1921: Deadly Chemical Works Explosion in Germany

Credit…International Herald Tribune

(Special to the Herald.) MAINZ, Wednesday. — More than one thousand people were killed and several thousands injured yesterday as the result of an explosion that destroyed part of the great chemical works near Ludwigshafen, on the Rhine, which were so often attacked during the air raids in the war as being one of the principal sources of the “poison” gases used by the Germans. The catastrophe was of such an overwhelming nature that communication with Oppau, the locality where the disaster took place, was cut off, rendering it difficult to obtain full and accurate reports.

It was exactly half-past seven this morning when the terrific explosion occurred at Oppau in one of the numerous buildings of the famous Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrik, which extend along the Rhine from Ludwigshafen for a distance of about two miles. At Oppau stood some of the new chemical works and laboratories, erected during the war.

On the spot where the disaster happened, the night shift was preparing to leave the works and the day workers were standing around ready to go in, so that, according to an estimate by one of the works’ engineers, there must have been 3,000 workpeople present at the time.

Vast Crater.

It is believed that the explosion was due to an excess of pressure in two gasometers, which stood side by side. That part of the works was literally pulverised. Where the gasometers stood is now a vast crater, more than a hundred yards across and thirty yards deep.

All round lie débris of all kinds, bricks and stones, shattered beams, twisted steel girders and rails. Not a fragmant of a wall is left standing within a radius of two hundred yards. But farther from the crater, the wreckage of the works continues to burn, while dense yellow fumes are given off, and much ammonia gas.

Rescue parties, firemen and French soldiers, equipped with gas masks, who were rushed to the scene of the disaster, are searching the wreckage and constantly extricating bodies. Few of these can be identified. Great numbers of the men inside the works were killed and comparatively few injured survivors have been found by the search parties. One report says that the explosion took place in Laboratory 53 and that of 800 men in the building not one escaped death. It is also stated that several soldiers of the Army of Occupation are among the victims of the disaster.

Town in Ruins.

The small town of Oppau, close to the works, presents a picture of desolation, about a third of the houses being destroyed. The roofs of the others have been stripped off, as though by a hurricane. In the town the death toll was heavy and there were many injured. Those unhurt are striving to save their furniture and valuables. There were distressing scenes in the cemetery, where hundreds of bodies were laid out on the grass.

The explosion was so tremendous that its effects were felt over a wide area, causing damage and loss of life in neighboring towns. At Ludwigshafen, roofs were torn off and many people killed and injured. Mannheim, which is several miles from Oppau, had all its windows shattered, one man being killed and more than fifty injured. Windows were also broken at Worms. The report of the explosion was heard as far away as Frankfort and the shock of the air displacement was distinctly felt at Mainz. Telephonic and telegraphic communication was cut off in the whole district around Oppau, making it difficult to obtain details of the disaster.

Other Explosions.

After the first great explosion, a number of others followed at intervals, and fire, fed by the inflammable chemical products, spread rapidly through the rest of the works. Fire brigades were immediately set to work and first-aid contingents were sent from Landau, Spire, Neustadt and Kaiserslautern. The French Army medical service also quickly gave effective aid.

As soon as the disaster became known, volunteer helpers hurried to Oppau from the neighboring villages. Public and private motor cars and vehicles of all kinds were requisitioned to transport the injured. The French sent a regiment of colonial infantry to maintain order and assist in the work of rescue.

A French Colonial infantry captain, who was an eye-witness of the disaster, says: “I was riding on horseback along the road from Ludwigshafen to Oppau about 7.30, and on nearing the chemical works I heard a heavy rumbling, the earth seemed to tremble, and a huge column of flames and fumes shot up a few hundred yards away. Then came an explosion and a tremendous displacement of air that threw me and my horse down.

“When I got up, in a dazed condition, a dense cloud of dust and smoke completely hid the part of the works near the gasometer. Stones, bricks and shattered material of all kinds began falling on the road. Hearing cries behind me, I looked round and saw that the town of Opau had been three-parts destroyed, as though by an earthquake. Soon afterwards the chemical works burst into a blaze and strong odors of ammonia filled the air.

“Men from the works and people from Oppau fled terror-stricken across the fields. Twenty minutes after the first explosion, a second, but less violent, report was heard. Help began to arrive within half an hour after the first explosion, but, owing to the fear of further explosions, the rescue parties were unable to get effectively to work before 9 o’clock.”

— The New York Herald, European Edition, September 22, 1921.

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