Street & Cherry Street
March 9, 1932

Nick Tulini told me about this incident, where his grandfather was killed. An event of this magnitude is a story worth retelling. Any comments or questions, corrections or additions, are gladly welcomed. 

Phil Cohen
June 5, 2005

Camden Courier-Post - March 9, 1932

Explosion at Locust and Cherry Traps Workers in Structure; Victims Mostly Temporary Employees Cleaning Metal Tank

  A terrific explosion in the purifying plant of the Public Service Gas and Electric Company at the Southeast corner of Locust and Cherry Streets killed 14 men today and injured four others, one of whom may die.

All the dead were trapped in a huge box-like tank about 25 feet square. Most of them were neighborhood unemployed who had been given a day’s work scraping off a caked substance which forms during the process purifying illuminating gas.

Poisonous sulfur fumes hampered firemen in the effort to extinguish a blaze which followed the explosion. Two hours were required before the first body could be removed.

The explosion occurred at 7:15 AM. By 11:00 AM two charred and horribly mangled bodies had been taken out by use of a block and tackle. Firemen were digging out the third body buried under smoldering debris.

Six of the known dead were regularly employed by Public Service. They were:

John Albert, of 275 Walnut Street

Domonick Pizzutello, of 1005 South 4th Street

Pasquale Curiale, of 338 Walnut Street

Frank Deluggi, of 324 South 4th Street

Nicholas Tulini, of 208 Benson Street

Nunzio Farrao, of 1131 South 4th Street

Purifying box of the Public Service Company at Locust and Cherry Streets, which formed a steel tomb for workers today, is shown above. The only means of entrance to the interior of the tank was through a hatch. Workmen used the narrow steel stairway on the side to reach the opening in top.

Down the narrow stairway on the side of the purifying box, policemen and firemen carried the victims of the mysterious blast as fast as they were removed. Photo shows the body of one of the victims being taken down the stairway.

The other known dead, who were employed only temporarily were: E. Anderson, colored; George Williams, colored; Tony Bilank, F. Kralich, T. Watson, colored; J. Pollard, colored; T. Coleman, colored, and L. Carcione.

The police and officials of the company were unable to determine the cause of the tragedy but one of the workmen who escaped said that he saw a “little fire” burning in one corner of the tank minutes before the explosion .

One of the Injured May Die

The injured, all of who were taken to Cooper Hospital were:

Spiro Cecich, 37, of 1815 Salem Street, burned over his entire body. Condition so critical he may die.

Hillman Bryant, 29, colored, of 109 Chestnut Street, burned over face, head, eyes.

Harry Read, 27, of 111 Chestnut Street, burned on head and face.

Harry Hall, 37, colored of 718 South 2nd Street, burned on head and face.

Read and Hall were permitted to return to their homes after being treated.

While racing to the hospital with the injured, the patrol car of the Second District collided with a truck at Broadway and Opine and was delayed several minutes. The truck driver, Meyer R. ___, 25 of 1732 South 7th Street, was injured slightly and also treated at the hospital.

Worker Tells of Blast

Rudolph Walker, 40, colored, of 1060 South Front Street, was the only worker to escape unhurt.

“We went in the tank about 7:00 o’clock,” he said. “About 15 minute later I noticed a little fire burning in one corner. I said ‘Come on fellows, let’s get out of here.’ I climbed out and just as I reached the ground I heard an awful explosion.

“I looked up and flames were shooting way up into the air. I didn’t know what to do, so I ___ and notified some other ____. There were 15 or more other men in the tank with me”

Chemicals Cake On Tank

Workmen who described the purifying box said that a substance consisting of sawdust, sulfur, and noxious chemicals was used to clean gas which was pumped into the tank from storage tanks across the street.

This substance caked upon the sides and girders about halfway down the box, they said, and had to be scraped off with pitchforks about every three or four weeks.

There are, they declared, two tanks in the box, each about 15 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The blast was in the west tank.

According to officials, the tanks are used in a process that has been in operation for only two years.

Access is gained through removal of a large hatch-like lid: at top of the box. There is no other entrance or exit.

Walker and the four injured were working on top of the girders. The others were trapped at the bottom without a chance to escape. They probably died instantly.

The entire neighborhood was aroused and more than 1,000 persons gathered around the plant. The police roped off Locust Street between Cherry and Walnut. No windows were broken or other damage caused to private property in the vicinity.

Grocer Saw Man On Fire

Benjamin Plevinsky, a grocer at Locust and Spruce Street, said that he was opening his store when he heard the detonation.

"I looked up and saw a man running down a stairway leading to the top of the tank," he said. "He was on fire from his feet to his head and looked like a human torch.

"I called the fire department and told them what happened. They asked me if I was sure there was a fire. I told them I was looking right at it. I don't know whether they thought I was crazy or what, but I certainly think that was a peculiar thing to ask when you're sending in an alarm.

The crowd which gathered was thrown into intense excitement, when Frank Pizzitilla, Walnut Street near Third, was taken to the top of the tank by firemen; looked in and fainted.

He recovered consciousness while being· carried down the stairway, firemen said, and murmured, ''My God, my father and father-in-law are in there”.

When the 'hundreds of persons saw Pizzitilla they believed he was one of the dead and began shouting. One man was seized with a fit and was carried away by firemen.

Rescuers' Driven Back

When firemen first arrived they attempted to get into the tank but were driven back by sulfur fumes. They put on gas masks but the poisonous gases penetrated even these and they were unable to reach the bodies.

James Bevan, foreman at the plant, said that 13 of the men were tem­porarily employed and the others were regularly employed. In all, he said, there were 19 workers in the tank when the blast occurred.

Before the bodies were removed firemen said they counted 12 floating in the water pumped into the tank to extinguish the blaze. Two others were believed hidden by debris.

Coroner Benjamin Denny, Prosecutor Clifford A. Baldwin, Director of Public Safety Charles V. Dickinson and Fire Chief Thomas Nicholas arrived at the scene before the bodies were taken out. They described the sight as “ghastly”.

Coroner Denny announced that he4 will open an investigation after today in which he will summon officials of the Public Service Company, firemen, workers, And other witnesses. County Prosecutor Edward B. Rodgers also will attend he said.

Denny said that because many of the workers were day laborers, families probably would not know of their deaths until they failed to return home at the end of the working day.

Camden Courier-Post - March 9, 1932

Crowds Mill About Scene of Explosion WhereWorkers Died

 "They are in there- dead"

 That shrill scream from the chilled lips of a relative of two men trapped in the steel tomb of the purifying box at the Public Service gas plant at Locust and Cherry Streets today almost started a panic among l,000 persons, gathered at the scene a few minutes after a mysterious explosion snuffed out the lives of more than a dozen men.

The cry of horror and grief was taken up by others as they pressed against the woven wire fence about the company s property. Panic was averted by the policemen and firemen who had reached the scene a few minutes after the blast.

The excitement started when Frank Pizzatilla, of Walnut Street near Third, climbed up the narrow steel stairway that led to the top of the purifying box and looked upon a scene of horror within the square steel tomb.

Pizzatilla, who had rushed to the plant with several hundred others when word of the tragedy spread, said he recognized the seared bodies of his  father and father-in-law in the seething mass below.

He started to walk down the narrow, steel stairway that formed the only means of reaching the lone entrance to the purifying box. Below the hundreds of relatives and friends of the doomed men watched him with anxiety.

In There Dead”

"They are in there- dead,” he screamed.

He fell in a faint and but for a fireman, Pizzatilla would have toppled to the ground, fully 20 feet be­low. Other firemen and policemen rushed up the narrow stairway and carried Pizzatilla down.

As his inert body was being carried toward an ambulance, cries of bitter hatred were heard. They came from a relative of another victim. He shouted vile curses upon the officials of the company, upon the firemen and upon the policemen. He called them murderers. He yelled for a revolver, shouting that he would avenge the death of the trapped men.

About him gathered a number of persons, most of them of foreign extraction, or colored, for the majority of the victims were colored, The situation became tense.

Every policeman and fireman who could be spared from the gruesome work of trying to reach the entombed bodies rushed the crowd. Lieutenant George Ward and several policemen grabbed a heavy, long rope from one of the nearby fire wagons.

Quickly the rope was stretched across Locust Street at the intersec­tion and a tug of war started, with the crowd surging against the rope and policemen and firemen pulling at both ends, sweeping them backward into Locust Street.

With the crowd under control, the police began to search for the man, whose cries for revenge had started the hundreds milling around in groups, but he had disappeared in the crowd.

Then Locust Street below Cherry was roped off with little difficulty and a line of policemen took their positions across Cherry Street between the two gas tanks that stand on the northeast and southeast corners. People who attempted to reach the plant were turned back.

"No use going any farther," the policemen would tell each person who tried to get up closer. "All the men in the tank are dead and there is nothing anyone can do except remove the bodies when the tank is cooled down.

These words seemed to have a quieting effect upon the hundreds that had tried to rush the police lines. Gradually the people left for their homes An hour after the blast there was less than 100 spectators at the scene.


March 9, 1932


Camden Courier-Post - March 10, 1932


Bodies identified

So badly were the bodies burned that identification was extremely difficult. It was early evening before identification was complete. The dead are:

John Alberta, 55, of 1275 Walnut Street, father of eight children.

Dominick Puzzitiella, 53, of 1005 South 4th Street, father of four sons.

Pasquale Curiale, 48, of 338 Walnut Street, father of eight children.

Frank DeLarge, 51, of 324 South 5th street, father of three children.

Nicholas Tulini, 58, of 208 Benson Street, father of 10 children.

Nunzio  Ferraro, 51, of 1131 South 4th Street, single.

Edward Anderson; 30, colored, northeast corner Second and Pine Streets, no children .

George Williams, 33, colored, of 277 Sycamore Street, father of three children.

John Pollard, 32, colored, of 1065 Ivins Street, no children. 

Thomas Watson, 65, colored, of 123 Chestnut Street, single.

Louis Carcione, southwest corner of Third and Spruce Street.

Antonio Bilanko, 43, who lived in a club room at Locust Street and Kaighn Avenue and boarded at the home of Pedro Blair, 1225 Hyde Park.

F. Kralich, northeast corner of Second Street and Kaighn Avenue.

Farrell Coleman, 44, colored, northeast corner of Second and Pine Streets, single.

The first six were employed regularly by the company. The others were unemployed in the neighborhood, hired especially to clean out the purifier yesterday.

List of Injured

The other injured, all of whom were taken to Cooper Hospital are:

Hillman Bryant, 30, colored, 109 Chestnut Street, burns on face, head and hands.

Harry Read, colored, of 111 Chestnut Street, burns on the head and face.

Harry Hall, 27, colored, of 718 South Second Street, burns on the head and face.

Read and Hall were taken to their homes after receiving hospital treatment.

Patrolman Walter Patton of the First District suffered a cut on his left arm while digging in the debris for bodies. He was treated at the hospital and returned to the station house.

After working with the police and firemen for several hours, James Bevan, 1447 Kaighn Avenue, foreman at the plant, collapsed just as the last body was removed. Physicians treated him for exhaustion and shock and he was taken to his home.

Another workman, Peter Alemi, 35, of 1010 South 4th Street, a volunteer who helped firemen in removing the last body, was overcome by fumes in the tank and was treated at the hospital.

Red Cross aid to the stricken families of the victioms was offerd by William T. Read, chairman of the Camden County chapter. Public Service officials were informed that the national Red Cross headquarters had listed this tragedy as a “disaster” for which relief was available,.


Camden Courier-Post - March 11, 1932

Nicholas Tulini March 11, 1932

....thanks for the Gas Plant Explosion article. I gave my family your web site and circulated the article. It really made me realize the horrible impact the tragedy must have had on my family and the other families at that time. My dad told me that the only way he was able to identify his father was to have the work boots cut off the bodies so that he could recognize a bandaged foot from an accident the night before the explosion.- 
                                        Nick Tulini, June 2005