NorthFayette-L ArchivesArchiver > NorthFayette > 2000-10 > 0970930448
From: "JEAN WALKER" <>
Subject: [NorthFayette] Aetna Explosion (Resend) + Oakdale Cemetery Monument (new addition to article)
Date: Sat, 7 Oct 2000 08:54:08 -0600
"Steamboat 'Round the Bend", A collection of Articles by James F. Mullooly
"James F. Mullooly (1914-1979) was born in McKees Rocks, Pa., but moved to
Noblestown as a small child. He lived and worked most of his life in the
Noblestown and McDonald area. He enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor
and served from 1942-1945. In the newspaper articles, he wrote of old
landmarks, graveyards, creeks and rivers of the area." (For more information
see the article written by his wife Harryette Mullooly. This book is
available for purchase at the Fort Vance Historical Society, 2nd Floor of
the Library in Burgettstown.)
Articles originally appeared in the Burgettstown Enterprise, The
Record-Outlook (McDonald), the Observer-Reporter (Washington) and the West
Virginia Hillbilly - The work preserved by the Fort Vance Historical
Society. All rights reserved, copyright 1994, Fort Vance Historical
Society, with permission from the Mullooly Family.
Part 1, p. 1 - Aetna Chemical Explosion At Oakdale Recalled
On a sunny May morning in 1918, the residents of the Robinson Run Valley
were, for the most part, engaged in the usual activities of a civilian
population of a nation at war - thoughts of loved ones away from home, an
easier tightening of belts now that the spring planting time was here,
perhaps an early end to the war, since during the month of March, Russia had
signed the treaty of Brest-Litvosk, and Germany, from all indications, had
launched her last great offensive of the world conflict.
Below the town of Oakdale, workers in the sprawling acres of the Aetna
Chemical Co. also felt the hope generated by the spring season. A year
before, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, a French munitions ship had exploded in the
harbor. The explosion wrecked a large portion of the city and killed more
than 2,000 persons. Perhaps with the early end of the war, the men who
manned the plant would be able to relieve themselves of the tension that
accompanied them daily in their civilian contribution to the war effort.
This contribution was the manufacture of TNT - Trinitrotoulene - one of the
world's most powerful explosives up to that time. Even today, in the age of
the atomic bomb, TNT is used as a yardstick to describe the force of the
At the time of the disaster, the Oakdale plant was engaged in the operation
of a pilot, or experimental project, called Dynol. This product was the
result of further improvements of the explosive, TNT, much the same as the
advances made in fission explosives following Hiroshima.
To the best of the writer's knowledge, after talking with numerous survivors
of the series of blasts that made up the Oakdale horror, it was in the Dynol
Pilot Plant that the trigger was pulled to set off the detonations which
resulted in the loss of 89 or more lives this noontime of May 18, 1918.
The age of electronics had not yet dawned and complete temperature control
of steam-heated vessels was yet to come. Steam, with its variances of
condensate and transfer of heat, was used to dry batches of TNT. This was
timed by watch or other measuring device. Today, instrumentation, such as
is available, would insure a more stable pilot operation. This is, of
course, only the writer's conjecture, and there were, and still are, many
who felt that sabotage was the answer to the mystery that still cloaks the
origin of the Valley's largest wartime explosion.
At 11:58 on this May morning of 1918, like the muzzle of a cannon, the
narrow throat of the converged sides of the Robinson Run Valley below
Oakdale poured forth a volume of sound that was heard for many miles around,
and one that was to be remembered by many for years to come.
However, before further conjecture, let's turn to the Pages of the
Pittsburgh Post of Monday morning, May 20, 1918, and read a full account of
the incident after the smoking ruins had abated enough for a complete
"If heroism calls for heroics, this is not a story of heroes. It is just a
tale of many men who did not fear death; who accepted it as a matter of
course, as men face it in the trenches.
"They were volunteers. No order drove them forward. They hadn't an even
break. They had nothing to gain by going in. But they went. And few came
"These were the rescuers of Oakdale's hell; men who were unafraid.
"Piecemeal the story comes; snatches here and there. One in 50 is injured.
One is merely scratched. There were few witnesses. Perhaps a dozen are
dead. Dozens lie in hospitals. How many were there? Nobody knows.
"Eleven fifty-eight, on the word of men who know, the 'first blast' at the
Aetna works tore off the roof of the Dynol building and smashed the nearby
plants. Five or ten minutes later a greater shock crashed, banged and
slammed through the works, sending steel missiles a mile and a half. Most
of the men on the Saturday payroll were at work. Some had fled with the
first explosion. Others ran after the second. Most of them call these two
the 'first explosion', so close did they come.
"They began the work of rescue, and the added toll of death. Sixty men,
perhaps more, went in. Acids were everywhere. Flames were spreading like
the wind. Tanks filled with chemicals for 1,000 shells were getting hotter
and hotter. Flames, fumes, and acids made the plant an inferno. The heat
"Into this furnace the rescuers charged. Sanderson, superintendent, was one
of the first saved. Repeatedly they went back. Men were dragged from under
buildings and beams. Bodies were hauled to a nearby hill. A score were
dead, but scores were saved. A building had been blown up from its
foundations and had crumpled across the bridge toward Oakdale. The rescuers
plunged into the stream, crossed, and penetrated the plant.
"At 12:30 the earth rose and fell again, and victims and rescuers were
buried. Heroes died in that upheaval. It was the third explosion. But
those who lived went back.
"For an hour they struggled, fell, rose again, stumbled, staggered into the
plant and out of the plant, bringing men, parts of men - those that were
left. The third blast had reduced the rescuers by half. The others,
undaunted, kept on.
"It was the 2:00 o'clock explosion - 1:50, some say - that took terrific
toll. In this eruption, greatest of them all, the official staff of the
Aetna Company, leading the rescue work, was practically wiped out.
Superintendents, heads of departments, foremen, office men, laborers - faces
to the front, fearless of fear, they passed into peace.
"Diehl died in this explosion. He was the superintendent at Heidelberg. He
had been superintendent at Oakdale. The boys loved him. In their hour of
suffering he came, racing from Heidelberg and and safety to help in the
"With the blast he disappeared. Several officials were working in a group.
How the blast caught them, there is none to tell. Nine, they say, out of
14, died. Hospital and morgue lists have not been checked with the payroll.
Some, therefore, are only missing. But most of the dead are known.
"J. J. Hutchinson was superintendent of the acid concentrator plant. He
escaped unscathed from the first two blasts. Then he went back - and died.
With him were Diehl, N. M. Eberle, chief electrician, C. C. Brillinger,
chief chemist. All were killed.
"John Dolan, superintendent of the TNT building, is in a hospital critically
injured. H. Leider, blacksmith, was taken out alive, but died yesterday
(May 19, 1918). George Ross, foreman of the nitric acid plant, William
Richards, assistant timekeeper, Melvin Dodson, storekeeper; George Messler,
assistant foreman of the power house, are among the rescuers who were hurt
and may not live.
"W. Hoffman, timekeeper and chief payroll clerk, was another who went back.
W. P. Markey, first aid director and lieutenant of the guard, was another.
Both escaped, two of the few. Malarkey miraculously escaped injury, though
one of the tragic little groups who went into their death. He had just
taken a body from the debris of the first explosion, and stood on the
opposite bank of the creek when the greater blast broke. He was not
scratched. All around him men were killed and maimed. Yesterday he was
still helping with the work of the rescue.
"Hoffman's story is a story of duty well-performed. He was the timekeeper,
custodian of the records and rolls. With cuts over his eye and across his
chin, a bandage binding his ribs, and a light watering to his walk, he told
his story yesterday while helping straighten out the lists.
"Ordinarily," he said, "I lunched about 12:00. Saturday I was anxious to
get the payroll cleaned up so it could go up to New York. I was knocked
flat by the blast. I got up, and was checking over the payroll sheets to
see if any were missing when the second shock came. It couldn't have been
ten minutes. That one blew me through the door into the paymaster's office
and smashed the building. I grabbed all the payroll sheets in sight and
ran. Somebody put me into an automobile and sent me home to McDonald.
"When I got home I again checked over the payroll and found one sheet
missing - Sheet No. 1. So I hailed a passing automobile and went back.
"I finally found the first sheet, all crumpled up, stuffed into my pocket,
carried the employment cards out to the roadside, and went back to see what
else I could get. I was in the office when the next one came. It was the
worst. Things flew through the windows. I was buried under brick and
timbers. I could see only a little patch of light. Toward that I crawled
and finally got out.
There was a roar and hissing. At first I thought things were still flying
through the air. Then I figured it was the acids. They were burning. This
time they wouldn't let me go back. But I saved the payroll. I was thinking
what it would mean to the boys to lose their money."
To Hoffman's heroism, officials, relatives and friends owe the lists of the
Mr. Hoffman is still alive and kicking and is a prominent figure about
End of article.
At the Oakdale Cemetery a memorial oblelisk was erected by Aetna Chemical.
The four sides of the obelisk read as follows - the unidentified are listed:
"ERECTED BY THE OAKDALE CHEMICAL COMPANY IN MEMORY OF THOSE EMPLOYEES WHO
LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE EXPLOSION AT THE OAKDALE PLANT MAY 18, 1918. THEIR
LIVES WERE DEVOTED TO THE MANUFACTURE OF MATERIAL NECESSARY TO THE UNITED
STATES IN THE PROSECUTION OF THE WAR AGAINST GERMANY. LIKE SOLDIERS THEY
DIED IN THEIR COUNTRY'S SERVICE. THE UNIDENTIFIED REPOSE IN THIS PLOT."
E. R. Gian Bastiani
G. W. Bell
J. N. Bell
H. M. Bever
Earl V. Bohn
L. D. Burdick
Frank J. Cassidy
John A. Davis
J. A. Dayton
S. H. Diehl
Charles A. Early
John J. Kennedy
George F. Miller
W. W. Monroe
John C. Roberts
W. S. Sigendall
W. E. Souser
Vivian E. Terry
J. M. Weldon