Property losses from Fireworks Company explosion, Canteen of the Wayne Red Cross Branch, the Neighborhood League, Devon Baby Clinic, Relief Fund

Property losses from the disastrous explosion at the Pennsylvania Fireworks Company of Devon in April, 1930, were widespread, the largest individual one being that at the Benjamin C. Betner Paper Box Manufacturing Company on Lancaster Pike, about a quarter of a mile distant from the explosion.

Here the entire interior of the plant was wrecked, with a loss of many thousands of dollars. Forty employees were injured, including the driver of a truck who was taking in a load of bags at the plant. He was knocked unconscious by the first blast, remaining so for some hours afterwards.

The offices of the C. A. Lobb Lumber Yard were ruined, while the plate glass windows of the handsome show rooms of the Packard Motor Company were completely shattered. Mrs. Charles M. Lea’s mansion, in Devon, was damaged to the extent of about $50,000.

Other nearby Devon homes that felt the full force of the explosion were Mrs. William McCone’s, located within a couple of hundred yards of the plant, which was wrecked beyond repair; the Stephen Fuguet and the Victor Thomas homes. The walls of the old Devon Inn, which had survived the fire of a year before when the building was occupied by the Valley Forge Military Academy, were blown down by the force of the fireworks blast. All of the small houses just opposite the scene of the explosion were so badly damaged that they had to be razed to the ground, as were seven large residences on Old Lancaster road.

Personal accidents were numerous, including one to Constable George Morris, who was struck in the stomach by a concrete block blown through the window of his house near the plant as he sat at breakfast. Roma Torillo, a barber in the shop of Nick Irete, a quarter of a mile from the explosion, was injured when a door was blown down. The clock in the shop stopped at 9:50, the time of the first explosion.

By some vagary the large greenhouses of Alfred M. Campbell, located in nearby Strafford, escaped damage except for a few broken panes of glass. Large windows in the stores of J. S. McIntyre and John Donato as well as the Wayne Lunch Room, all located on North Wayne avenue in Wayne, were shattered. Small pieces of the red paper used in the wrapping of fireworks, torpedoes and small bombs, were picked up afterwards at points as far distant as Norristown.

When the last of the minor explosions that followed the major one was over, the work of relief and rehabilitation immediately started. Indeed, while confusion was still at its height, Mrs. Alda Makarov, secretary of the Neighborhood League of Wayne, collected all the homeless children and took them to the Neighborhood League House on West Wayne avenue, where they were fed and cared for during that entire day. And within an hour of the time of the explosion the Devon Branch of the Needlework Guild was on the scene, distributing garments to those who had lost everything.

Although the Fire Works Company plant was situated in Tredyffrin township, it was nevertheless in the territory covered by both the Wayne Red Cross Branch and the Neighborhood League. It was at the Devon Baby Clinic of the latter organization that relief headquarters were set up almost before the sounds of the last explosion were heard. Here, under Mrs. E. W. S. Tingle, chairman of the Canteen of the Wayne Red Cross, food and hot coffee were served without cessation for more than 24 hours to destitute families, as well as to members of the State Constabulary who were on duty. The clinic also served as a registration center, always a most important spot in time of disaster.

Among other groups who assisted in the work of relief were Anthony Wayne Post of the American Legion and its Auxiliary. The women who composed the latter opened headquarters in North Wayne, which they had heated and ready for use almost immediately. The Wayne Chamber of Commerce took as their special project the housing of furniture removed from wrecked homes. The Men’s Club, the Saturday Club and both Girl and Boy Scout troops all did their part, also.

Red Cross disaster workers sent from National Headquarters in Washington estimated $40,000 as the minimum required for the proper care of sufferers from the explosion. With expenses of administration taken care of by National Red Cross, every dollar contributed by the community could go to direct relief. Hearts and pocketbooks from far and near opened wide to the appeal almost before it was made. By the time the April 11 edition of “The Suburban” had gone to press, contributions of more than $16,000 had already been received. Before the end of April this had reached a total of more than $36,000, with more still to come. J. S. C. Harvey, of Radnor, was made the chairman of this relief fund.

Less than a year before the explosion, the Wayne Red Cross Branch had organized a Disaster Relief Committee to operate in any calamity that might occur in the district covered by the Branch. Thomas W. Hulme, then president of the Township Commissioners, was chairman of this committee with its various subcommittees, among them those on food, shelter, registration and finances.

Among the first people on the scene of the disaster were Mr. Hulme and Mrs. Willlam Henry Brooks, at that time chairman of the Wayne Red Cross. Colonel Horace A. Shelmlre, chairman of the Housing Committee of the Disaster Relief, arrived shortly with a hundred army cots and a number of blankets from the Quartermaster’s Department of the U. S. Marine Corps. These cots were put up in various homes where the homeless had been welcomed.

This then was the beginning of immediate relief work, which was not to end for many months. Families had to be re-united, food and clothing provided, and long range plans made for rehabilitation which included replacement of clothing, homes and furnishings.

Almost the first task at hand was the difficult one of clearing grounds of such explosive materials as still remained. This was work that had to be done by men especially qualified by experience in dealing with various types of explosives. During this period the property was thoroughly policed and all would-be trespassers or curiosity seekers warned to stay away.

The fireworks plant was never rebuilt, and in the 22 years that have elapsed the entire appearance of the area has changed to such an extent that little or no trace remains of the tragedy. The site is reached by taking a right turn onto Conestoga road just after going under the overpass of the P. & W. at Strafford. After a short distance one comes tb a large plot of ground on the right where building lots are being sold and small houses erected. Already one ranch type house has been completed at the extreme western edge of the old fireworks company site, and other houses are under construction.

(To be continued)