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Haunting Echoes of Tragedy
Sandt's Eddy Quarry Explosion Occurred 50 Years Ago Today
By Frank Whelan (of the Morning Call)
March 26, 1992
When long-time Morning Call photographer/cartoonist, William R. "Bud" Tamblyn, talked about the old days, he had a lot of stories to tell. And one event he recalled vividly was the explosion that took 31 lives at the Lehigh Portland Cement Co. 's quarry near Sandt Eddy, Lower Mount Bethal Township, Northampton County, 50 years ago today.
"We were down at the Central Railroad of New Jersey station [in Allenton] taking pictures of some movies star or other. She was a really beautiful girl," said the late Tamblyn of the tragedy that took place on Thursday, March 26, 1942.
Old news clips show the woman Tamblyn was talking about was Elissa Landi, a stage and screen actress turned author. She had arrived from Hazelton to talk about her new book, a romantic novel about stage life.
Landi was waiting to board a train for New York when three young Navy recruits, Richard Desch and Fred Goodling of Allentown and Harry Phillips of Bethlehem, showed up. Tamblyn had them get in the picture with her.
"Then," recalled Tamblyn, "there was this explosion. It was rocked by an earthquake." Tamblyn got word from the newspaper office to get to the source of the blast, the Lehigh Portland Cement Co. 's quarry at Sandts Eddy.
Tamblyn and a reporter headed for the little industrial community along the Delaware River five miles north of Easton. What they found was sheer chaos. "It was horrible. Body parts were hanging from trees. Corpses were lying allover the ground." When the body count was done, 31 people were declared dead, although only seven of the bodies could be identified. But for Bud Tamblyn that contrast of the beautiful woman in the morning and the horror of Sandts Eddy in the afternoon were vivid images that would remain with him for the rest of his life.
According to Lehigh University geologist Benjamin Leroy Miller's 1939 geological study of Northampton County, Sandts Eddy sits on the Jacksonburg cement rock formation. Natural cement was first produced from cement rock in Northampton County in the 1820s. In 1872, cement maker David O. Saylor began transforming the rock into portland cement. So named because it resembles portland limestone, from Portland, England, portland cement was more durable, of better quality and harder than natural cement. It was created from a mixture of the clay-like limestone and other materials cooked in kilns under very high heat.
The Lehigh Portland Cement Co., founded in 1897 by a group of investors that included Gen. Harry C. Trexler, was one of the largest cement companies in the region in 1942. Its plant at Sandts Eddy had first been for the Quaker Cement Co. in 1911. Lehigh Portland began operations there in 1926. the quarry from which the limestone was taken is on a hillside about one mile northwest of the plant. According to geologist Hiller, at one place the quarry was 135 feet deep. Its face along the slope of the hillside was 680 feet long.
The process of blasting the limestone loose followed a set pattern. In the past wrote Miller, only small blasts were used. "Now , however, the companies have found it more economical to blow down enormous masses of rock at one time, at some blasts more than 60,000 tons."
As Miller described it, a series of drill holes were placed about 10 to 15 feet back from the face of the quarry. Each hole was 10 to 15 feet away from the next hole. They were drilled roughly 100 feet deep. "These holes are then charged with dynamite and exploded simultaneously, an electric detonator being used."
A blast at the Sandts Eddy quarry in 1939 using 14 tons of dynamite was photographed by The Morning Call. It tore away 90,000 tons of cement rock along a 360 foot strip of the quarry face. The dynamite process used in Northampton County cement quarries was second nature to George B. Hadesty, Jr. A native of Pottsville, in 1942 he was living in Allentown. Hadesty had worked for 26 years for the Hercules Powder Co. A World War I veteran, he was active in Allentown's Herbert Paul Lentz American Legion Post and was well known in local Masonic circles. Hadesty had just turned 49 on the Sunday before the big blast that would take his life.
It was Hercules Powder that handled the dynamiting for Lehigh Portland. As the company's East Coast district sales manager, Hadesy had been in Philadelphia on Monday, Baltimore on Tuesday, and Allentown on Wednesday. He had come to Easton on Wednesday afternoon, March 25, to begin preparations for the next day's blast at Sandts Eddy.
It was around 9:15 a.m. March 26 when the men had just taken a break for a mid-morning snack. Lunch boxes were opened. About 20 tons of dynamite - 4,OOO sticks of TNT (estimated by experts to be enough to dislodge 120,000 tons of cement rock) - had arrived from the Hercules Powder plant at Belvidere, New Jersey. William Follweiler Sr., his son, William Jr., Jim Edmonds, Howard Bowen and Buster Eckert, all of Catasauqua, were part of the crew that had dropped it off. Now they were headed back to Catasauqua.
Some of the explosives were already placed in the drill holes. State experts later concluded that the crew was placing the dynamite in hole No. 33 at the time of the blast. John Patti, assistant quarry foreman, had just walked away from the blast site. With him were seven workmen, Foster Smith, Harry DiHido, Lewis Goryfi, Peter Luscige, Victor Lup, Emmanual Minardo and Jacob Hober. They had a task to complete on the other side of the quarry. In the quarry pit below the blast site, Chester A. Kniper was at work. His son, Melvin, a recent graduate of Easton High School, had been assigned to the cement plant's power house a couple of miles away.
A small airplane was lazily flying overhead. In it was a commercial flying instructor and some students from Lafayette College. A mile away, students at the Lehigh Consolidated School, a two-story stone and brick structure built in 1928, were studying.
The explosion came without warning. Twenty tons of TNT went up all at once. For a radius of 100 miles the ground shook. A sheet of flame swept the quarry, killing all in its path. Bodies of quarry workers were ripped limb from limb. Hadesy's private car, parked nearby, melted into a metal mass. Chester Kniper and his friends were stunned as the blast shot out several feet over their heads. The students at Lehigh Consolidated School felt their entire building shake. Glass shattered, cutting those who were in its path. Seven year old Orrin Stevens was cut so badly that he had to be taken to Easton Hospital. Farmer George Taylor of Mud Run, three quarters of a mile away from the blast site, was knocked off his tractor.
In downtown Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, department store window glass shattered. A man getting a shave was seriously cut by a slip of the barber's razor. A woman about to do her wash was scaled by hot water. And all over the Lehigh Valley, there were telephone calls to police, city officials and The Morning Call, making a mockery of wartime regulations about non-essential phone use. The panic was worse than when the Nov. 12, 1940, Trojan Powder explosion in South Whitehall Township took three lives.
Allentonian Randolph Kulp was working in the accounting office on the 10th floor of Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s 13-story headquarters building. Suddenly, he heard a big bang. "My first thought was to try and find out who it was that had slammed the door so hard." Kupls' boss rushed in and told him that the noise was a blast, not a door slam. Randy Kulp's mother called his sister, Althea, who worked as a secretary in the Steel's manufacturing division.
"I just heard Johnny VanSant [a local radio announcer and later state senator] say on WSAN radio that Bethlehem Steel has blown up," said Mrs. Kulp. Randy Kulp admits that his mother's concern for her children may have caused her to hear something VanSant never said. But her daughter reassured Mrs. Kulp that there had been no explosion at Bethlehem Steel.
The first accurate word of the blast came from Bell Telephone Co. workers. A repair crew, headed by Tom Ridges of Easton, was about 1.25 miles from the quarry. They were dismantling a telephone line. The blast knocked Henry Krauss of Bangor off his feet. Ridge and Krauss got in their truck and quickly drove in the direction of the blast.
They came upon a house. A woman with blood streaming down her face walked toward them. Krauss quickly broke out the first-aid kit and did what he could. Ridge went inside and used the phone to call the company. An operator spread the word through the Bell system. The phone company quickly dispatched a first-aid team.
Soon, many rescue crews were headed to Sandts Eddy. But the terrible blast did not leave much for them to work with. Easton Hospital sent two ambulances, 12 doctors and several nurses, but, the former Evening Chronicle reported, "on their arrival, they were told their services were not required." Nazareth Fire Chief William Miller was one of the first to arrive. "There were bodies scattered around an eighth of a mile," he said. "I saw a leg here and there. They were terribly mangled."
The rest of the day family members and the curious flocked to the site. Route 611 along the Delaware was clogged for miles. Police and armed soldiers permitted only officials and relatives to pass. Crying women and children attempted to find what was left of their fathers and husbands. "Is John all right?" "Have you seen my mister? Please tell me if he is alive," were echoed in sad litany over the Sandts Eddy quarry. The final count showed the explosion left behind 18 widows and 63 fatherless children.
State and local inspectors swarmed over the quarry, trying to make sense out of what had happened. But the blast left behind no evidence Thomas Quigley, chief of the State Bureau of Mines and Quarries said, "There has been nothing as perplexing in the history of explosive accidents in Pennsylvania. Everything was blown away. There's nothing to go on. The cause probably will be known."
But this statement did not stop the experts from trying. On April 10, 1942, state Labor and Industry Department Secretary Lewis G. Hines issued a press release about the tradegy. His inspectors had discovered that 1,000 5-to 6-year old delayed action blasting caps that the Hercules Powder Co. had been ordered to be destroyed because they were unsafe, were actually being used at the Sandts Eddy quarry.
Harry D. Immel, director of the department's Bureau of Inspectors, pointed out that these old caps were very unstable. A premature explosion, probably caused a rock falling on a cap in hole No. 33 was in the inspectors' opinion, what set off the blast. While not naming anyone, Hines' release called into question the judgment of the Hercules Powder experts at Sandts Eddy. "They were," he said, "guilty of one of the most flagrant violants of safety that I or any of the other investigators have ever heard of."
Hercules Powder quickly issued a statement of its own, saying that it was not responsible for the defective blasting caps. Working with the industry he did so.
According to retried Lehigh Portland executive Kramer Schatzlein, the Sandts Eddy quarry was closed by the company in 1960. Its plant survived the blast with limited damage. Today it is owned by ABE Materials of Easton. Although some small-scale blasting is still done, ABE official Bobby Grimes says current safety rules make any repeat of the Sandts Eddy blast highly unlikely.
A memorial Mass will be held at 8 a.m. today at St. Rocco's Catholic Church, Martins Creek, in memory of the 31 men who lost their lives in the Sandts Eddy blast.
31 Now Dead in Explosion at Easton Quarry
The News, Frederick, Maryland
March 27, 1942
Easton, Pa., March 26 (AP) -- Thirty-one men were literally blown to bits today by an earth-shaking, premature explosion of 20 tons of dynamite in a limestone quarry of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company on the banks of the Delaware River five miles north of Easton.
So terrific was the concussion that it was felt 50 miles away. Hardly a house or building for miles around escaped damage. Many persons were injured, including a dozen children cut by broken glass in a grade school half a mile from the scene.
"The whole world just seemed to shake," one worker said.
Tonight investigators continued to search the area, fearful the death toll would rise still higher.
The explosive had been assembled on the rim of the pit in preparation for blasting away an entire side. During a lull in operations some of the workers opened their lunch boxes for a mid-morning snack in the spring sunshine. Then suddenly the blast let go.
Parts of some bodies were hurled 300 yards. Windows were shattered in homes in Bethlehem and Allentown, 18 and 16 miles away respectively.
Doors in Allentown homes were jarred open and windows twisted askew. A barn collapsed on a farm a half mile from the quarry. Sleepers were tossed from bed, in nearby homes.
However, sixteen workers in the bottom of the pit, 120 feet below the rim, escaped injury.
James A. Gish, plant superintendent, said there was no way to determine the cause of the explosion, but that he was confident there was no sabotage. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from Philadelphia and the State Department of Labor and Industry began an immediate investigation.
A large part of the company's operations are being devoted to war production.
Gish said it was possible that something dropped on the explosive from an airplane which he was informed flew over the quarry just before the blast. Coroner David F. Bachman theorized the dynamite might have been touched off as it was being placed in holes by the workmen.
"Bodies were scattered around for an eighth of a mile," said William Miller, 38, fire chief from nearby Nazareth, and one of the first officials to reach the scene.
"I saw a leg here or an arm there. They were terribly mangled."
Leonard Sabatino, owner of a coal company just across a highway from the scene declared "it was a terrible sight."
"Bodies were strewn all around. The bodies were just left lying where they were thrown until the coroner arrived."
Seventy children in the Lehigh consolidated school half a mile away were just beginning classes when the explosion occurred. All windows in the two-room building were broken. A dozen pupils and both teachers were injured but only two children were detained at a hospital.
Two explosive experts and a salesman, all employees of the Hercules Power Company, were among the dead. George B. Hadesty, Jr., of Allentown, a veteran of 25 years experience, was killed as he sat in a car near the quarry. The others were Ernest Ray Garnett, 41, of Wilmington, Delaware, blasting superintendent, and William Lanahan, 33, of Bronxville, New York, the salesman.
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