Firefighters view the remains of the trucks that started it all - one carrying carbon disulfide (right) and the other carrying paint supplies (left). From the "Report: The Holland Tunnel Chemical Fire." May 13, 1949. National Board of Fire Underwriters, N.Y., [July 1949.] Courtesy Hoboken Historical Museum.
Last week we learned about the Lincoln Tunnel, but the earlier Holland Tunnel has stories of its own. Opened in 1927, the Holland Tunnel was at the time the longest vehicular underwater tunnel in the world. It connects Jersey City, NJ to lower Manhattan and is still in use today.
But in 1949, an extraordinary event would occur. On Friday, May 13, 1949 truck carrying 55 gallon drums of carbon disulfide entered the tunnel. Carbon disulfide is still used today, primarily in the manufacture of viscose rayon and cellophane film. The driver had no idea of the danger of his cargo, which was actually banned from the tunnel because of its toxic and highly flammable fumes. Less than a hundred yards into the tunnel, a drum broke loose from the truck and fell onto the roadway, breaking open and releasing the highly flammable gas. The resulting fire would burn for hours. To tell the full story, we actually have FOUR media resources for you today - two original newsreels from 1949 recounting the event, a podcast entitled "A Miraculous Disaster – In 1949 The Holland Tunnel Burned At 4,000-Degrees And No One Died," and an original report from the National Board of Fire Underwriters.
Although no one died in the fire itself, 66 people were treated and 27 hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Among them was Battalion Chief firefighter Gunther E. Beake, who succumbed to injuries from toxic smoke inhalation on August 23, 1949.
The incident ultimately resulted in legislation in both New Jersey and New York enacting stiffer penalties and fines for companies who violated cargo rules.
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