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TIME Magazine, May 29, 1950:|
NATIONAL AFFAIRS: DISASTER: The Last Shipment
South Amboy, N.J. (pop. 9,500), a minor port on the southern arm of vast New York Harbor, is the kind of non-descript town through which most travelers pass on the way to somewhere else. Manhattan vacationists zip past on the way to seaside villages and resorts. Commuters on the Pennsylvania's gritty Jersey Shore line spend five minutes there every trip, buried in their newspapers or staring glumly at a shabby luncheonette across from a tavern while the electric engine is changed for a steam locomotive. Sprawled along the estuary of the Raritan River, just across the bay from the south tip of Staten Island, South Amboy exists as a kind of service entrance to the Port of New York, and it gets service-entrance traffic: coal, fertilizer from its own American Agricultural Chemical Co. (locally known as the "Stink House") and recently, in increasing amounts, explosives for peace and war.
Last Friday night a slow, chilly drizzle was falling on South Amboy, but it was shopping night and many housewives were downtown. Over on the river front, a gang of longshoremen worked late. From twelve railroad cars they were unloading a deadly cargo: anti-tank and anti-personnel mines for Pakistan's army, 2,000 cases of dynamite for blasting in Afghanistan. It was a tough but familiar job to the dockers. From the cars they moved the cases across the dock to four lighters, stowed them in neat, harmless-looking piles. When the job was done, the cargo would be ferried out to a freighter in the bay.
"Stalin's Started It. Over in town, South Amboy's Mayor John Leonard, a short, fat man who likes to wear a baseball player's warmup jacket, was done with his day's work. He was watching Captain Video on his television set, had settled down for a snug evening at home. His plans were quickly changed.
With a thundering roar, 467 tons of explosives blew up.
Across South Amboy windows burst into hurling, razorlike shards. Plaster crashed down from ceilings, doors blew in, walls bulged. The lights went out. All over town, the clocks stopped at 7:26. River mud, coal and metal fragments hurtled down from the sky. From the docks a huge mushroom cloud rose grey-white and languid.
Panic swept South Amboy. "Atom bomb," someone yelled and began running. Said a townsman later: "I saw that big pile of smoke just like in the newsreels and I said: 'That bastard Stalin's started it!'" Men & women, carrying children, ran south, away from the blast. Cars loaded with frightened people sped out of town. Mayor Leonard rushed to the city hall, piled into a sound truck and rode about town bellowing assurance. Finally, the southward rush slowed and stopped.
Pallid Flags. Nearly every house and building in South Amboy was damaged. Regular troops from nearby Fort Monmouth were rushed in, took up guard over the blasted banks and the post office. In Perth Amboy, two miles across the estuary, hundreds were cut by shattering glass and a chunk of steel buried itself in a downtown sidewalk. By midnight, South Amboy swarmed with ambulances and fire engines. Some 350 people were injured, 57 of them hospitalized. Others patched their own cuts, tramped the streets peering at wrecked stores, excitedly comparing notes. Through the town's shattered windows, white curtains flapped like pallid flags in the cold breeze.
On the waterfront, two coal barges burned and smoked. The pier had disappeared and so had the lighters and the twelve railroad cars. The Stink House was a torn, shattered wreck; fire danced in its innards. Unexploded mines were scattered for hundreds of yards, embedded in coal piles and backyards, teetering on roofs. In a still smoking area, littered with dead fish, four bodies were found, but that was all. There was no other trace of the 31 men who had been working on the dock. They had been blown to bits.
South Amboy was bitter. Only six weeks before, Mayor Leonard had written to Washington protesting further shipments of explosives through his port. Two weeks before, the Coast Guard had ordered munitions shipments at South Amboy limited to a modest 500 pounds a load, had allowed this big shipment only because of previous agreements. Said Mayor Leonard: "This was supposed to be the last."
The South Amboy explosion occurred on May 19, 1950.
US Coast Guard Report, .pdf on the South Amboy Explosion
Eyewittness account of the South Amboy Explosion
Article from the Long Island Sunday Press, May 21, 1950
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