Oil City, Titusville, and Meadville, PA flood and explosion, Jun 1892
SCORES OF LIVES LOST
FIRST A CLOUD-BURST BACK ON PENNSYLVANIA HILLS.
THEN A LEAKAGE OF BENZINE INTO A SWOLLEN STREAM.
THEN A SPARK CAUSED AN EXPLOSION, AND OIL CREEK WAS IN FLAMES IN AN INSTANT - HUMAN BEINGS CAUGHT BEFORE THEY COULD ESCAPE FROM THEIR HOMES IN OIL CITY AND TITUSVILLE AND BURNED TO DEATH - MANY OTHERS DROWNED IN THE FLOOD - MANY BUILDINGS DESTROYED.
OIL CITY, Penn., June 5. - The oil regions of Pennsylvania were visited to-day by a disaster of fire and water that is only eclipsed in the history of this country by the memorable flood at Johnstown just three years ago.
It is impossible at this hour, midnight, to give anything like an accurate idea of the loss of life and property, as chaos reigns throughout the devastated region and a terrible conflagration still rages in Oil City. It is safe to say that not less than 150 lives have been lost. Nearly 100 bodies have already been recovered, and many people are missing. The number may far exceed 150, but his is regarded as a conservative estimate.
The property loss will reach far into the millions. At Titusville the loss is estimated at $1,500,000; Oil City, $1,500,000; Corry, $60,000; Meadville, $150,000, and surrounding country probably a million more.
For nearly a month it has been raining throughout Western and Northern Pennsylvania almost incessantly, and for the past three or four days the downpour in the devastated regions has been very heavy. The constant rains had converted all the small streams into raging torrents, so that when the cloud-burst came this morning the streams were soon beyond their boundaries and the great body of water came sweeping down Oil Creek to Titusville, which is eighteen miles south of its source, and eighteen miles from this city. When it reached here, the most appalling calamity in the history of Oil City fell upon it to-day, resulting in the destruction of life and proeprty which as yet can only be approximated. Thus far forty lives are known to be lost, hundreds of people are missing, and it is believed the loss of live will reach seventy-five or more.
At 11:30 o'clock this forenoon a large proportion of the population of the city was distributed along the banks and bridges of the Allegheny River and Oil Creek watching the rise of the flood in both streams, the cief cause of the rise of the latter being due to a cloudburst above Titusville last night, which resulted in the loss of many lives in that city.
At the time mentioned this forenoon an ominous covering of oil made its appearance on the crest of the flood poring down the Oil Creek Valley, and the dangerous foreboding waves of gas from distillate and benzine could be seen above the surface of the stream, which, at the bridge, is about 100 yards wide. People began slowly to fall back from the bridge and the creek.
Hardly had they begun to do so when an explosion was heard up the stream, which was rapidly followed by two others, and quick as a flash of lightning the creek for a distance of two miles was filled with an awful mass of roaring flames and billows of smoke that rolled high above the creek and river hills.
Oil City is bounded on all sides by steep hills. Oil Creek comes down the valley from the north, and just before its junction here with the Allegheny is crossed by a bridge to the portion of the city embraced in the Third Ward, which lies along the west bank of the creek and the north bank of the river. Almost all that portion of the town was on fire within three minutes from the time of the explosion, and no one knows as yet how many of the inhabitants are lying dead in the ruins of their homes.
THE TIMES'S correspondent stood, at the time of the first explosion, at the east end of the Oil Creek bridge. Almost as quickly as the words can be written, fully 5,000 people of that portion of the town were on the streets, wild with terror, rushing to the hills. Scores of men, women, and children were knocked down and trampled upon, both by horses and people, in the mad flight for places of safety.
Just as this frantic mass of humanity had started up Centre Street the second explosion occurred, knocking many people down, shattering the windows in the main part of town, and almost transforming the day into night with the immense cloud of smoke preceding the second burst of flame. The heat was intense and the spectacle presented to the panic-stricken people was that of a cloudburst of fire, bordered and overcapped by a great canopy of dense black smoke, falling upon the city.
The flood in the Oil Creek valley had inundated the upper portion of the town, flooding from fifty to seventy fine houses along north Seneca Street. Most of their inmates reached places of safety by means of boats or by swimming or wading, but a number of them were yet in the upper stories or in the water when the fire came, and their fate was quickly sealed. Some of them were seen to jump into the water to escape death in the flames. From the remnants of the only building remaining in this waste after the flood three persons were removed in a boat, severely burned, but alive, namely, Mrs. Hawk and daughter and Mr. Hassenfritz.
The distillate and benzine on the creek came from a tank lifted by the flood and is supposed to have been ignited by a spark from an engine on the Lake Shore Railroad just above the tunnel at the northern part of the city. The fire shot up the creek as well as down, and several tanks are on fire at a number of the refineries up the creek. But it is believed that their burning contents can be kept within the tanks and that a second baptism by fire may be averted.
The damage to property by fire alone cannot even be fairly approximated. The Bellevue Hotel, the Petroleum House, the Oil City Barrel Factory, the new building of the Oil City Tube Works, the big furniture and undertaking establishment of George Paul & Sons, and probably one hundred dwelling houses have been destroyed. The Fire Department, by excellent work, kept the fire from crossing to the central portion of the town, except in one instance, when Trinity Church caught fire, but the department succeeded in saving the building as well as two bridges.
Paul & Sons' loss is estimated at $100,000; not fully insured. R. D. Naylor's loss is $3,000; no insurance. William Loots proprietor of the Petroleum House, totally destroyed, losses $5,000; loss partially insured.
Notwithstanding the assurance that no danger will result from the fire at the tanks up the creek, few people will sleep a wink in the city to-night. Mayor W. G. Hunt has sworn in the members of Company D of the Sixteenth Regiment, National Guard, to serve as special police until further notice.
The list of the dead so far is as follows:
J. B. REINBOLD, Select Councilman.
E. V. R. PLANK.
M. LYONS and wife.
SHERIDAN WICK, a mason.
---- BAKER, a peddler.
JAMES ROGERS and wife.
WILLIAM EAKIN and his sons, FRANK and ED.
ED MILLS and four children.
Mrs. JOHN ROACH and child.
JOHN O'LEARY and mother.
Mrs. COPELAND and baby.
Mrs. LEVI FETTERS.
DANIEL SULLIVAN, an engineer.
ED KEATING, section boss of the Western New-York and Pennsylvania Railroad.
H. W. SHAFER of Franklin, Penn.
HENRY HOLMES, of Jamestown, N. Y.
MINNIE RUSHEL, Potterville, Penn.
JAMES HOLMES, a barber.
Mr. BAKER, a book agent, stopping at Exchange Hotel.
Mr. and Mrs. HANKS and daughter.
W. G. DOUGHERTY.
Among the injured are the following:
LOUIS HASSENFRITZ, badly burned and cannot recover.
Mrs. FEENEY and six children, badly burned.
Mrs. HAWK and daughter, burned.
Five unknown children, badly burned; two will probably die.
A meeting of the Relief Association has been held, at which several thousand dollars were subscribed for the homeless.
The New York Times, New York, NY 6 Jun 1892