Fires, factories and forgotten disasters

Oppau factory disaster of September 1921

The Oppau factory disaster of September 1921

Quite what the citizens of Mannheim, Germany, made of the lumps of metal that hurtled through the air and landed in their environs on September 22, 1921, is anyone’s guess. The fact that the metal had been blown from the town of Oppau 20km away, probably didn’t immediately register. What may have, though, was the sound of the explosion that propelled the machinery there in the first place.

Centenaries of major events are pretty big deals, particularly when they mark disasters that affected thousands of lives, but we had one last week and not a peep was heard online or anywhere from what I can see…

That explosion of 4,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the Badische Aniline and Soda Factory (BASF – the manufacturer of cassette tapes, to those of a certain generation) in Oppau sent shock waves for hundreds of kilometres. Railway tracks buckled, trees were uprooted and, in Oppau itself, buildings were so badly damaged that 75% of the town had to be rebuilt.

Located between Stuttgart and Frankfurt, the massive BASF factory at Oppau employed 10,000 workers, producing vast quantities of ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertiliser.

Vast silos, each with a capacity of 50,000 tonnes, stored the mixture, which, due to its accumulated weight, would compact and could only be shifted by drilling into its base and inserting small charges of explosives to break it up.

The practice of blowing up compacted ammonium nitrate was quite common and had been used by BASF 20,000 times previously. On this occasion, though, things went disastrously wrong due to the gradual change in the humidity within Silo 110, with the result that the mixture became incredibly volatile.

When the small charge detonated to break up the compacted ammonium nitrate it triggered two subsequent explosions, seconds apart, that created a crater 96 metres wide and 165 metres long, and killed more than 560 people, and injured a further 2,000.

Ten years before the Oppau blast, another factory tragedy claimed the lives of scores of workers. The fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in March 1911, claimed the lives of 146 garment workers from the fire, smoke inhalation, or jumping to their deaths.

The factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in Manhatten, and was said to have started due to the disposal of a lit match or cigarette butt in a wooden scrap bin, which held two months’ worth of accumulated cuttings – scraps from the thousands of shirtwaists that had been cut at a nearby table.

Doors to the factory’s stairwells had been locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorised breaks. When the fire broke out the result was horrific, as recorded by eyewitness Louis Waldman, who described the scene as dozens of people plunged from the blazing building:

The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, which killed 146 people
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in fire New York killed 146 people

‘Horrified and helpless, the crowds – I among them – looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.’

The victims were aged from 14-43 years. A total of 123 girls and women died that day, as did 23 men.

You would think that lessons might have been learned over time, but history has a terrible habit of repeating itself.

In 2012, a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when at least 117 workers died and 200 were injured in a suspected arson. Inadequate fire exits, which were too narrow to accommodate the fleeing workers, contributed to the death toll.

And still, they happen. In July of this year, fire engulfed a food and beverage factory, again in Dhaka, killing at least 52 people, many of whom were trapped inside due to a locked door.

One of the world’s worst factory disasters occurred in 1984 on the night of December 2-3, when a gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madyeh Pradesh, in India, exposed over half a million people living in nearby towns to highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas.

The leak was alleged to have been due to a lack of pipeline maintenance. Whatever the cause, anywhere up to 16,000 men, women and children are said to have died as a result (the official immediate death toll was 2,259 but other estimates suggest 8,000 died in the first two weeks, followed by another 8,000 since from gas-related diseases). An astonishing 558,000 people were injured.

Disasters like those in Oppau, Beirut, New York, Dhaka and Bhopal decimate lives, but most are somehow lost in the folds of history. It’s the wars and the big heroes and villains that we tend to remember. Low-paid factory workers or people on the poverty line living in the shadow of multi-billion pharma plants just don’t make the grade, unfortunately.

Now, though, in the centenary of Oppau, we can take the opportunity to remember those factory worker victims and, in doing so, take a moment to recall all those others who fell in industrial disasters… disasters that are more frequent than we imagine, and which, for those who suffer them, are just as seismic as any great moment from history.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.