Medicine Hat, AB Malcolm Canneries Gas Explosion, Mar 1913
City's deadliest industrial accident, 100 years later
SATURDAY, 16 MARCH 2013 00:00 COLLIN GALLANT MEDICINE HAT NEWS
That Medicine Hat had all hell for a basement was self-evident at the turn of the last century.
Cheap and available natural gas was the main selling point for early city fathers in luring industry to the burgeoning town.
But, as obvious as the advantages were, so too were the dangers.
Pockets of gas escaping relatively crude wells and piping systems would regularly catch fire, burning homes and businesses, but few were prepared for what transpired on the afternoon of March 19, 1913.
The explosion at the Malcolm Canneries, still the deadliest industrial accident in the city's history, will be remembered in a set of special ceremonies on Tuesday.
"I think it was a very large surprise for everyone, especially the firefighters; nobody had ever envisioned that there could be an explosion of that magnitude," said Wayne Lust, a 33-year-veteran firefighter and historian for the Medicine Hat Fire Service.
Having pieced together that day from eye witness accounts published in the News, as well as details of an inquest, Lust believes the event was a catalyst for the fire service. It quickly moved to build two more stations, the third and fourth in a town of 10,000, and modernize with motorized engines.
The early days of the department are dotted with buildings destroyed by relatively minor gas explosions, chronicled by Lust and colleague Gerald Rayner in the department's official history book.
"It was quite common for a businessman to walk into his shop in the morning, turn on the gas lamp and blow up the building," said Lust.
The explosion at the cannery, however, was an eyeopener.
Five were left dead, including three firemen and two onlookers, when a massive collection of gas ignited and brought the walls of the vacant abattoir down upon them. Twelve others were hit by flying bricks and were hospitalized.
A city engineer inside was left alive but trapped between flattened joists. Another engineer, stationed at the gas main outside the huge building, miraculously survived after he was flung 60 feet. The man he was helping, Jonathan Brier, a volunteer fireman and city gas worker, was found crushed at the shutoff.
Over the years Brier's grave has been lost but on Tuesday a fire service honour guard will visit the final resting places of two other firemen, Reginald Rimmer and William Stewart. Members of Stewart's extended family will attend the private service, then join the public at the Firefighters' Memorial at Fire Station No. 3 for an 11 a.m. ceremony.
"It's a recognition of the fact that they paid the ultimate price," said Fire Chief Brian Stauth. "It's a chance to remember the sacrifice they made and remind us that this can indeed be a dangerous occupation."
Lust is currently piecing together the story so the names can be added to the national firefighter's memorial in Ottawa.
Records from the era are incomplete but he believes gas began to track back into the building through a wooden sewer pipe running past an nearby well.
The building, which stood beyond the right-field fence of the present day Athletic Park, was originally built as a woolen mill but was being refitted to pack beef.
On the tragic afternoon a caretaker lit his pipe and saw flames flicker along the walls of the ground floor.
A fire crew extinguished the initial blaze, then began searching for the gas source by cutting through the floor with an axe.
Lust says according to an inquest held shortly after, the men found flames on the sewer pipe and cut into it to douse the source. Instead they felt a rush of gas as they broke in.
Men turned to run or cover up.
A police sergeant who was standing guard at the door testified that he saw men rush towards him but a moment later the building was completely destroyed.
The top two storeys seemingly vaporized as they lifted up three feet, according to witnesses, then collapsed inward.
"They (the firemen) actually saw the flame being pushed back down the hole Ñ that's when the explosion happened," said Lust.
"You read about walls flying, people thrown 60 feet, but no one was actually injured due to burns or the fire."
Also killed on the day was 12-year-old Harry Green, who was watching the firemen work through a window when the gas touched off. His mates at Montreal Street School collected $21 Ñ a princely sum in 1913 Ñ to buy a funeral bouquet. F.C. Bohannan, a Boston native, was site-seeing when the fire broke out and was struck by debris.
"You have to think about Medicine Hat at the turn of the last century," said David Panabaker, general manager of the gas utility. "The place was booming. There were people drilling wells all over town, and the question is how you maintain safety."
The query was partially answered by the city in 1902, said Panabaker, when it moved to gain control over all gas production and distribution, but old, abandoned and badly capped wells remained.
"The reality at the time was there was no regulation," said Panabaker.
"At that time if you owned a house with a yard you may well have been able to drill a well."
Those days are long gone.
Also to consider, he said, early wells would have had pressure 10 times greater than today, and gas would not have been treated with mercaptan, which gives gas a distinct rotten egg smell.
"You basically had high-pressure odourless gas floating around the neighbourhoods," said Panabaker. "Obviously it's dangerous and I can't imagine what it would have been like, quite frankly."