By Karen Zautyk
“At 5:50 p.m., this date, August 19 . . .” the police report reads, “a terrific explosion was heard in Kearny and about the same time an alarm of fire was sent in over Fire Box 121, located at Belgrove Dr. and Passaic Ave.”
If you didn’t hear anything on Aug. 19, don’t be concerned; the sound of the “terrific explosion” echoes now only through history. The date was Aug. 19, 1943. This Monday marked the 70th anniversary of a local tragedy that claimed the lives of 13 people and injured many more.
A few older folk remember the day, some of their children recall hearing stories about it, however, most people in this town and the surrounding communities apparently have no knowledge of the event. This included your correspondent.
I was enlightened last week by Officer Tom Wilgus of the Kearny Police Department who works in the Records Bureau and who came across the 70-year-old police file on the case — which, as far as we know, could still be an open case on the federal level.
Early this year, Sgt. Pat Sweeney, who heads the bureau, was going through some other old papers in the storage room, “and I just happened to go back there,” Wilgus said. And what he noticed was one file that was unusually thick. “
It was the sheer size of it that drew my attention,” he noted. Checking the folders, what he uncovered was the tragic story that has been lost to collective memory.
To set the stage: In 1886, the Nairn Linoleum Co. in Scotland began buying property in Kearny. It later became Congoleum- Nairn (“Congoleum” flooring supposedly named for an asphalt saturate that came from the African Congo).
Eventually, the Congoleum- Nairn plant became a 63-acre complex that stretched along Passaic Ave. all the way from Belgrove Drive to Bergen Ave.
There was a smattering of structures on the river side of the road, but the bulk of the huge factory buildings — dozens of them — were on the east side.
(A few still remain, sandwiched between and around ShopRite and other businesses. See also the small white stone building near the gas station at Passaic and Belgrove with “1886” above the doorway; we presume, but cannot prove, that was the first. Overlooking the site, atop the Belgrove cliff, is the former office headquarters, now a nursing home.)
After the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the plant was converted to war-product manufacturing, and by August 1943, while still producing some linoleum, 75% of work involved supplying the military. Most reports say only that it was manufacturing camouflage netting, but according to Congoleum’s own website, “aerial torpedo parts and grenades” were also among its output. We note that because of the (unproven) rumors of sabotage that circulated after Aug. 19.
As the KPD report states, it was at 5:05 p.m. that an explosion occurred, one so powerful it leveled all of Building 12, a 300×300-foot three-story structure abutting Passaic Ave., just to the south of the plant’s main gate in the middle of the block. In Building 12 were the stoves used to dry out the camouflage netting.
In that building also were at least 30 employees. Of those, 10 would escape uninjured, seven would suffer varying degrees of injuries — and 13 would die, nine immediately, most buried under tons of “bricks, stone and twisted steel.”
Three others would die at West Hudson Hospital.
As terrible as that toll was, it could have been much worse. A news story the following day in The New York Sun stated that the disaster struck as the day and night shifts were changing. “Three hundred night workers were scheduled to enter the building not much more than 15 minutes after the explosion,” The Sun reported.
According to an Associated Press story, the explosion was so strong it “was felt over a 10-mile area,” and the KPD (which had sent all available officers to the scene) noted that plate glass windows all the way up on Kearny Ave. were among the many that had been blown out.
The Kearny police report, written by Detective Casmis Schillon, reads, “Upon our arrival . . . rubble and debris from the shattered building were all over the street and in the yard of the plant and there was a fire raging in the ruins . . .”
“Fire apparatus from Kearny, under the command of Chief Wandras, was on the scene, and immediately arrangements were made for emergency crews from Newark, Harrison and the Public Service Co. to assist…” (Schillon’s report noted “all the electrical wires on the west side of Passaic Ave. had been torn from their poles and were lying in the street, making conditions very hazardous”).
Because “tremendous crowds were gathering,” the cops had to force the mob back and rope off the area. Auxiliary police were called for crowd and traffic control.
In addition to the KPD ambulance, which was first on the scene, others were summoned from Newark City Hospital and Jersey City Medical Center.
“Fire assistance from Newark, Harrison, North Arlington and other nearby cities arrived, and local demolition squads immediately started searching the ruins for bodies,” Schillon reported.
The story in The Sun said that “low water pressure” handicapped the firemen. According to the newspaper, “Two fireboats were called from Newark and they linked their hose to that of the fire trucks, pumping water from the Passaic River” and two Coast Guard cutters equipped with firefighting apparatus also fought the blaze.
Kearny police remained on the scene as bodies were hunted, located and taken to a morgue at Fay’s Funeral Parlor in Harrison. The body of James Gageby, 45, of Elm St., North Arlington, was found on the north side of the building right after the explosion. That of James Minnis, 42, of Allen Drive, North Arlington, was found in a passageway at 6:30 p.m.
The others, their bodies all dug from the ruins over the course of two days, were: Edna Lang, 43, 10th St., Lyndhurst; Pietro Verrengia, 49, Warren St., Harrison; Leo Kalinowski, 32, Plane St., Newark; Thomas Ertle, 48, Halstead St., Kearny; Charles Katsacoulas, 26, Baylis Ave., North Arlington; Dennis Maginnis, 42, Halstead St., Kearny; Anthony DiDomenico, 46, Gaston Ave., Garfield, and Leslie Anderson, 37, Brighton Ave., Kearny.
The last victim was not found until 9:45 a.m. Aug. 21.
In addition, three people survived the explosion, but died later of their injuries. Edward McEntevy, 62, of Warren St., Harrison, was dug from the rubble at 7:15 p.m. Aug. 19 and died at West Hudson Hospital at 11:15 p.m.
Fred Pervin of Windsor St., a 16-year-old Kearny High School student working a summer job at the plant, had been found outside the ruins immediately after the blast; he died at West Hudson at 6:45 p.m. on the 20th.
And John Pracher, 36, of William St., East Orange, also found alive on the 19th, survived at the hospital until the night of Aug. 28, finally succumbing to burns and internal injuries.
Investigators at the scene included not only the Kearny police but detectives from the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, the federal Bureau of Mines (we don’t know why) and the FBI, which had seven agents on site within 90 minutes. Their concern was the plant’s involvement in the war effort.
Schillon’s report notes, “We also went in among the crowds at the scene both in the yard of the plant and in the immediate vicinity trying to learn something of value pertaining to the explosion, and we also kept on the alert for suspicious persons.”
As far as local law enforcement is aware, only one person was taken into custody.
At 6:30 p.m., the police collared Czeslaw Leonard Kacperowski, 27, of Highland Ave., Kearny, who was taking pictures of the scene, in violation of a national wartime prohibition against unauthorized photography at any industrial plant manufacturing war material.
Kacperowski, questioned by police and the FBI at KPD headquarters, gave a signed statement explaining that photography was his hobby and he had simply grabbed his camera when he heard the blast, saw the smoke and joined the people running in that direction. He was fingerprinted and released without charges, but the FBI confiscated his camera and film. The KPD still has the receipt. But, as Wilgus commented, “We have no idea what happened to him.”
This is because the FBI took over the entire Congoleum case, and the feds have never reported back to the KPD on what, if anything, was the resolution. Which is why all this information is still on file at HQ. Plus, “we can never get rid of any record that involves deaths,” Wilgus explained.
Congoleum-Nairn hired its own investigator, Dr. Harold Brown, an expert on explosives who was formerly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In addition to heat-drying the camo netting, The Sun reported, other workers in the demolished “stove building” were manufacturing linoleum [for battleships]. Along with The Sun, AP said the cause of the blast was thought to be caused by cork and linoleum dust and noted that toxic gases generated by burning cork, linoleum and shellac had overcome several firefighters.
Brown’s official finding? He thought it began on the stove floor and “was caused by a concentration of explosive vapors ignited by a spark of unknown origin.”
Succinct but hardly conclusive.
Rumors of possible sabotage remained, fueled by the fact that a number of other war-material plants had been the scene of similar disasters. The FBI had also been called in on Sept. 12, 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, to investigate a munitions plant explosion that killed 51 people in Kenvil, N.J.
During the war, explosions also rocked war-related factories in such places as Burlington, Iowa (one in December 1941, one in March ‘42); Versailles, Pa. (May ‘42); Stockton, Calif. (June ‘42); Coalmont, Ind. (November ‘42); Marcus Hook, Pa. (August ‘44). There were likely others.
Wilgus told us that some World War II records held in Washington had been sealed for 100 years. We do not know if the Congoleum- Nairn disaster is among those. If it isn’t, we (and the KPD) would be interested in learning what the FBI’s official findings were. Was there a conclusive resolution as to the cause? Were there any arrests or was the determination that the explosion was accidental?
Last week, The Observer contacted the FBI’s Newark office, provided the names of all the federal agents who had been involved in the case and asked for any available information. We have been told that our query was forwarded to agency’s media office and history department in Washington. And we must file a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law), request which shall be done.
If we learn anything, we will tell you.