1930 Pennsylvania Fireworks Company explosion & inquest, Valley Forge Military Academy cadets help police

In recounting the earlier fires in this section, no roster of them would be complete without the story of the Devon disaster of April, 1930, when fire itself was but an aftermath of the terrific explosion that rocked the countryside for miles around. It was the worst calamity ever to hit the Main Line up to that time, and certainly there have been none to equal it since then.

The plant of the Pennsylvania Fireworks Company, located on the Old Lancaster Pike in Devon, had long been a community menace. It was located in a thickly settled area. Large quantities of black powder and other explosives were stored on the premises, as was a big supply of many varieties of finished firecrackers. Gas stoves were used in heating the plant and there were gas jets in the drying room.

At the inquest, the Coroner’s jury gave one or more of these factors as the probable cause of the explosion. They urged the enactment of legislation at Harrisburg “to cover the manufacture of fireworks, taking into consideration the location of plants and quantity of raw and finished material to be carried at anyone time. . . also providing for frequent and rigid inspection of such plants.”

But such legislation would be too late then to save the lives of the ten employees who were killed, among them four children under 16 years of age. Less than a year before, Mrs. AIda A. Makarov, secretary of the Neighborhood League, had written to the Bureau of Inspection of the Department of Labor and Industry at Harrisburg, stating that on inspection they had found only two girls employed, and both of these were over 18 years of age. The remaining five employees were men over 21, they stated. Nevertheless, four of the explosion casualties were children less than 16 years old, among them possibly the only person or persons who knew the exact cause of the disaster.

The force and the roar of the heavy detonation of the explosion when it came on that Thursday morning of April 3, 22 years ago this spring, was felt for miles around, particularly to the eastward. One of the peculiar features was that while some homes only a half-mile or so west of the plant were undamaged, others in a five mile area to the east felt the force of the explosion to greater extent.

Automobiles and pedestrians converged on Devon from all directions, hampering the work of fire men and of other rescue workers. “The Suburban” of the day following the explosion describes the scene as viewed from a nearby hilltop as one “of terrible destruction . . . flames enveloped several small buildings near the plant scattered over a ten-acre plot of ground . . . the noise of exploding fireworks and the bombs reminded one of the Argonne. . . a dense pall of smoke hung over the valley, lighted up by constantly flashing minor explosions. A third great blast endangered the lives of firemen fighting the conflagration and caused the watching crowd to flee to safety.

The Pennsylvania Railroad signal tower at Devon was directly in the line of destruction, while the overhead wires were all down across the tracks. The signal man himself was thrown out of his chair. Max Swartz, signalman in the Eagle tower (near Strafford) was severely hurt, but stuck to his post until relief came.

Fire companies from all along the Main Line made record runs to the scene, the Radnor Company being among the first to arrive. Actual fire was confined to the buildings of the fireworks plant, and to a number of automobiles parked around it. The explosion, however, scattered burning debris over a wide area, and numerous field fires added to the difficulties of the firemen. All the firemen on the scene of the fire itself repeatedly risked their lives I in the inferno of blazing fireworks.

The immediate area was cordoned off and the State police and the Radnor township police, assisted by cadets from the Valley Forge Military Academy, patrolled the danger zone. On all sides private cars were commandeered to assist the ambulances in rushing, the injured to Bryn Mawr Hospital. Hospital doctors, as well as those residing nearby, were on the scene to give first aid treatment as were a number of nurses. The Wayne Red Cross canteen went into immediate action under Mrs. E. W. S. Tingle, serving hot coffee to the firemen and other rescuers.

(To be continued)