Presentation, tour mark WWI weapons plant explosion in borough

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Fatal explosions at an Oakdale weapons plant during World War I have led generations of families to recount the dramatic story to their children.

But history fades with time, and fewer people today know about the horror and heroism experienced in Oakdale on May 18, 1918.

To keep that history vibrant, author and West Allegheny High School social studies teacher Dan Prevade will hold a free presentation and tour on the 95th anniversary of the Aetna Chemical Co. disaster at noon Saturday in the ROCK Youth & Family Center, 150 W. State St.

"The history is part of the community," Mr. Prevade said. "In towns and communities that are kind of fading away, I think it's just important to hold onto [our history] and learn about our past."

Oakdale Councilman Jonathan DeBor said the event will be the first in a new Hometown History Series aimed at enhancing the identity of the 120-year-old town.

"It's one more thing the borough can do to keep that history alive," he said.

According to Mr. Prevade, Aetna Chemical Co., a subsidiary of New York City-based Aetna Explosives Co., was under government contract during World War I to produce explosives for trench warfare in Europe.

In Oakdale, a 15-acre manufacturing complex employed about 450 workers to produce TNT for the war effort. Other local plants were in Carnegie, Heidelberg and in the Noblestown section of North Fayette.

Mr. Prevade said that around lunchtime that day, an explosion rocked the town and hurled debris as far as a mile away. Family and friends flocked to the factory to rescue the workers, and many of them died or became injured in a subsequent explosion, he said. About 200 people died.

The cause of the explosion likely was the dangerous mixture of baking soda with a chemical, Mr. Prevade said.

In the days after the explosion, Oakdale's population temporarily swelled from 2,000 to 50,000 because of onlookers, recovery volunteers, reporters and those concerned about loved ones, he said. Mr. Prevade will give a presentation Saturday on the disaster and its aftermath, including photos, newspaper clippings and artifacts from the Oakdale History Room inside the Seminary Avenue community center.

Mr. Prevade recently was named coordinator of the Oakdale history archives.

Weather permitting, Mr. Prevade also will give a short tour of sites such as Oakdale Cemetery on Union Avenue, where a granite monument marks a mass grave of unidentified explosion victims.

Mr. Prevade, 41, of Mount Washington was raised in Oakdale, where his parents had told him about the Aetna disaster. He graduated from West Allegheny in 1991. While in college, he coined Oakdale's motto, America's Hometown.

Years ago, he and his brother were hiking through the woods when they encountered the ruins of the plant. The remnants are a five-minute walk south of downtown Oakdale along the Panhandle Trail, formerly a busy railroad line.

"It piqued my interest," Mr. Prevade said. "I found it fascinating that such a big tragedy happened in such a small town like Oakdale."

He later researched the event and wrote an article, "Horror & Heroism: The Aetna Chemical Explosion," that was published in the fall 2012 issue of the Heinz History Center's Western Pennsylvania History magazine.

He said a big motivator for keeping local history alive was the realization that many of his high school students had never heard of the Aetna disaster.

"It's really important for them to have the knowledge," he said. "It connects them and grounds them a little more to their past. Students who are more inclined to learn their history are more inclined to keep roots in that community."

neigh_west

Andrea Iglar, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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