Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Military Philadelphia

South Amboy Explodes


South Amboy, New Jersey, is a waterfront industrial town on a remote promontory behind Staten Island, jutting into lower New York Bay. It's across the Raritan River from historically important Perth Amboy, but it's fair to say that few people ever heard of South Amboy until sunset on May 18, 1950, when they suddenly heard a lot. An entire freight train, five lighters, and a railroad pier suddenly exploded and disappeared. About twenty-five people were never seen again; the largest piece of metal from the explosion was only about a foot in length. A significant part of the town was leveled, steeples were knocked off churches, and windows were broken in five surrounding counties. Considering what caused it, it seems remarkable that so few people were killed. The explanation usually given is that the explosion blew straight up and straight down; the distant windows were smashed by pressure implosion.

When Pakistan split off from the rest of India, there were bloody migrations in which millions of people died. So Pakistan bought the rights to the design of certain land mines to protect its new borders and contracted with a firm in Newark, Ohio to manufacture the mines. Two trainloads of these explosives were shipped from Ohio to a railroad pier owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad in South Amboy, to be lightered out to a waiting cargo ship and sent to Pakistan. The first of these two shiploads sailed off uneventfully, and on May 1, 1950, the second shipment had already left Ohio and was underway, when the Coast Guard suddenly declared the South Amboy pier to be closed and forbidden. As the train chugged slowly eastward, frenzied negotiations took place with Admirals in Washington. There was plenty of time, because the train moved very, very slowly and it was detoured over six different railroads to Wilmington Delaware, where the Hercules Powder Company had packed two freight cars with dynamite, which were to be hooked onto the end of the train as it inched its convoluted way to South Amboy.

South Amboy Explodes

The method of packing the land mines was of some importance during the huge litigation which inevitably followed. Land mines were packed in cardboard boxes about six feet long, divided into six compartments. Our own Army regulations about such things state that never, never should fuse be packed in the same carton with the mines. However, this particular shipment had five mines to a carton, with the fuses in the sixth. It was later argued that this particular arrangement proved harmless in the first of the two Pakistan shipments, but there was the testimony that defective fuses were removed from those boxes and passed back up the line, where those deemed satisfactory were re-packed in the cartons which were in this, the second shipment. A fuse, by the way, does not quite describe these objects, which were screwed into a hole provided on the bomb part. They contained a spring and a steel ball in a tube; when the gadget was cocked it was held by a hare-trigger. The idea was that the pressure of stepping on the mine shot the steel ball into the ball of explosives, and boom.

The railroad ammunition pier, for some reason called The Artificial Island, consisted of two rail lines extending a quarter mile from land, but no structures. Stevedores transferred the boxes from the train to the lighters, and then five lighters took the partial shipments out to the anchorage where the ocean freighter was waiting. The deck of the lighters was lower than the train tracks, so a wooden ramp was laid from the freight car to the lighter, resting on several mattresses on deck. It all worked on the first shipment, didn't it?

Well, it didn't work this time, and we have no way of knowing who stumbled or dropped something; we only know it all went sky-high. For this, the ship-owners were delighted because it is a well-established principle of Admiralty law that unless the ship was in contact with the owners, their liability is limited to the value of the damaged vessel. Under conditions of total disintegration, that means the lighters had a liability of zero. But there were six railroads, the Pakistani government, the Coast Guard and the two manufacturers of the explosives available to sue. Everybody had insurance, so a dozen insurance companies were involved. All of the victims and hundreds of people with property damage, all had lawyers; everyone agrees that many lasting friendships were established among lawyers who were milling around. Finally, the judge declared this case just had to be settled, or else it would continue for the rest of everybody's lifetime. The total amount of the claims submitted came to $55 million. Obviously, the settlement would be for less than that, but settlements are kept secret and you are not supposed to know how it turned out.

So, the question that remained was this. If everybody was insured, why not let the insurance companies haggle about who owed what to whom. Why did all of those railroads have lawyers hanging around? Well, the answer is a lesson for all of us. You need a lawyer to watch your insurance company's lawyer, because once a claim action begins, you and your insurance company develop a conflict of interest.

Originally published: Wednesday, July 02, 2008; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019

I was 16 at the time of the explosion and getting ready for my senior prom at Saint Mary's High in South Amboy. The prom was to be held at our high school gym on the top floor of the school. The explosion ripped that floor off the school and a lot of students would have been killed if the explosion had happen a few hours latter. School was canceled for the rest of the year!
Posted by: sylvia valentino   |   May 22, 2016 2:49 PM
My first childhood memory is of someone, probably one of our parents, rescuing my sister and me from under our beds in our apartment on Catalpa Ave in Perth Amboy. I was four years old. I clearly remember being led by the hand past our front door which had been blown open and flattened back into the wall by the explosion. We had been playing in the kitchen and had gone to bed only a short while before. I always remember my mother saying my sister and I would likely have been struck by glass from the kitchen window had we not been sent to our room. I also remember a lot of screaming and running about to find the neighbor boy before we all left the building. We lived in Perth Amboy for 2-3 years after that, we were always careful about going to "the waterfront" or being on the beach, although it was never made clear why this was the case.
Posted by: Vicki   |   Dec 22, 2015 6:21 AM
I was in Grovers Pool Room on Madison ave at the time of the explosion. Exact moment of the explosion we were blown off our feet under a table. When we got up and the wooden pilars had glass slivers imbeded at least a half inch in them. Something I will never forget. Remember the explosion was in South amboy and we were in Perth Amboy. Also my father was a half block from the train station in South Amboy and a door blew off the hinges and gave him 19 stitches in the head. He recovered. Perth Amboy use to be a New England type town.
Posted by: Manny   |   Jul 10, 2013 2:06 PM
The South Amboy explosion left an indelible memory on all those who experienced it. I was three years old at the time. The blast rocked our post-World War II barracks like home in Victory Plaza. The boom of the detonation blew out the windows in our livingroom sending shards of glass on the lace netting covering my infant brother Bob's cradle. The screening caught the pieces of glas so that my brother was untouched. My father checked to see if we were injured. We were not, but we were shaken. My mother was shopping on Broadway, and my father's concern turned to her. My mother was uninjured, although knocked off her feet at the corner of Broadway and Augusta Streets. She walked up Augusta to my grandmother's home. Although windows were blown out, and cracks could be seen in ceilings and walls, all of the members of our family suffered no injuries. Martial law was declared, and we left South Amboy evacuating to my Aunt Betty's home in New Brunswick. We stayed there for several days until we were allowed back into South Amboy. Following the explosion, my parents, my brother and I moved to Sayreville. For the rest of our lives, we often talked about the explosion in 1950. Although I was a small child, I vividly remembered the concerns and fears of the adults and the damage done to South Amboy.
Posted by: Emjay   |   May 26, 2013 11:06 PM
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was playing ball down by the river when a bright orange ball started to rise right in from of my eyes. The ground started to rumble and the there was a tremendous "boom". Pieces of everything started to rain out of the and my friend (Frankie Leonard) just stood there looking at it...he was 12 I was 11. A man came running to us and grabed us by the arm and told us to get going fast. We ran Joh Street (we lived below the tracks) and people started coming out of the houses...a lot had blood on them from the windows that were broken. I was a horrible night....rumors of more explosions kept going. Well, the next day the National Guard came and we started to look around....the town was devistated. For years to come land mines kept coming up at the beach and the Army (Fort Monmouth) had to be called to deactivate them. I was there and I will never forget it.
Posted by: John Phillips   |   Feb 2, 2013 2:23 PM
I worked at the JCP&L power plant in the 1980's, a few hundred yards from the explosion . Occasionally a mine would work its way up through the mud and an Army disposal unit would be called to remove it. I whitnessed one such incident. Can there be more? When the old Raritan Arsenal site a few miles away was being cleared for new commercial construction, the government blew up hundreds of old munitions on site. One of the projectiles was even sent to a museum! I also whitnessed one of these explosions. Around this same time period munitions were also recovered from the Morgan Plant explosion in the early 20th century.
Posted by: John   |   Jan 14, 2013 12:25 PM
While growing up in Morgan on Gordon Ave, we had a couple bad storms wash at least two "underwater" WWII mines wash up on shore near the Robert E. Lee Inn. I saw them being removed from the draw bridge with my father. Did anyone remember that there is still ammo at the bottom of the Raritan Bay when all that bridge construction was going on???????
Posted by: christine souza ellis   |   Nov 1, 2012 5:40 PM
My husband,baby son and I lived on Second St. with my parents. We had just left with a friend to go to visit them, didn't even get by Sacred Heart Church when it happened. We managed to get back to my parents house and every window was gone, the bedroom where we stayed was covered with glass, bed,crib everything, the outside wall was pushed out some so you could look from our front porch right up to the attic.It was so bad the house was condemned. You were afraid to even go upstairs. It was like living in a nightmare, so frightening and scary, but everyone helped everyone and that made all the difference. It is hard to believe it was 62years ago, I can still remember it like it was yesterday.
Posted by: Lou   |   Aug 11, 2012 6:26 PM
R.I.P. Charles Lynch
Posted by: M. Lynch Avarista   |   Dec 31, 2010 7:06 AM
Part of the agreement in any lawsuit is that the details of a settlement are confidential. However, after sixty years, word does leak out. The case took 14 years to settle, and everybody was exhausted and impoverished by legal fees from regiments of lawyers. Contemporary lawyers will be shocked to hear that the reasonably reliable rumors are that the settlement was for less than a million dollars. Compared with today's settlements, that seems like peanuts. If the reasoning behind secrecy is to keep the awards from escalating, I would say it didn't work very well.
Posted by: GRF   |   May 17, 2010 6:16 PM
I was 5 years old at the time of the explosion and recall it quite vividly. We lived in Matawan but my grandparents lived on 2nd St. in South Amboy. My mother had just put me to bed and was sitting on the edge of the bed reading me Peter Rabbit when we heard the boom and mother slipped off the bed onto the floor. We ran outside and could see the cloud in the SA direction. Mother remembered the 1918 Morgan explosion and knew right away what had happened. Father drove over to SA and found the grandparents all right but with all the windows blown out in their house. Grandmother was in shock and was carrying a baking tray of biscuits she had in the oven, burned black now, that she wouldn't let go. The next day, father loaded all our old fashioned wooden storm windows into his pick-up truck and took them to nail up temporarily on the 2nd St. house. I recall there used to be a lovely stained glass window on the landing of the stairs in that house which fascinated me as a child. It was gone of course and was replaced with a mere frosted glass one that disappointed me. At the age of 5, that seemed important!
Posted by: toby   |   Jan 17, 2010 8:11 AM
Although there was money from all the law suits, it could never repay the pain and suffering the victims had to deal with it over the years. My mom, dad and brother were in the middle of the explosion. My dad was a captian of a barge that was docked at the pier in South Amboy. My mom, dad and brother lived on the barge during this time. My dad suffered burns on most his body. He also lost in eye as well as his heart stop beating once they got him into the hospital. The doctors had to revive him. My mom suffered a broken leg as well as burns. My mom was blown into the water as well as my brother, who was about a year old at the time. I believe if my family was offered all the money in the world, they would have turned it down to have this thing never happen.
Posted by: Bill Cooke   |   Sep 27, 2009 11:06 PM