April 29, 1915: Sewer Gas Explosion

0429 Strike a matchApril 29, 1915: Municipal Journal article. Fatal Explosion in Sewage Disposal Plant. “Ocean Grove, N. J.-An explosion in the valve chamber of the larger of Ocean Grove’s two septic tank plants on the afternoon of April 25 injured three men, one of whom died the next day of his injuries. In this plant are four tanks, each 13 by 93 1/2 feet, built side by side. Across one end is a detritus chamber, 57 feet long by 5~ feet wide, and above this is a valve operating chamber, 57 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet high. The whole structure is built of reinforced concrete.

On the day named the designing engineer of the Ocean Grove plant, Clyde Potts, of New York, was showing it to a party of officials from South Bound Brook, accompanied by Walter C. Bowen, sanitary engineer of New Brunswick. Councilmen Raymond Stryker and Karlson La Rue descended the ladder into the valve chamber, followed by Mr. Bowen. Mr. Stryker, on reaching the bottom, struck a match to light a cigar, when a flame burst out of the manhole which blew Bowen to the surface with his face seared and clothing on fire. Stryker, on the floor, was knocked down and, as the flames burned above him, escaped with less injury. La Rue was blown to the manhole opening, and as he clung there, resting on his chest, during the 15 seconds through which the flame roared out of the opening, he was burned on every part of his body except his chest. La Rue and Bowen were hurried to the hospital, where the former died on Monday night. Mr. Bowen will probably be able to leave the hospital in a week or two.

What gas caused the explosion and how it reached the plant are not known. Mr. Potts had previously thought he detected the odor of illuminating gas [methane] at the plant. He expects to endeavor in a few days to ascertain the origin of the gas with a view to preventing a repetition of the occurrence.”

Reference: “Fatal Explosion in Sewage Disposal Plant.” 1915. Municipal Journal article 38:17(April 29, 1-915): 597.

Commentary: Seriously? Mr. Stryker struck a match? Despite the strange juxtaposition of name and action, this is a sad tale of death caused by entry into a confined space. It would be many decades before this unnecessary loss of life was eliminated by strict rules that require evacuation of potentially toxic or explosive gases from sewers and other confined spaces. If you ever wondered why OSHA regulations were enacted, this is a good example. By the way, the source of the explosive gas is no mystery. Any anaerobic degradation of organic wastes would have produced plenty of methane that would have ignited explosively when Mr. Stryker lit his cigar.

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