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The Silvertown Explosion page 2


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At first many had thought it was a Zeppelin raid, but one look at the strangely crowded sky had told them the truth. "Good God! There goes Brunner Mond's!" was the muttered sentence which fell from a hundred dazed lips; for many knew what that factory contained, and many had actually discussed what would happen if by a stroke of ill-luck a bomb should hit it. The watchman, who perished, had voiced his opinions on that score a bare few days beforehand. The policeman on duty by the gates, Police Constable Greenoff realised the terrible danger when first he saw the fire. He might easily have run to safety. Instead, he ran towards the factory to shout his warning to all inside it. The full blast of the terrible wave caught him as he ran.

He was found amongst the other injured and dead almost as soon as they arrived at the spot where the factory had stood. He was crawling along the ground, hurt and completely dazed with what he had been through. Friends took him to one of the comparatively undamaged houses, and after a while he was able to sit up in a chair. The doctor who was called to him attended to others in the room who were, apparently, more grievously injured; but even as he spoke to his friends, complaining of a strange nausea, they saw with horror that the side of his head was dreadfully wounded. Though the doctor ordered him to hospital at once, there was no hope for him. There never had been. He died two days later; but King George V. conferred the King's Police Medal upon him for his bravery.

Such a scene of chaos and wreckage as has never been in this country, before or since, met the gaze of those who arrived to help. Where the factory itself had stood, there was nothing but a yawning crater, fully a hundred yards across and from twenty to thirty feet deep. Roads, houses, and in fact every foot of space within six acres, was one tangled mass of debris - wood, iron, bricks and mortar. The explosion had hurled vast masses of burning material in all directions, starting new fire wherever it landed. The flour mills and other factories were ignited, and by the time the first rescuers arrived the dancing flames from these buildings were illuminating the whole of the devastated area. From a damaged gasometer a pillar of flame played like a fountain, reaching up to the clouds above; and as the greedy tongues of fire gained a hold upon their new fuel, billowing clouds of steam and smoke rolled out and across the stricken district, completing the picture of hell and misery.

It was impossible to tell how many had perished. It was even beyond speculation. It might be a thousand, or it might be a hundred. Hundreds were buried beneath the wreckage of their homes; no one knew how many had been blasted into fragments by the explosion. The fire engine was a twisted and useless thing. The men who had tried so bravely to put out the initial blaze never succeeded in turning on the water. Two of them died where they stood, and none escaped serious injury. Working feverishly, men and women scraped and clawed at the rubble, struggling with beams and broken furniture, to free the trapped and injured. Doors, shutters, beds, barrows, almost everything was used for temporary stretchers. Doctors and nurses began to arrive, running hither and thither through the wreckage, kneeling to attend the injured where they lay. There was no time to attend to the dead: others were dying. Presently the clang of ambulance bells was heard, and in their dozens the more seriously injured were removed from the nightmare surroundings.

For hours into the night the tall buildings of the flour mills spouted flames and sparks; but long after the blaze died down, and long after the first streaks of daylight reached out over the incredible shambles, rescuers were still at work, digging for those whom they hoped were alive.

Saturday dawned, cold and drear, and if the scene had been terrible during the darkness, it assumed a new and more poignant ghastliness in the daylight. It seemed impossible, looking over that dreadful debris, those mounds of rubble which had been houses, that hole which had been a mighty factory, it seemed impossible that any one within a mile of the disaster could have escaped horrible death. But even while the first rescuers still worked, survivors were telling amazing stories of miraculous escapes.

"I was at work in the office when I heard women shrieking," said one. "I came to the door and saw the high explosive building well alight. Somehow, providentially, I was able to get away without a scratch; though others running along the same road were knocked down beside me by the fragments which flew in all directions. The force of the explosion seemed to take a curious zigzag course, and it must have missed me, though I could not have been more than 200 yards away."

"The house fell away from me, leaving me unhurt," said another woman who was standing at her front door when the explosion occurred.

But for the most part, those in or near their houses suffered the most from the effects of the detonation. Rocking for a second on their foundations, they collapsed, burying every one inside them. Many were killed outright, and many more died of their injuries before they could be extricated. Early that Saturday morning troops were drafted into the district to assist in the rescue work, also to be at hand to control the crowds which began to converge upon the scene from all parts of the country. A cordon was placed completely round the area, and at points along every road the ever-growing army of curious people were met by policemen, who turned them back. The roads were crammed, none the less, and for two and a half miles on every side it was with the greatest difficulty that relief workers, doctors and ambulances made their way through. Coster-carts, trams, trains, bicycles, and buses all bore their full loads of would-be sightseers, but only those who had legitimate business in the stricken area were admitted; and, indeed, theirs was not a task to be envied. Many of them were returning to homes which they knew did not exist any more. Beneath the jumbled heaps of brick and mortar were their pitiful treasures, and pieces of furniture, all that they possessed in the world. They were going back to see what they could save.

By the evening of that first day following the explosion there was still no telling how many had lost their lives. Though the soldiers had been digging hard, for hours on end, they were still coming upon victims of the disaster, some unharmed, some dead, some so grievously injured that death was almost certain. Already it was known that some 500 people had been treated in the streets by private practitioners, and at one hospital alone no fewer than 300 received aid. Accurate news was scarce, however, and the censor had the last say before figures were published. On the morning following the explosion only the shortest and vaguest of paragraphs appeared in the Press. Issued by the Press Bureau of Ministry of Munitions at 11.40 p.m. on the fateful evening, the statement was absolutely uninformative; in fact, any one living within fifty miles of London could have told the Ministry of Munitions considerably more:

"The Ministry of Munitions regrets to announce that an explosion occurred this evening at a munitions factory in the neighbourhood of London.

"It is feared that the explosion was attended by a considerable loss of life and damage to property."

A further official report, issued on Saturday, the day after the explosion, stated that between 30 and 40 bodies had been recovered, and that approximately 100 had been seriously injured; but no mere figures could tell the tale of misery and suffering. At least 1,000 people were homeless, and almost every one of them had some relative or friend amongst the killed and injured. In some cases whole families had been split up in the panic which followed, and it was not until some days afterwards that they knew for certain which of them were safe. Mothers searched frantically for their children amongst the debris, and after giving them up for dead, were relieved beyond measure to learn that they were unharmed, or only slightly injured, having spent the night - several nights in some cases - in a kindly stranger's house.

By Monday, although the soldiers continued to dig, the worst was known. Forty-four men, eleven women, and fourteen children had either been killed outright or had died in the various hospitals from their injuries. Amongst the more seriously injured were nineteen men, thirty-four women, and nineteen children. And, in addition, 155 men, 102 women, and 71 children were suffering from lesser injuries. A death roll of 69 persons, with 72 on the danger list; and, in all, a total of four hundred and sixty-nine on the records as having been involved.

But, terrible as this figure may appear, it was nothing short of a miracle that the death roll was not three times that size. A visitor from Norfolk, who had been told that the shock he felt came from the Silvertown explosion, was highly sceptical until he saw the scene of the calamity. Then he just stared in silent amazement. Many soldiers of the rescue party who had "been through the mill" at the front admitted that nothing they had seen out there carne anywhere near to approaching the terrible spectacle of devastation. The Ministry of Munitions also announced on the Monday that they "Hoped that all people in various houses and factories had now been accounted for." That was three full days after the explosion.

The most pitiful and heartbreaking scenes were witnessed by those who carried on with the grim rescue work, as mothers, wives, and husbands sought vainly for dear ones who were missing. One woman of at least sixty years was found digging about in a heap of bricks, weeping as she worked. A policeman took the spade from her, asking her what she was looking for.

"My son," she replied. "My son. This was my home, and my only son is buried here."

She was led away to a neighbour's house where they promised to look after her; but a short while later they again found her pulling at the rubble with her hands. So certain was she that her boy lay buried beneath the debris that they called over some soldiers and told them to dig - just to satisfy the poor, half-demented woman. And, after a few minutes' work they found him, unconscious and seriously injured.

Another woman, who came running from her home, child in arms, at the alarm of "fire!" met the full blast of the explosion as she left the door. Her child was torn from her grasp and hurled from her, and the house collapsed upon it, burying it deep beneath the wreckage. For some long time the mother lay stunned, and then awoke to find she was alone. Feverishly she began to claw at the debris, mad with anxiety. How long she toiled, neither she nor any one else will ever know, but when they found her, well after midnight, she was lying insensible beside the tangled masonry. She had reached her child, only to find it dead; and four of her fingers were broken from the effort of her terrible task.

Mr. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, visited the stricken area on the second day, together with his youngest son and daughter, in order to see that everything possible was being done to alleviate the suffering. The Ministry of Munitions notified the local authorities that they would make themselves responsible for any money spent on emergency measures, such as housing those who were rendered homeless, and feeding the hungry who had lost all they possessed. A fund was started for the relief of sufferers, and amongst the first to subscribe to it were, King George V., who gave 250, Queen Mary, who gave 100, and Queen Alexandra, who also gave 100.

An official report of the disaster, received from the Home Secretary on March 27, included the following details:

That, the explosion was preceded by a fire which broke out either in the melt pot, or in a corrugated iron structure at the top of the building immediately above the melt pot.

That, the fire rapidly gained a fierce hold, and as the melt pot contained a large quantity of explosive material in a state of confinement, it is possible that the initial detonation took place there.

That, the evidence available is not sufficient to determine with certainty how the fire was started, but all accidental causes presenting any degree of probability may be eliminated except the two following:

(a) A detonation spark produced by friction or impact.

(b) Spontaneous ignition, due to decomposition of material in or about the melt-pot.

That, the possibility of the disaster having been maliciously caused, cannot be disregarded: but searching investigation by the police and other authorities failed to discover any evidence which would warrant such a conclusion, and no suspicion fell on any employee or other person. (There was much talk at the time of espionage and sabotage, and many of the workers were inclined to blame the disaster upon some unknown enemy in their midst.)

That, the casualties were as follows: - Sixty-nine persons were killed on the spot. Ninety-eight were seriously injured, of whom four have since died in hospital, and 328 were slightly injured. In addition the Committee were informed by the police that 500 or 600 persons who received cuts and bruises were treated in the streets by private practitioners. Of the ten men belonging to the shift at work in the building, nine were killed and one escaped, but of the 10 women at work, only one lost her life.

That, the Committee's attention was called to the gallant conduct of Dr. Angel, the chemist in charge of the works; Mr. George Wenborne, the leading male hand on the shift, and Police Constable Greenoff, who was on duty outside the works. These three men bravely remained at their posts when they could have escaped, and lost their lives in their endeavour to save the lives of others by warning them of the dangers of an explosion.

It was not until six days after the explosion that the dismembered body of Dr. Angel was recovered from the ruins, and only by means of the shirt he was wearing was Mrs. Angel able to identify her husband's remains. For their extreme bravery King George conferred the Edward Medal of the first class upon both Dr. Angel and Mr. Wenborne, and, as has been mentioned, Police Constable Greenoff was honoured with the King's Police Medal.

Within about a week of the disaster, the soldiers had finished their gruesome and difficult task of digging and clearing away the debris, and plans were draftee! out for immediate rebuilding. The explosion occurred on January 19, 1917, and on January 23, a report was presented to the Prime Minister by the first Commissioners of Works. The very next day Mr. Lloyd George ordered the immediate procedure of renovations, and the replacement of lost and destroyed property. On the 25th January a staff was sent to Silvertown to prepare a schedule of dilapidations. Photographs were taken, and authority was received for expenditure. By February 1, all dangerous building were either shored up or felled. By February 5, 8,000 men were at work. The debris was cleared away from about 600 homes, and in spite of very unfavourable weather conditions, about four thousand pounds worth of work was completed.

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