Camden, NJ Disastrous Factory Fire, July 1940
CAMDEN FIRE LOSS SET AT TWO MILLION.
SEARCH CONTINUES FOR NINE PERSONS REPORTED MISSING AFTER FIREMEN CONQUER FLAMES THAT CAUSE DEATH OF TWO -- 54 HOUSES DESTROYED, RENDERING 1,000 WITHOUT HOMES -- 200 HURT -- CAUSE OF BURNING OIL AND CHEMICALS IN FACTORY NOT DETERMINED -- PHILADELPHIA AND CHESTER FIREMEN AID.
Camden, N.J., July 31 -- (UP) -- Firemen, grotesquely clad in asbestos suits, began the grim search today through the rubble and still smouldering debris of the Camden fire for the bodies of nine men and women known missing and believed to have perished in the $2,000,000 blaze.
Two men were dead, a foreman and an employe of the R. M. HOLLINGSHEAD and Company, the world's largest automotive chemical plant here where a series of explosions started the fire that swept the building, leaped to 54 homes in the immediate area and left all a mass of ruins.
One thousand were homeless and 200 injured or burned while fleeing from the factory amid a shower of blazing oil and chemicals.
The known victims were RAYMOND HARTER, 38, of Collingswood, an employe who succumbed at Cooper Hospital of first, second and third degree burns; and WILLIAM MERRIGAN, 48, Camden hoseman who collapsed while fighting the blaze and died last night at the hospital.
Four of the 32 taken to the hospital were reported in critical condition and physicians feared they might die.
Chester Fireman Aid.
An attempt was made last night to search the ruins by Philadelphia and Chester, Pa., firemen, but they were forced to give up the grim task because of the intense heat.
Under a state of emergency procalimed by Mayor GEORGE E. BRUNNER, National Guardsman and Naval Reservists patrolled the streets. The homeless were cared for by the Red Cross and other relief agencies.
The five-story brick structure, totaled a scant three blocks from Camden's main thoroughfare, was in ruins a half hour after the first of the explosions struck.
With a deafening roar, a detonation rocked the building and was followed at once by flames. Company official believed the first explosion occurred in the basement, possibly in the polishing plant.
Within little more than two hours, witnesses counted an intermitent series of 35 blasts. Walls collapsed, dropping tons of grease and paint-soaked debris to the street.
All of Camden's fire apparatus answered a general alarm.
At the orders of MRS. MARY KOBUS, Public Service Director, police telephoned Philadelphia for aid. Within minutes after the appeal was sent, five Philadelphia fire companies were speeding across the Delaware River bridge to the scene. From outlying Southern New Jersey suburbs, other fire companies -- all of them volunteer -- came to lend their manpower and equipment.
Hoselines were stretched more than a quarter-mile to Cooper river where high-powered pumpers relayed water to the burning paint factory.
Police cars were dispatched through the streets of this city of 120,000 with men on the running boards crying to householders to turn off their water so that the city's entire reserve could be placed at the disposal of the fire-fighters.
The heat at the Hollingshead plant was terrific. Firemen wre hampered in approaching the wax-fed flames which blazed under an afternoon sun of 94 degrees.
54 Houses Destroyed.
Neighboring buildings began to smoulder. Workers in a milkhouse separated only by a narrow alley from the Hollingshead plant ran into the street when the heat in their ice-room became oppressive.
Firemen tried vainly to prevent the spread of the flames to the rest of the neighborhood. In all, 54 houses were demolished by the flames, sending an estimated 1,000 refugees into the streets.
Mayor BRUNNER and his aides worked swiftly to provide shelter for the homeless. As the Red Cross, under the direction of two disaster relief workers sent from Washington, and the Salvation Army sped relief measures, city officials arranged to quarter the refugees in the Convention Hall, the 114th Infantry Armory, in hotels, apartment houses and private homes.
BRUNNER declared a state of emergency to exist and shortly after MRS. KOBUS accepted the offer of Major-General CLIFORD POWELL to send the New Jersey National Guard.
Toward dusk, Fire Marshal BERNARD GALLAGHER announced that the flames, although still burning, were under control. A new fear spread shortly after GALLAGHER'S announcement, when a 45-mile wind fanned the blaze, but the short-lived wind-storm dwindled into a brief rain.
In the early evening, the first of 500 National Guardsmen dispatched by General POWELL arrived and relieved exhausted police in patrolling a 16-block evacuation area. The entire police force, as well as other city employes, had been called to duty when the conflagration threatened to envelop a large portion of the city.
Naval Reservists took over traffic direction as the city experienced one of its worst traffic jams in years. Thousands of curiious motorists drove in from the suburbs to view the wreckage, but the Militia kept them blocks from the scene.
There was only one reported case of attempted looting. A man was arrested by police who saved him from an irate mob after he allegedly attempted to steal jewelry from a burning house.
RICHARD M. HOLLINGSHEAD, JR., general superintendent of the Whiz plant, said he was convinced that the first blast came from the polishing room, and was caused by spontaneous combustion as a direct result of the excessive heat wave of the past 12 days.
Early reports of sabotage because the plant held a government contract were discontinued by Hollingshead and officials. They pointed out that the contract was minor, and for such staples as brass polish which would be of little strategic value for sabotage.
Because of the ruined condition of the building, it was likely that the cause of the fire would not be determined for days.
R. M. BAGLEY, Hollingshead's executive vice-president, said the plant would "carry on" in the manufacture of automotive and household materials as soon as possible. He estimated that 600 to 700 employes were thrown out of work by the blaze, and emphasized that because of the hour when most employes were eating, only 125 to 150 were in the plant at the time.
The Hollingshead Company, in business for nearly 50 years, had suffered its second major loss by fire. In 1900, its plant was razed in a similar disaster.
Those listed as missing were:
WILLIAM P. BENNETT.
JAMES A BORDEAU.
The fire caused the Delaware River Bridge Commission to break a 14-year precedent, it was disclosed today.
For the first time in the history of the bridge linking Camden and Philadelphia, vehicles were permitted to pass the toll gates free, at the height of the blaze. The vehicles were the apparatus of five Philadelphia fire companies speeding to the scene.
Chester Times Pennsylvania 1940-07-31