Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2018.

When the TNT plant blew

The Aetna chemical explosion of 1918—Oakdale, Pennsylvania


In 1916, the Aetna Chemical Company’s TNT manufacturing plant in Oakdale, Pennsylvania, had been the subject of numerous safety complaints by residents who lived near the facility. The concerns became reality that year when an explosion killed five workers. That incident, however, was just a preview of what was to come.

At noon on May 18, 1918, an explosion in a room used to mix chemicals inside the plant triggered a chain of blasts and fires that claimed 193 lives both inside and outside the facility, according to NFPA data. The catastrophe remains the deadliest fire or explosion in a manufacturing plant in U.S. history, according to NFPA.

Reporters captured the catastrophic scene. “The roof of the big building on the TNT plant was lifted in its entirety and left its foundations cleanly,” Miranda Russell, who lived within sight of the plant and whose husband worked there, told The Pittsburgh Dispatch, according to a 2012 article by Daniel Prevade in the magazine Western Pennsylvania History. “After rising a short distance it seemed to suddenly fall apart and scatter, the wreckage shooting violently in all directions. The lifting of the roof was followed by a tremendous volume of smoke which in a few seconds obscured the building and hung over it for some time. As it spread, the walls of the plant could be seen and began to resemble pictures of war-torn villages in France.”

The plant superintendent, John Johnson, described his own struggle to the same newspaper. “Just when I thought I would faint from heat and smoke, a second explosion shook the debris that held me and an iron bar was hurled about two feet above my head,” Johnson said. “It stuck fast and by grasping hold of it I was able to pull myself to the top of the wreckage and got my lungs full of fresh air. I knew I was injured because blood was pouring over my face, but I couldn’t feel anything but the terrible heat.”

Only about half of the victims could be identified, Prevade said in his article; the bodies of the other people lost in the blast had been incinerated among the wreckage of the plant. The company suffered an estimated $2 million in losses, and an additional $200,000 of damage was inflicted on nearby properties.

An investigation revealed that the blast occurred because Aetna, which manufactured TNT for the Allied powers in World War I, ignored an order from the federal government to stop using a chemical that was linked to dangerous reactions, according to Prevade’s article. Even so, the company was never held accountable for its actions. The Oakdale plant closed six months after the explosion.

Read Prevade’s full article, “Horror & Heroism: The Aetna Chemical Explosion.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Daniel Prevade