Lawrence, MA Pemberton Mills Disaster, Jan 1860

Jan 10, 1860

FALL OF THE PEMBERTON MILLS IN LAWRENCE, MASS. - LOSS OF TWO HUNDRED AND SIX LIVES, AND WOUNDING TWO HUMDRED AND SEVEN MORE. - This day, about five in the afternoon, the Pemberton Mills, in the city of Lawrence, Mass., fell to the ground, burying between six and seven hundred people, of whom many were burned alive. The falling of the walls of the building commenced at the southeast corner, where a portion of the brick-work, fifteen feet high, was seen by bystanders to force itself outwardly. In less than a minute thereafter, the walls of the mills, with the exception of the chief wing, were precipitated into a hideous mass of ruins. The noise produced by the awful event was said by some to resemble that of a terrible snow-slide, - a sharp, quick rattle, giving premonition of the occurrence of an awful catastrophe. The sound was heard quite a distance, and was regarded by many individuals as the shock of an earthquake. There was no warning of danger; and the whole force, males and females, adults and children, were overwhelmed in the ruins. The wreck of the building was complete. Some persons contrived to work their way out; but many were immediately killed, others were wounded to helplessness, and others were so involved in the mass of rubbish that they could not extricate themselves.
The firemen and citizens hurried to the scene of the disaster, and every means was resorted to to [sic] get out the dead and wounded. The inhabitants, many of whom had relatives and friends in the establishment, were thrown into consternation, and the confusion and horror of the scene were indescribable. Temporary hospitals were hastily arranged. Ropes and ladders were employed in removing the rubbish; physicians and surgeons were overwhelmed with work; bonfires were lighted in the streets to assist in the work of rescue, and every few moments some poor suffering creature would be brought out, often in a dying state. Numbers of the dead and wounded were carried in carts and other vehicles to the City Hall, to await recognition.

The work of removing the ruins and the dead and wounded went on briskly, but there were still several hundred unextricated [sic], when the appalling cry of "Fire!" was heard. A man named John Crawford, who was hunting for his daughter with a lantern among the ruins, struck in against some of the machinery, which set fire to the loose cotton, and the flames, spreading, soon put the whole of the ruins in a blaze, driving back the rescuers, and subjecting the imprisoned sufferers to a still more frightful death than that which was apprehended. The screams and groans, while the flames were progressing, were frightful to hear. The utmost efforts of the firemen were unavailing, and by twelve o'clock the ruins were a mass of flame. By one o'clock all was a heap of glowing cinders and ashes. Several parties who were burned to death had aid nearly extended to them. In one care one of these persons was helped to a glass of water, by parties who were endeavoring ta [sic] extricate her. She said that near her, seporated [sic] only by a single beam, were six men uninjured. Alas! They were all consumed in the flames, which spread with great rapidity. How many were thus burned there is no data for estimating. A person who was at the fire from its beginning became cognizant of three parties of individuals - from four to six in number - who thus perished. It was about half-past nine o'clock when the fire was discovered. This additional horror, although somewhat apprehended, struck terror to the hearts that had before been hopeful of saving more lives. Still the work of removal went briskly on. The force-pumps and all the engines which were on the ground at once got streams of water on, but all in vain, and, as stated above, the debris were soon one mass of flames.

Those near at the breaking out of the fire were almost on the point of extricating a woman not badly hurt, but the flames drove them back, and the woman is supposed to have perished when delivery seemed so near. The scene was at this time most horrible. The ruins lay in one confused heap, covering an area of about two acres, and piled up to a height of about thirty feet. From nearly every hole and crevice in this vast pile, from the top, from the sides, and in fact from every fissure from whence a voice from the inside could make its way, came shrieks for help, groans of anguish, prayers, and moanings [sic]; and in many, very many cases the poor sufferers could be distinctly seen, talked to, and even reached by the hand from the outside. Many thus imprisoned were encouraged and sustained by assurances of safety, and many cases sups of coffee could be, and were, passed down to those below, who, alas! after all this near approach to safety, saw hour by hour pass away, until, at last, the frightful cry of "Fire!" and the greedy licking of the flames as they approached with fearful rapidity, crackling and hissing all over the remains on the ground, told them too plainly that all hope of life was gone.
An eye-witness, writing this account of this disaster, says:-

This time - six o'clock - fifteen hundred persons gathered about the spot, and by the light of the fires the more daring were on top, crawling under the ruins, fixing ropes, and doing all in their power to extricate whose within. At the outset, their efforts were quite successful. About seventy-five persons, men, women, and children, more or less wounded, were taken out, and if recognized, carried home, and if not, taken to the City Hall, which had been converted into a temporary hospital. After the first hour, however, the work becomes much more dangerous, by reason of the fall of timbers as displacements are made, and often the rescued and the rescuer are again in danger of a fresh entombment. We do not learn, however, that any serious accident has befallen any of those who rendered assistance from outside; but still the danger of the attempt deterred many from rendering any help except by standing at a distance and screaming themselves hoarse in giving advice or directions to the more daring spirits who were hot at work.

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