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Chicago Tribune May 12, 1939
Dust Blast Blamed in $4,000, 000 Fire
EIGHT MISSING AND 23 INJURED; INQUIRY TODAY
Five Grain Elevators in Ruins.
A dust explosion was blamed last night for the $4,000,000 fire that destroyed five huge grain elevator buildings at 102d street and the Calumet river yesterday. Eight persons, missing, were believed dead and twenty-three others were injured by the blast and fire. Eighteen of the injured are firemen.
The fire was brought under control late in the day. Sixty-five pieces of apparatus and 350 firemen were concentrated at the scene in the long battle against the flames. The ruins of the buildings and the millions of bushels of grain they contained were still white hot at midnight A skeleton force of lire fighters was at work, although all fear that the fire would spread further was over.
Experts to Hold Inquest.
Firemen said it was unlikely any bodies could be recovered until late today or tomorrow. Coroner Frank J. Walsh said he would impanel a jury of three chemists and three engineers to conduct the inquest.
An immediate investigation of the fire was planned by Dr. David J. Price, chemical research expert for the federal department oi agriculture, who was in Chicago attending a fire prevention conference. After a preliminary survey he said he was sure the explosion occurred in dust and would seck today the real cause of its being set off.
The blast went off at 8:50 a. m. in the Calumet A elevator operated by Rosenbaum Brothers. The roof of the building was torn off and the sides split asunder. Debris was hurled for 200 yards. Then the whole of the elevator, which was 125 feet high, appeared to burst into flames.
Pathè Newsreel of the Elevator Fire
Go Down Ono by One.
To the east of Calumet A stood Calumet B and Calumet C, also operated by the Rlosenbaum firm. The three buildings extended 1,100 feet the west end of A to the east end of C. Along the south side of these elevators lies a slip, leading to the river on the east.
Across the slip, to the south, stood the two elevators operated by the Norris Grain company.
One by one the five buildings caught fire. Within fifteen minutes after the blast Calumet B was blazing. A half hour more sufficed to carry the flames to Calumet C. The only part of the whole Rosenbaum structure that offered resistance to the flames was a string of twenty-seven concrete grain storage tanks attached to the workhouse of Calumet A. They still stood when the fire began to die down, but many ef them were and It was said much of the grain In them was made unfit for normal use.
Fire Leaps Across Slip.
By 11 a. m. the flames had leaped across the slip and attacked the Norris buildings. A strong northerly wind and the height of the structures rendered futile the efforts of the firemen.
A huge column of smoke and flames rose high over the doomed elevators. This could be seen from the loop’s high buildings, approximately thirteen miles away. Still the fight went on. Fire engines and two fireboats, the Joseph Medlil and the Fred A. Busse, buried streams of water from the slip.
“It was no use,” said Fire Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan. “The heat was so intense at the height of the fire that the water streams were turned Into steam before they even reached the walls.”
Minor explosions occurred In all the elevators as the flames whipped themselves to furious strength. These flung bits ot wood, pieces of corrugated iron, and blazing grain toward the firemen. Most of the injured suffered their hurts from the flying debris. Great care was exercised in the approach to the walls, but there were many narrow escapes as these fell.
25,000 Watch Spectacle.
Looking on at the spectacle were crowds which, in the afternoon, reached an estimated 25,000. Late last evening more than 15,000 persons were thronging close to the sites and 100 policemen had difficulty restraining them.
Included in the property lost were several employes’ automobiles and twenty freight cars spotted on nearby. Falling walls damaged four pieces of fire equipment.
Stored In the live elevator buildings, it was said. were 2.900,000 bushels of corn 750,000 bushels of wheat and 500,000 bushels of other grains. The total valuation placed on this destroyed grain was $2,500,000.
The Rosenbaum concern leases Its buildings from the Chesapeako and Ohio railroad, which recently renovated them at large cost. They were built about 1895. With the improvements, however, they were regarded as nearly fireproof-as safe as human ingenuity could make them. The Norris firm also leased Its buildings.
Building Loss Is $1.00,000.
The five structures destroyed had an estimated value of $1,500,000, completing the $4,000,000 total. Their loss struck a new blow at Chicago’s position as a grain storage center. Their total storage capacity was about 6,300,000 bushels. With the city had a total capacity of some 53,000,000 bushels. This Is now reduced below 47,000,000-more than 11 per cent of the total went up in smoke yesterday.
Other cities already have out-stripped Chicago as storage marts. Minneapolis can house 90,000,000 bushels and Kansas City 60,000,000 Duluth and Buffalo, after yesterday’s conflagration probably outrank Chicago.
The destruction of such n supply was an important factor in boosting prices on the Board of Trade, which had its most active trading session since September. Wheal futures rose 1 to 2 cents a bushel to a level higher than at any time since last June. Corn and also advanced sharply. [For details see today’s financial section.]
Insurance Protects Owners.
John G. McCarthy, president of the Board of Trade, issued a statement to the effect that all hedges purchases; to the grain in the burned elevators had been closed out in yesterday’s trading and that the owners of the grain were all amply protected by insurance. He was hopeful, he said that the storage space would be replaced .
The eight persons missing in the fire were believed to have been killed in the first explosion. Witnesses said that none of them appeared at the windows alter the blast. Accordlng to William H. Gassler, superintendent for Rosenbaum Brothers, there were no loading or unloading operations in progress. He said that If there had been the death toll might have been twenty or more.
He and nine employees were in the company office, a small one story structure between Calumet A and Calumet B. when thie explosion thundered.
“It was stunning,” he said. ” Somebody called out to me that A house had blown up. We leaped out the windows. Already the whole building was in flames. The heat was terrific.
One employe, David Marvin. was standing outside Calimet B and his clothing caught fire. He was dragged to safety by other employees. Another workman, Clifford Oberg, was gust outside A house when the blast came. He was severely injured, but was rescued by Andrew Musynski, a foreman from the same house had just stepped out of the building. They were both lucky.”
Sprinkling System Fails.
The Rosenbaum buildings had a sprinkling system capable of spraying 1,000 gallons of water a minute, hut its power plant ceased to function a few seconds after it was turned on. The flames had nothing to check them.
Trwo workmen for a construction company, Frank Gallant and John Leirvik, were on a scow in the slip, near Calumet A. Both were hurled into the by the explosion. By swimming, and with the help of comrades, they were rescued and dragged from the blazing building. Both suffered severe burns. Their foreman, Thomas Bourne, said Ihe walls of Calumet A “just seemed to split.”
Commissioner Corrigan described the fire as Chicago’s worst since eight blocks in the stockyards were burned over In May, 1934. He was slightly injured when he was hit on the knee by a bit of flying steel, but continued on the job, He directed Ihe light against the fire with the aid of the two way police radio Sqund cars were loaned by the police for the purpose.
Volunteers Supply Firemen.
Fearing Ihat the firemen. made thirsty by their work in the intense heat, would drink insanitary wlater, the city health department sent out inspectors. They called for pure drinking water, and several milk and soft beverage concerns sent trucks with ample supplies of their own goods and water.
Dr. B. A. Black, acting president pf the board of health. suggested any persons who had drunk water not known to be safe should summon physicians at the first sign of illness. There was much danger of typhoid fever under the conditions, he aid.
Many volunteers helped the tire fighters with supplies. Mrs. Frank Dourn, wife of a yardmaster of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern railroad, made and gave away gallons of coffee. twenty dozen donuts, and twenty-five pounds of corned beef sandwiches.
Arrows show path of $4,000,000 fire in south side grain elevators believed to have been started by dust explosion in the Calumet A elevator at 102d street and the Calumet river. Fire spread to Calumet B and C elevators and then across a water slip 100 feet wide, destroying two elevators of the Norris Grain company. The water tower between A and B elevators and the grain storage tanks were only structures left standing.
First Spot News Color Photograph
May 12, 1939
Photos from “Report of Conflagration in Grain Elevators Operated by Rosenbaum Bros. Inc. and Norris Grain Company Chicago, Illinois, May 11, 1939”
Published by The Chicago Board of Underwriters of Chicago.