, 149 Gifford Street, Syracuse.

Joseph H. White, Elmira.

Company officials said that if the manufacture of TNT is resumed, it will be only to meet urgent government requirements.

Workmen flocked back to the Split Rock works on the Fourth of July, indicating their willingness to resume work.

It is estimated seventy-five percent of those killed were not employed at the TNT plant, but were patrolmen, firemen and others who lost their lives as a result of heroic efforts to stop the fire, which originated in TNT unit No. 3.

 

Syracuse Journal, August 7, 1918
Fifteen unnamed but honored dead of the Split Rock explosion of July 2 were buried side by side in a semi-circular grave at Morningside Cemetery this morning. It was the last echo of the explosion which snuffed out fifty lives and injured as many more.

The funeral cortège, largest ever seen in the city, headed by fifteen hearses and followed by forty carriages and automobiles, was solemnity in itself. No demonstration accompanied the cortège as it slowly wound its way to cemetery, but the hundreds who viewed the procession doffed their hats in honor the men ho gave their lives that the boys over there should be amply supplied with death-dealing explosives.

At the graveside, a rabbi, a priest and a preacher paid tribute to the unidentified in the ritual of the respective religions.

Fully a hundred relatives of the men listed as missing since the explosion and presumed to be among the charred forms which have lain in the county morgue for more than a month unrecognized, gathered in the receiving rooms of the little Montgomery Street block shortly after nine o’clock.

Nine automobile hearses and six horse-drawn vehicles lined up along the curb and in each a black coffin was placed.

Shortly after ten o’clock the procession was on its way, wending slowly through streets lined with hundreds who paid their small might of honor and respect to the dead as the cortège passed by.

A semi-circular gravesite, probably forty feet in length, had been prepared. Eighteen members of the Solvay Police Department aced as pall bearers, six to each coffin as it was brought from the hearse and lowered in the waiting rough box in the grave.

On the grass above each coffin lay a floral wreath, festooned in red, white and blue ribbon. This was the gift of the Semet-Solvay Company. Miscellaneous remembrances were piled on each bier.

At the cemetery probably two hundred others besides the friends and relatives of the missing had gathered to witness the ceremonies.

Rev. Adolph Coblenz, representing the Jewish faith, was first to offer prayer. He was followed by Rev. George S. Mahon, a Catholic priest, whose remarks paid tribute to the unidentified as heroes of the war just as much as the boys who died in France. His talk was short and simple and swayed the surrounding throng to tears.

Rev. F. T. Keeney, representing the Protestant dead, made the closing prayer.

Though many officials of the Solvay companies were present, none of them participated in the services other than as spectators.

Before noon the simple services had been concluded and the mourners, largely women, were taken to their homes. Few of them gave way during the ceremonies, though tears came to the eyes of all.

Coroner S. Ellis Crane represented the county at the funeral. The Undertakers’ Association had charge of the general arrangements.

Coroner Crane announced this morning he had issued death certificates for all the missing, for both the unidentified and the missing lists are the same. Each body had been named, and the following names will be inscribed on the granite memorial to be erected over the plot by the Semet-Solvay Company:

Glenn Charles Bates, 1349 West Onondaga Street; Herman George Baxter, 108 Tanglewood Avenue; John W. Brown, 118 Barnes Avenue, Floyd Eastman,, 409 Hartson Avenue; Charles Finnerlin, 108 Temple Street.

James Jones, 201 Caroline Avenue, Solvay; Francis J. Keefe, 445 Cannon Street; James King, Skaneateles; Clarence Mundy, 224 Stuart Avenue; Eugene Rice, Split Rock.

David Rush, 1012 Montgomery Street; Theodore Silverstein, 625 Harrison Street, George Sitterly, Lyons; John Westman, 819 East Genesee Street; George F. Wood, 412 Abell Avenue, Solvay.

 

Syracuse Post-Standard, July 4, 1918
Editorial
Syracuse is in mourning for the greatest calamity in its history. It grieves for loss of life greater than has ever come to us in accident before. It sympathizes with hundreds of widows and orphans suddenly bereft, and it will not fail to extend any aid within its power to relieve suffering and assuage the sense of grief.

The Split Rock plant is a necessary war industry. Its product is of fundamental importance in the war. It is a hazardous industry, as is the making of all explosives, but it is as essential that men shall accept the hazard of manufacture as they do the hazard of making explosives for destructive purposes.

The dead and injured at Split Rock are in a real and direct sense victims of the war, to be reckoned with those who die upon the battlefields of France as defenders of human liberty. They died as soldiers do in the service of their country.

If the whole story were known we suspect it would show that man, if not most of the workmen, fulfilled that finest of all definitions of heroism: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” For the men who worked so desperately to check the flames, knowing how vast would be the calamity should the whole plant be enveloped, knew also how near they were to death while they worked.

That this calamity has come to us by deliberate act of a German agent or sympathizer is disproved by all the evidence at hand, and appears conclusive. That so calamitous an accident could occur, in spite of all precautions, is unfortunately borne out by the experience in explosives manufactured in this and other countries. How ample was the police protection of the plant has been a matter of common observation.

The TNT which was made in the buildings destroyed was not kept at the plant in quantities, was carefully guarded, and was in the form in which its explosion would do the least damage. The company located its buildings wide apart, kept a broad open area on all sides of its plant, and discouraged building in the vicinity.

That the company as able to place insurance upon its buildings is testimony it submitted proof of exceptional precautions against accident, for it is unusual for a plant devoted to such manufacture to obtain insurance.

A thorough inquiry into the accident is necessary to discover how the fire started, what means the company had provided to fight fire, and why these means prove ineffective. But there is no expectation this inquiry will disclose any failure to take those protective measures which science and experience prescribe. Certainly the Semet-Solvay Company has never neglected, for reasons of economy, to do whatever was demanded to protect its property and the lives of its workmen.

We count with confidence that the company extend, so far as it is in its power, every comfort and relief to those who have suffered affliction by this distressing accident.

 

Also:

1915: It felt like an earthquake.

1916: Deadly preview of an even great tragedy.

1929: Gas attack!

1930: Disaster averted.

 

 
For another look at Solvay's past: Solvay-Geddes Historical Society
 
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