John Magrann (Parents) PEDIGREE
BORN: About 1888, Phila, PA
MARRIED: About 1915
DIED: About 1970
He was a fire chief in Philadelphia, and was killed when falling through a roof of the Charles W. Burg Laboratories while fighting a fire. The only thing found of him was his boot, which he had written his name in.
The Berg Explosion October 28, 1954
By Mike Pence, Mike Hink & Greg Masi
October 28th of this year marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the greatest tragedy in the modern history of the Philadelphia Fire Department.
Just before dawn on the morning of October 28, 1954 residents in the vicinity of 5th and Berks Streets reported an odor of “ammonia” emanating from the Charles W. Berg Laboratories located at 1827-29 N. 5th street. “C” Platoon members of Engine 2 and Ladder 3, commanded by Lieutenants Hayes Rommel and Charles Holtzman, and Battalion Chief 6, John J. News, were dispatched on a local alarm to this address at 6:07 A.M.
No plant personnel were on the scene of the textile finishing firm when firefighters first arrived. Under Chief News’ direction, Engine 2 was assigned to make entry through the front of the property on North 5th Street, while Ladder 3 and Chief News reported to the rear of the one-story building on Cadwallader Street. Chief News and the members of Ladder 3 found a yard in the rear, measuring 120 feet long and 45 feet wide, contained between two brick walls, 15 feet in height.
The yard contained two aluminum alloy tanks, measuring 13 feet in height and 6 feet diameter, having a volume of 4,000 gallons. Each was mounted on an 8 inch thick concrete base.
After Ladder 3 and Chief News forced their way through a mesh-wire fence to gain access to the yard, a “big puff of smoke” was emitted by one of the two tanks, and Chief News ordered a box alarm at 6:10 A.M. At the same time Lt. Rommel and his men had made forcible entry through the front of the building and found conditions to be normal on the building’s interior. Reaching the rear of the building, a wooden overhead door leading the rear yard was encountered and subsequently forced open by Engine 2.
Within minutes the companies on the box alarm began arriving, including Battalion Chief 3, Chief John F. Magrann, and Deputy Chief 2, Chief Thomas A. Kline. As these men joined Chief News in the rear, a tremendous explosion ripped through one of the tanks, hurling fragments of the tank and its valves and piping across the yard. D.C. Kline, age 59, and B.C. Magrann, age 61, were killed instantly by the blast. Chief News, also 61, was mortally wounded by the explosion but used his last breath to order the 2nd alarm at 6:18 A.M. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, 22 firemen and 3 policemen were injured by the force of the explosion or overcome by the deadly fumes from the tank.
By the evening of October 28, two more firefighters died of the injuries they had sustained earlier in the morning. Firefighter Joseph J. Bandos, age 54, of Engine 2, died on the afternoon of October 28 in St. Luke’s and Children’s Medical Center. Later that evening Firefighter James F. Tygh, age 33, of Engine 29, succumbed to his injuries.
The death toll quickly climbed to nine by the next day, Friday, October 29, with the deaths of the following members: Firefighter James E. Doyle, age 32, of Engine 29; Firefighter Thomas W. Wilson, age 36, of Engine 29; Fire Lieutenant Charles C. Holtzman, age 30, of Ladder 3; and Firefighter Joseph J. Vivian, age 32, of Ladder 3.
On Wednesday, November 3, 1954 Firefighter Bernard Junod, age 32, of Engine 2 was the tenth and last fatality.
An extensive investigation commenced immediately to determine the cause of the explosion. The following facts were discovered. The tank which exploded had been built in 1946 by the Keystone Coppersmithing and Metal Company for the Jacob Hornung Brewery. The tank was originally built for the storage of beer. Berg Laboratories purchased this tank in early 1954. The tank had been cleaned and reconditioned before being installed on the Berg property in April, 1954.
In July 1954 the tank had been file with Dow Formula 4-2-1 which was a mixture of the organic solvents ortho-dichlorobenzene, propylene dichloride, and ethylene dichloride. The tank was drained of this material and cleaned one week later. On August 27th cocoanut oil was then stored in this tank. On October 22, 1954 the cocoanut oil was removed and the tank was again filled with Dow Formula 4-2-1, a solvent used in textile finishing.
The mechanism of the explosion was believed to be as follows. When the cocoanut oil was removed from the tank, the tank was steam cleaned and the steam volatilized some fatty acid residue in the tank from the cocoanut oil. The volatilized fatty acid residue subsequently condensed in an air vent from the tank thus disrupting the tank’s ventilation. Upon refilling the tank with the Dow 4-2-1, moisture had remained in the tank. This mixture had reacted to form the gases hydrogen chloride, aluminum chlorate, and phosgene. Of these gases, the phosgene was probably the most deadly as it had been used as a poison gas during World War I. Because the tank’s air vent was blocked, the evolving gases could not escape, and hence the increasing pressure caused the tank to rupture. However, while it was at first believed that the phosgene gas was responsible for the deaths of six of the firefighters, it was subsequently determined that the phosgene gas was probably formed in small quantities and that fumes from the solvents originally in the tank played a larger role in their deaths.
The investigations that immediately followed this tragedy revealed that the owners of the Berg Laboratories did not have the proper permits for the installation and operation of the two storage tanks on the property. Furthermore, there was a large outcry for the criminal prosecution of the owners. However, then District Attorney Richardson Dilworth determined that there was no basis for criminal action, while civil action would be left to the individual families and victims of this tragedy.
Finally, this tragedy led to the formation of Philadelphia’s Hero Scholarship Fund which provides scholarship money to the families of police and fire personnel killed or permanent injured in the line of duty. The annual Hero Scholarship Thrill Show provides support for this fund.
Thursday, October 28, 1954 “C” Platoon Extra Alarm Fire No.49
6:07 A.M. - Local - Engine 2, Ladder 3, Battalion Chief 6
6:10 A.M. - Box 2825, Germantown and Montgomery Avenues, b/o B.C.6 Eng. 15, 29, 21, Lad.7, B.C.3, D.C.2, Rescue 4
6:18 A.M. - 2nd Alarm, b/o B.C.6 - Eng. 6, 25, 31, 27, Lad.12, B.C.4 SS-100 (Foam Unit), SS-101(Chemical 1), SS-501(Mobile Hospital Unit)
6:35 A.M. - Cover-ups - Eng.51 to Eng.2, Eng.14 to Eng.25, Lad.1 to Lad.3
Note: We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Harry Magee and the staff of the Philadelphia Fire Museum, “Fireman’s Hall,” in the preparation of this “Out of the Past.” The Philadelphia Fire Museum has generously provided us with copies of original news accounts from which this has been assembled.