The Portsmouth Star
Friday, July 27, 1928
Scenes Reminiscent of War Refugees in Flight Depicted Along
One woman’s arm slightly scorched, a mass of twisted,
blackened ruins, sleepy-eyed marines and firemen, and a thankful Cradock this
morning were the remaining evidences of a hectic, thrill-crowded hour last night
when Building No. 19, containing 4,100 pounds of smokeless powder blew up at the
Naval Ammunition Depot at St. Julien’s creek.
Mrs. D. C. Culp, wife of a chief gunner, living on the Depot
Reservation, who rushed from her home as the roar of the explosion awakened her,
was, so far as could be learned this morning, the sole casualty of as acute a
danger as ever threatened this section. Awakened by the flashing glare of the
first blast, Mrs. Culp rushed from her home, her arm thrown in front of her face
as a shield against the blinding yellow-white light of the burning powder and
the white-hot heat it emitted. Her arm was scorched painfully, but she was not
Was With Them
Tons of high explosives are stored at the Depot, and while the
exact amount is not publicly known, it is known that there are sufficient
explosives stored there to cause another “Dover Disaster” if it all “let
go” at one time. However, the store of explosives now is much less than it was
a year ago, a great deal of ultra-high explosive having been moved from the
Depot last Summer and Fall.
Only the fact that
there was not wind and that the Marine guard at the Depot functioned with such
speed and precision was responsible today, in the belief of many for the
comparatively slight damage of last nights.
As it was, the tremendous heat of the burning powder in Building No. 19
had the walls of adjoining magazines creaking when the flood of water from
firemen’s hose was turned on them to cool them and prevent the spread of the
Damage to the
Ammunition Depot was placed today at $52,460, the value of Building No. 19,
where the explosive was stored, being placed at $50.000, while the contents were
valued at approximately $2,460.
Terror Reigns In Cradock
reigned through-out Portsmouth, Norfolk and surrounding territory as word that
the Ammunition Depot was afire was spread, actual terror gripped many of the
residents of Cradock, the nearest community to the Depot, and in the amazingly
bright glare of the flaming powder, the George Washington Highway was
transformed into a milling, seething mass of automobiles as scores of Cradock families, some in their night clothing, others hastily and only half-dressed,
fled the proximity of the explosion and the Depot.
The majority of the
people in Cradock were immediately aware of the explosion and its nature when,
awakened by the dull crash of the first blast, they were within two or three
minutes assailed by a dizzying stench – the stench of burning smokeless
Routed from a sound
sleep, they found the sky transformed into a yellow bowl of light while almost
on top of them, to the south, a gigantic mass of flame was leaping fully 200
feet into the air. The flame sheet was sprinkled with splutters of brighter
lights as parts of the powder exploded while in mid-air. There was for fifteen
minutes at least, a continuing series of short, muffled explosions almost
crackles – and sounding, for all the world, like the crackle of intermittent
Was General Exodus
Within five minutes
after the explosion there began a general exodus from the community – and
within ten or fifteen minutes the George Washington Highway presented the
incongruous spectacle of being literally and figuratively jammed with traffic,
half of which was curiously trying to get to the scene of the explosion, and the
other half of which was trying desperately to get as far away from the scene as
possible in the shortest possible length of time.
Near panic reigned in
several sections of the community as work was passed from house to house that
guards near the Depot had warned autoists who had rushed to the scene with the
first blast, to “get away, there may be another explosion any minute.”
Adding to the
confusion on the highway – the main artery of travel in and out of not only Cradock, but the Ammunition Depot as well, was the shrieking fire apparatus from
the Navy Yard and the Portsmouth Fire Department racing to the scene howling
down the crowded highway, sirens screaming for right-of-way and exhausts
spitting fire and smoke.
It was well after 2
o’clock this morning that the last of those who had fled the community
returned to their homes.
Meanwhile inside the
Reservation all was working smoothly but with feverish activity.
Show Fast Work
A marine guard, walking his post within a few feet of the
explosion in Building No. 19, was unscathed by the blast and gave the alarm,
though none was necessary. Within less than five minutes, the entire post was
aroused and attacking the flames with the sole idea of checking their spread.
Within less than two minutes after the explosion all telephone
lines and other lines of communication to the reservation were “dead”, but
not until after a call had come to the Navy Yard telephone exchange from the
guard house at St. Julien’s. The single word “Explosion” was
all that the telephone user in the Reservation had time to say before the
lines went dead, but that was sufficient for the Navy Yard operator receiving
the message, and she spread the alarm.
Within five minutes of the time of the explosion, the entire
Navy Yard fire fighting force and equipment was racing to the scene of the
explosion to aid the Reservation force in checking the spread of the flames.
Before the Navy Yard department got to the scene, the Cradock
fire engine was roaring down the highway also, and on the heels of the Navy Yard
equipment came two companies and equipment from Portsmouth.
Rush to Scene
Trailing the fire fighters and sandwiched in the ever-growing
stream of traffic on the highway was a company of Marines from the Barracks at
the Navy Yard in trucks. A squad of Portsmouth police also sped to the scene.
It was said at the ammunition depot this morning that luck was
with the marines on guard in that there was not wind. Luck was also with the men
who fought the fire that they got to the scene just when they did. In the words
of one marine who helped to fight the fire last night “you could fry eggs on
the side of the buildings next to Nineteen when we got the water on ‘em last
This in spite of the fact that within a few seconds of the
time the powder in No. 19 first let go, every building on the reservation
housing explosives was drenched with water from the special emergency system.
With hardly a breath of air stirring, the flames from the burning powder in No. 19 first let go, every air – a brilliant, blinding sheet studded with dazzling splashes of light too bright, almost, to watch.
the Hell Away”
With the first splash of the explosion one Cradock resident,
who had just arrived home, sped to the Reservation gate in his automobile. He
was stopped by the marine guard, who was plainly alarmed, and told to “get the
Hell away from here as fast as you can.”
“I heard you the first time,” the youth shouted, and
literally “burned up” the road getting away.
A number of residents of Cradock got to the Reservation and
onto the Depot grounds before they were noticed and it was not until the Marine
guard from the Navy Yard Barracks and the city police arrived on the scene that
they were founded up and warned away from the Reservation.
Every available man of the forty stationed at the Depot, with the
exception of the main gate guard, was engaged in battling the flames and
fighting against the spread of the explosion to the other magazines.
No reason other than a theory of spontaneous combustion could
be assigned today as the cause of the explosion. An investigation was launched
by the military authorities today into the cause of the explosion.
First warning of the threatened disaster came when the roof of
the building was furled skyward by the rush of escaping gases.
Bricks and broken concrete were hurled a short distance onward
by the blast, but the greatest part of the explosion force was vented on the
The heat of the
burning powder was intense. Flames spurted 200 feet into the air. Officers’
quarters located 600 feet away were said to have started to smoke.
that the powder was of a variety that burned rather than exploded, and that it
was stored under a system which permitted ready escape of the gases the burning
creates with incredible rapidity.
Telephone calls to
the Depot brought no response and the cities were wild with excitement,
envisioning a repetition of the disaster at ???ke Denmark, N. J., Depot where
many were killed.
The Naval Hospital held itself in ????iness to rush ambulances to the ??? ??? if any were needed.
“Does Not Explode”
Portsmouth and Norfolk telephone exchanges were clogged with
calls and the Elizabeth River ferries did a rushing business for a while as
crowds sought to learn the cause of the glare on the southern sky.
There are forty buildings in the Reservation, but officers in
charge could not even venture an estimate of the amount of powder on hand at
present, as it is placed there and requisitioned out almost daily as it is
needed to store ships in this area.
Officers were careful to say that “there was no
explosion,” explaining that the magazines are so constructed that when there
is a fire, the roof, which is made of metal, lifts off, thus relieving the
pressure on the interior and forestalling any explosion.
The reflection from the explosion was visible in Norfolk, the
southern sky lighting in a few seconds from darkness to the brilliance of ripe
dawn, then dying just as quickly to the pitch of night. Street lights in
Portsmouth and Norfolk appeared faded in the glare. Ordinary type could have
been read with ease without the aid of other illumination.