'Jury' finds negligence in deadly 1862 blast

Mock exercise takes on Allegheny Arsenal 'cold case'

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Negligence was behind the deadly explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal 150 years ago, a "cold case" coroner's jury concluded Saturday.

The physical cause was loose gunpowder, most likely ignited by a spark from an iron wagon wheel or a horseshoe. But responsibility for that unsafe condition rested with the U.S. Army officers in charge of the facility, jury foreman Dean Calland said.

Former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht presided over the 21/2-hour mock inquest that heard from a half-dozen witnesses familiar with the Civil War disaster.

The explosion and fire on Sept. 17, 1862, killed 78 people, mostly young women and girls. They had been assembling ammunition cartridges at the arsenal, located in what was then the Pittsburgh suburb of Lawrenceville.

After the jury announced its findings, Dr. Wecht polled the 150 people who had gathered at the Heinz History Center for the commemorative event. When he asked them for a show of hands, all but a half-dozen or so indicated they agreed with the verdict.

One dissenter was explosives expert Jimmie Oxley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, co-director of a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence and a leading authority on explosives (known as "energetic materials" in her trade). The soldiers did their best for their times to keep the facility safe, she said. Living in an era without instant mass communications, they should not be blamed for not knowing about similar disasters that had happened elsewhere in the country.

Saturday's inquest result was similar to the conclusion reached by a majority of the original coroner's jury that met just after the 1862 disaster.

After several witnesses Saturday described what had happened at the arsenal, Mary Calland of Mt. Lebanon described "who it happened to." Many of the mostly female victims were Irish immigrants or the children of recent immigrants. Their jobs provided critical income to their families because many fathers and brothers were serving in the Union Army, said Ms. Calland, a lawyer who has just published a historical novel about the Arsenal explosion, "Consecrated Dust."

As Andy Masich, head of the Heinz History Center, read aloud the names of each of the explosion casualties -- from Elizabeth Ager to Margaret Turney -- a member of the audience stood up to represent that victim.

One person at the inquest had a personal interest in the case. Marie Gray of Shadyside said her great-great-grandmother, Mary "May" Collins, then 27, was one of the people who died in the disaster.

Mrs. Gray's father, the late Robert J. Scheib Sr., kept the memory of May Collins alive within their family, she said. The victims "did not receive a hero's acknowledgement" at the time of their deaths. "So it is very meaningful to have this tribute now," she said.

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