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FATAL EXPLOSION AT MELBOURNE.

AMMUNITION FACTORY PARTLY DESTROYED. THREE GIRLS KILLED.

One of the most pitiful disasters that has occurred in Melbourne took place on September 23 at Footseray, when three young >■.-u.t.11 were killed by an explosion at tho factory of the Colonial Ammunition Company. The shock of the explosion was such that ono of the girls was killed on the spot, and the other two died within a few hours. The first victim was Miss Alice M'L-iod, who was found dead at her post, and tho oihcis were Miss Henrietta Fiizpatrick and .Mis 3 L : zzie Gre.nham, who lingered till the afternoon. The Colonial Ammunition Company's factory is situated ou the west bauk of the Saltwater River, nearly opposite the Flemington racecourse. It hj built on a low-lying river flat, skirted on the west and south by a bank of earth, and i 3 about a quarter of a mile from the Maribyrnong powder magazine. There are but few houses in the immediate vicinity, and that fact had an important influence in the selection of this site when the Government entered into its agreement with the company, of which Captain Asa Whitney is the local manager. Captain Whitney's fit in also have woiks in New Z-jaland, and manufacture the bulk of the military ammunition used in these colonies, besides large supplies of sporting ammunition. The FuoUcruy factory and its machineiy represent an investment of about £25,000. c STATEMENTS OF SURVIVORS The factory consists of one large main buildiug and a number of smaller separate rooms. The finishing rooms are galvanised iron structures, and lio side by side, about 12ft separating them. Tiiey are about 30ft by 20ft in s'z-, and are situated about 25ft away from tho east end of the main building. It was in No. 1 room, which is at the rear, that the explosion occurred. About half past cine o'clock the three girls who were killed were at work there. Alice M'Leod was pressing cartridges at a hand machine ; the other two were finishing off ball cartridges, one being about 20ft away from the girl M'Leod, and the other about 10ft. Their work [ was proceeding apace at times their voices and tho sounds of their labor were heard in the adjoining departments—when suddenly the explosion occurred. Though so dreadful in its results, it dees not appear to have been as terrifying, either as regards sight or sound, as might have been expected. It is differently described by the various employe-?.

Miss Hunting'oj, one of the factory hands, was coming down the hill to work, and when about a quarter of a mile away she heard a rumbling, and then she saw the roof of the room lift up. Through the gap thus made smoke belched out, and for a few seconds articles of various kinds were hurtling through the air, descending on the roofs of the adjoining rooms. Divining at once that an explosion had occurred, and that some of her workmates were at work in the room, Miss Huntingdon wa3 overcome with horror and sank to the ground. Within the building the noise of the explosion was heard by all the employe*. Some l.eard a rumbling which seemed to resound from room to room, while to others it seemed a inulllod roar coming Irom a distance. Most of the emploji':.; however, heard at first the sharp Crack ! crack ! of exploding cartridges, followed by what they described us a pull'.

John Andeison, the head clerk, was in the office, 40ft from the scene cf the explosion. "At first," he says, "I thought two of the horses had backed up against the wall and were pounding the galvanised iron with their hoofs. Then the uoi;o seemed to change, and it was as though a thousand cf biieki were being thrown Bang! bang! bang ! one after another, quick as lightning, against the wall." Captain Whitnty, who was in his office, describes the noise" as resembling two or three cracks, as though single cartridges were b«icg exploded. Tnei) was a kiud of puff, such as is produced when n glass of spirits is on tho fire, though louder. To John Ncilson, the engine-driver, tho noise seemed a deep rumbling. This was followed by the noise of articles falling on the roof. Though variously described, however, all the employed quickly realised its dread significance. Ttiere was an instantaneous rush to tho doors, some going to see what was wrong, others flying to escape they knew what. Just as they reached the open air missiles, composed mostly of exploded cartridge eases, b-gan to descend. Th : s added to the alarm. Many of the girls screamed in affright, and ran about wringing their hands; others rushed towards No. 1 fiuishing room, which was then a heap of ruins, through which flames were already bursting. The explosion had set alight some of the eases, and as the roof and walls fell back after the shock the wooden supports added fuel. Some ono rushed away to the Footscray Fire S.ation to give the alarm. The firebell was tolled, and in a couple cf minutes news of the disaster was spreading from mouth to mouth, bringing men, women, and children in scores to the scene. In the meantime the male employed were at work fighting the flames aDd rescuing those inside the dismantled room.

Hardly had the noise of the explosion died awsy when Captiiu Whitney sprarg from liis ofii e ami iu hid to the room. He hurried inside, picked up one of the he is not sure which—and carried her out burmug himself painfully in the effort. Henry Bennett, another employe, rescued the second girl; but the th'rd-one, Alice M'L?od, seem 3 to have been forgotten. She was nearly buried in debris, and no one saw her. "Is,'s a wonder some of the girls did not tell us she was there," remarked one 'of the men afterwards; " but then perhaps it's wrong to blame them. They were too excited. Mai,y of them were running about the factory screaming, and mo3t of them for the time were like March hares." Neilson, the engine driver, %vho was one of the first to arrive at the burning room, at one) remembsred that there were additional supplies of powder in the factory, and that if the flime3 were not at once checked there was likely to ba another and greater disaster. Hastily running out the . factory hose he poured water on the fhmes, and acting on hia advice others of the men came to hia assistance with buokets of wator.^Gradually they got the flames' under, and in about fifteen minutea the firemen arrived, and they begau turning over the debris, so as the better to get at the firo. Then Neilson relinquished the hose' and stepped amoDgsi tiio ruins. As he did so he saw the body of A lieo JVl'Lcod lying on the floor with the debris piled above it. He called one ef the firemen, who removed the corpse. The fire being entirely subdued in a few minutes attention was directed towards the two girls, who were yet alive, though plainly sinking fast. Daring the half hour that had now elapsed the news of the catastrophe had spread all over the district. Hundreds of people were congregated abaut the factory, and many anxious inquiries were made as to the girls' condition. A TOUCHING SPECTACLE. The body cf Miss M'Leod was conveyed to another part of the premises. It wai terribly burnt and marked all ever, and bore many traces of having experienced the brunt of the explosion. She was nineteen "years of a?p, and lived with her mother, a widow, in Regent street, Yarraville. Miss Greenham, who was seventeen years of age, resided at Southampton street, i l'ootscray, with her mother, also a widow. Sae was carried to a room in the main build- ' mg, where ministering hands softened as far as possible the pain she manifestly was suffering. From the first it was very apparent that it was impossible to, even for a brief time, fan back the flickering flame of life, and as members of the Salvation Army and other denominations stood around they endeavored to offer what'consolation seem»d most appropriate.. She died at half-past two o'clock, hiving partaken of only a small quantity of liquid nourishment in the shape of beef tea extract. The Salvationists held a service in the room. This poor girl's mother was known to be in a delicate state of health, and the painful announcement was delayed as long as possible. Miss Fitzpatrick, who had a very disfiguring scar upon her forehead and a large wound upon her body, was carried to a cottage on the grounds. She regained consciousness, and maintained a remarkably calm, even'

inspiring, demeanor throughout the day. She was naturally of a vivacious temperament, and endeared herself to everybody by' her winsomeness. As her tear-stricken workmates and friends stood around her she impressed upon them that sho felt no pain, but only suffered from a parching thirst, asking for a drink of water. She was able to state that the seat of the explosion wa3 where Miss M'Leod was stationed, and that there was no loose powder abcut. Her mother, a resident of Nicholson street, Footscray, was early apprised of the occurrence, and spsnt the rest of the day with her. A mest touching incident in connection with this poor girl's fate arose. Sho had, with her mother, been an attendant at the Solvation Army meetings, and when Ensign Hanua, an officer cf the Army, appeared, the greeted him with a happy smile, and beckoned him to read her a chapter from the New Testammeut. The 14th chapter of St. John was read, and as the verses were repeated she followed them with marvellous animation, her pallid lips moving all the while. Then she plaintively chanted the well-known hymn ' Rock of Age 3 cleft for me,' which rose from her fervent and strong to meet with a response in every heart there. It dispelled for the moment the natural gloom of such a scene, and she emphasised the effect by the calm assurance that she had no dread for tho coming crisis, but rather welcomed it as a release. PATHETIC INCIDENT. Just then a small boy, who was so agitated as to bo unable to give hi 3 name, rushed to Constable White, breathless aud trembling, and gasped in broken accents "Is she dead t" ~He could only falteringly repeat the one question for a time, but when the kind constable had sufficiently calmed him to ask whom he sought, he said he wanted to know, " please, about my poor sister, Hettie." "Is she dead : " he in piteous accents asked, and upon the constable giving his assurance that she was not he could not believe it, because " a boy had told him." The poor little fellow was taken in hand ; but while the reassuring and kindly meant words were literally true, the sweet voice of the happy singing girl was growing feebler. Her pulse was flickering gradually lower, and at half-past three she passed away serenely to sleep, while all in that little gathering bowed their heat's, moved to profoundest depths of feeling by what they had seen and heard. When it became necessary to remove the body, after it had been laid out, strong men volunteered to carry the stretcher upon which it lay, but the offer was declined, and Miss Armstrong and Miss J. Doherty, gently lifiirlg it, said that they would prefer to do that poor service for " their dear friend and workmate, Hettie," and they walked, followed by a train of reverent men and women, to the main building, where they laid her by her companions of a few hours ago. She was seventeen years of age. TItACINO THE CAUSE. Everyone coon-.cted with the factory appeared to be quite unable to account for tho explosion, which is regarded as a mystery which may. never be explaiocd. Doubtless, with the death cf Miss M'Leod aud the destruction of the cartridges she wa3 handling, all positive evidence has been lost. Indeed, tho poor girl herself would scarcely bs able to toll ho;v it happened. Oae theory is that a piece of grit had got among the powder, and the friction of squeezing down the chnige fired the powder. It is not likely, however, that this simple motion would generate the intense heat required to ignite the powder, even if there were grit in tho charge. For the sime reason the pressure of the tamping drift woild not be likely to ignite the powder without the pressure cf a foreign substance. There are other ac's which point to a reasonable explanation. It is usual to load the cartridges ia such stages that the insertion of the cap which fires tho charg) is one of the last operations ; and for a very obvious reason In the C2ntr.il fire eystem, which is now practically univer?a>, the cap fits into a cup in the iron base of the cartridge, over a little tongue or "anvil" made to resist the blow of the pin. Any violent blowon the cap may explode o, cartridg?. Iu this instance it'happened that the' blank cartridge cases under treatment were not new cardboard c;ues of the usual pattern, nor yet new brass cases, but were rejected bill cartridge cases of rolled bra=.s iu the process of working up for blank ammunition, with the cips alreuly in them. If a cap stood tut above the base of the cartridge it would certainly be exposed to percussion, and in the hurry of p-.ssing the cases through the machine it may have been~ possible that such a cap received a sharp blow. The process of tamping the powder i 3 carried on at a speed of up to 10,000 cases par clay, or over 1,200 psr hour. It is feasible that in working at such a pace the girl placed a Gase in a position which threw the weight of the blow on a protruding cap.

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Permanent link to this item

https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18971012.2.28

Bibliographic details

FATAL EXPLOSION AT MELBOURNE., Evening Star, Issue 10443, 12 October 1897

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2,342

FATAL EXPLOSION AT MELBOURNE. Evening Star, Issue 10443, 12 October 1897

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