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KABOOM! Nyack’s Industrial Disaster

American Aniline Products, Cedar Ave. Nyack. circa 1919. Photo Credit: Hudson River Valley Heritage Archives

by John Patrick Schutz

Like many others, I have been heartened by promises both in Washington and Albany to reduce the number of superfluous or redundant government agencies that are bleeding our national and state budgets. However, among the most foolhardy suggestions of our newly elected ‘€slash-and-burn’€ politicians are the elimination of government run product safety and consumer protection agencies. Really, haven’t we learned our lesson that industries allowed to operate without any public oversight tend to start sacrificing public safety in pursuit of more profit? There are countless examples some of these ‘€œreformers’€ should bear in mind: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the R.M.S. Titanic, the Union Carbide Plant Explosion in Bhopal, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and this past year’s BP Gulf oil rig explosion are some of the worst disasters that resulted from the drive for profit superseding safety concerns and common sense. Closer to home, the brick industry in Haverstraw became so greedy that in 1906 they undermined the village itself, causing a landslide that took 5 streets, 2 avenues and 21 buildings with it, killing 19 residents.

Just after 9a on January 30, 1919, the 400+ students at Liberty Street School across the street from the The American Aniline Products plant on Cedar Hill Avenue in Nyack had already begun class.  Overheating chemicals in the drying room of the factory’s first floor ignited and exploded the walls of the ground floor outward, another blast would rip a hole that tore through the upper floors and roof. The hundred employees on-site fled for their lives as the explosion rocked all of Orangetown and plate glass windows shattered all over Nyack.

It’s hard to imagine the response of today’s parents if there was a factory manufacturing toxic chemicals literally across the street from their kids’ school! All of the windows of the school facing the factory were blown into the school, covering the students with broken glass. Amazingly, the force of the blast was so strong that the size of the glass shards were minute and only one student was seriously injured by the glass. The 400 students evacuated to Hudson and School Street and joined what appeared to be the rest of the population of Nyack in watching the conflagration.

This was perhaps the greatest day for the Nyack Volunteer Fire Department. Due to their heroic efforts, the ensuing conflagration was confined to the factory, one home and one garage. Three of the factory’s employees lost their lives that day, with 15 others seriously injured. What is not known is how many of the residents and workers (not to mention the firemen) would have their health affected by breathing the extremely toxic fumes of the burning aniline dye. See, in 1919, either no one knew ‘€“ or possibly no one cared ‘€“ that breathing aniline fumes was toxic and likely to cause cancers, particularly bladder cancers later in life. (Having a father who suffered from asbestosis, contracted well AFTER the construction industry was well aware of the dangers, suggests that the second scenario though horrifying is indeed possible). The factory owners would eventually be fined the sum of $2500 for their negligence, after the President of the company and the Superintendent of the factory plead guilty of violating state labor laws and village ordinances in the storing of explosive chemicals ‘€“ yet they violated those laws and regulations KNOWING there was a school across the street.

Though the families of those who perished or were injured might disagree, Nyack learned its lesson with a miraculously low loss of life. Had the vector of the explosion been slightly different, the outcome could have been far, far worse. So while our rhetoric-spouting politicians yammer and bleat about cutting government spending they might want to concentrate on the real waste, and not checks and balances put into place to keep our industries’ need to satisfy their shareholders from slipping into disregard for public safety and human lives. I wish more of our elected officials of all persuasions spent a little more time studying history and a little less time studying the polls, remembering that they were elected to do public service, not elected to get re-elected.

John Patrick Schutz is a realtor for Rand Realty in Nyack, NY. You can read his blog posts at AtHomeInNyack.

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