Eyewitness 1927: Big bang hammers North Side hard


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North Side barber Joseph Sharp said "buildings just seemed to fold up" on the morning of Nov. 14, 1927.

"Dense clouds of black smoke [were] sweeping through the streets," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the next day. "Giant pieces of steel [were] crashing through houses and factories."

The cause of the destruction was a natural gas explosion that propelled a 20-story-tall storage tank into the air, where it blew up above Reedsdale Street. Hunks of steel smashed buildings while concussion from the blast broke windows for several miles around. In photos taken the day of the disaster, parts of the North Side neighborhood resemble Berlin in 1945.

The final death toll was 28 in what the Post-Gazette said was the first-ever fatal accident involving one of the giant tanks. Hundreds of Pittsburghers were injured by flying glass and falling debris.

PG VIDEO

Workmen using an acetylene torch to fix a leak, in what was thought to be an empty tank, are believed to have caused the explosion. Members of the repair crew were among those killed in the blast and fire. Many other victims were found next door in the ruins of the Pittsburgh Clay Pot Co.

The tank was one of three owned by Equitable Gas Co. that stood near the banks of the Ohio River. The Rivers Casino now occupies the site.

"The floor seemed to lift and I was thrown into the yard," Louise Chamay, who lived on Reedsdale Street, told a Post-Gazette reporter. "When I got to my feet, everything was black. Everybody ... was running and screaming and then I fainted."

"I had just entered my barber shop when the explosion came," Joseph Sharp said. "The ceiling bulged a bit and dropped just as I reached the front door. Two adjoining buildings swayed a bit and then seemed to fold up. Then everything got black."

Extra police and firefighters were on the scene within 15 minutes of the explosion, the newspaper reported on Nov. 15. "A small army of red cross nurses and boy scouts aided in the rescue work."

"Police searched every house in the vicinity of the explosion and made certain that all occupants were safe," the paper said. "Many of these were old men and women who became paralyzed with fear when the great clouds of fire and debris were carried into their homes."

Others who hurried to the neighborhood had less charitable motives. "All of the guards were given strict orders to keep the devastated district free from sightseers and looters ... It was feared there might be attempts to rob some of the many offices and stores."

Police issued a "shoot to kill" order immediately after the blast, but city officials found that policy too drastic. Superintendent of Police Peter P. Walsh modified his instructions the next day. "Give them a good body beating and then call the patrol wagon and send them to a hospital," was his new order.

Walsh had the backing of James M. Clark, the city's director of public safety, who told reporters, "It is against the law to shoot them down, but there is no law that prevents police from administering a sound ... beating." He added, "And that is what will happen to every looter captured in the wrecked zone."

A.W. Robertson, president of Equitable Gas's parent company, was in Pittsburgh on Nov. 16. He visited blast victims recovering in local hospitals and toured the disaster site, the newspaper reported.

After meeting with "a committee of executives," Robertson "announced that the company would not rebuild the tanks ..."


Visit post-gazette.com on Monday for a "Pittsburgh history" video retelling of the events surrounding the tank explosion. Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series can be read at www.post-gazette.com/pgh250 /.


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