Newark, NJ Caisson Collapses In Passaic River, Feb 1911

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A large bucket heavily laden with sand and rock was being hauled to the surface early this morning from the bottom of a caisson near the Newark shore of the Passaic River, where a new railroad bridge is being constructed to replace the old Centre Street structure of the Pennsylvania. Some part of the tackle broke, allowing the bucket to drop.
In its fall the heavy receptacle smashed through several compressed air locks, turning the caisson into a simple tube of steel, supported against the outside pressure of the water by no sustaining force of air.
There was a rush of compressed air to the top, and from the bottom upward the steel shaft slowly caved in, as it was forced to give way before the tremendous pressure of the water.
Within the tube were a dozen men. All but two of them were trapped at the base of the tube and drowned in the flood of water which poured in on them as the walls of their prison gave way like paper.
From the time the bucket began to fall until the caisson had collapsed like an exploded bubble, no more than an instant or two elapsed. Yet in that time two negroes who had been in the upper air chamber preparing to emerge from the caisson managed to scramble to the surface. They made off, screaming with fright before their terrified fellow workers at the top of the shaft could stop them.
All of the victims as well as the two men who escaped were negro "sandhogs." Most of them had been at work in the shaft nearly their required shift. ANother group of a dozen was preparing to enter the preliminary air chambers, where they become accustomed to the pressure of the compressed air below, when the accident occurred.
These men were near the top of the shaft, but so rapid was the collapse of the caisson that they were powerless to do more than stand in terrified silence as the steel tubing melted away before their eyes beneath the waves of the Passaic.
Foreman JERRY MURPHY sprang on a handcar, and started at full speed for the station in Newark, there to get aid; others fled through the neighborhood, shouting of the tragedy, and presently a great crowd collected. But the increased numbers were of no avail. The men in the shaft were beyond hope of rescue within an instant after the broken bucket had started on its downward plunge.
Police reserves from all the neighboring stations were hurried to the river edge and all the doctors in the vicinity hastened to the place. There was work for the police, but none for the doctors. County Physician WILLIAM H. McKENZIE was among the latter. He spent some time trying to learn from the frightened negroes who remained, how the accident could have happened. None of them knew more than that the bucket had fallen suddenly and in its flight had smashed the airlocking arrangements.
In the caisson, these men explained, were several chambers through which ascending and descending buckets had to pass and through which the men passed, in their descent into the shaft or in their ascent from it. These chambers were fitted with doors, which worked automatically, opening to allow the passage of a bucket, and closing instantly behind it. In this way the air pressure was kept comparatively even in all of the chambers.
The fall of the bucket splintered these doors, with the result that there no longer was anything to retain the compressed air, whose pressure served to counteract the force of the water without. Finding an escape, the air shot up through the broken compartments, snatching away from the inner walls of the caisson the power thich kept it intact. It was as thought the shoring had been removed from a falling wall. The sides of the steel tube gave, and presently the shole affair collapsed beneath a rush of water. That was all the men on the surface knew of the accident.
What the men beneath experienced might have been told in part by the two men who leaped from the caisson and fled at the first sign of danger. But their escape, according to several of the physicians on the scene, may prove only temporary.
The physicians had in mind the "bends," the affliction which often attacks workers under sompressed air when they are first released without great precautions from its pressure and brought under normal conditions. The men who escaped were in the top chamber where the pressure is lightest and where it is reduced slowly to the normal air pressure without the shaft. How far this process of reducing the pressure had gone could not be learned last night.
According to one of the physicians the two men who leaped from the shaft might experience no ill effects if it should develop that the pressure had been reduced nearly to normal. Had this reduction of pressure been only just begun, said the physician, the identity of the men would be established before morning for each would be attacked by the "bends."
The bridge was being built, according to the police, for W. G. McAdoo's Hudson Tunnels Company, whose system is being extended to Newark over the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks so that in the future the tunnel trains will carry the Pennsylvania's passengers from this city into Newark. The old Centre Street bridge of the Pennsylvania proved inadequate for the proposed service and the work of constructing a more modern and larger bridge had been under way for some time.
The men at work last night were preparing the foundations of the Newark anchorage. All the "sandhogs," according to the police, are negroes and the only record kept of them is their last names. According to the police themen supposed to have been in the caisson when it collapsed were JACKSON, BRIGHT, BAILEY, McKENNA, BROWN, HOUSTON, CLINTON, REIN, CORBETT, STEVENS, CLEMONS, and BORDEN.

The New York Times New York 1911-02-01