TODAY, Wednesday, Oct. 15, Philadelphia Fire Fighters’ Union Local 22 will be honoring the firefighters killed in the line of duty at the Charles W. Berg Laboratories in 1954.
At 11 a.m., a memorial plaque will be unveiled at the northeast corner of City Hall, pointed in the direction of Berg Labs, which was located at 5th and Berks streets, now a vacant lot.
My uncle, Deputy Chief Thomas A. Kline, my father’s brother, was one of the firefighters killed on that fateful day.
Reports of ammonia fumes in the vicinity of 5th and Berks streets in North Philadelphia came into the Fire Department just after 6 a.m. As a deputy chief, Uncle Tom was one of the first on the scene, responding with his battalion chief, John Magrann.
As they arrived, a 4,000-gallon aluminum-alloy tank full of hydrochloric acid (which played a role in World War I days as an ingredient in creating one of the battlefield poison gases) exploded from a heat and pressure buildup.
Uncle Tom was killed instantly when a steel bolt used to hold the tank together slammed him in the head from the catastrophic force of the blowout. It threw him several feet into a brick wall, and his helmet was found 30 feet up on the roof of the Berg Labs building.
Along with Kline and Magrann, Battalion Chief John J. News, firefighters Bernard Junod, Joe Vivian, Tom Wilson, Lt. Charles Holtzman, Jimmy Doyle, Joe Bandos and James Tygh gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Many of the deaths were a result of the release of poisonous chemicals like phosgene.
Firefighters were pulled out of the blast area covered in a dark burning syrupy liquid that suffocated them.
Others died directly from the blast, with crushed chests and lungs. Twenty-three other firefighters and two city police officers were severely injured that day as well, and, 54 years later, we will honor their memory and the ultimate price they paid in their service to the city and its citizens.
I come from a firefighter family. LINK
Sometimes we actually see the human side of our politicians. It’s rare, but it does happen. Such is the case with Councilwoman Joan Krajewski; one of the more respected members of an otherwise dysfunctional Philadelphia City government. Her story in today’s Daily News is a personalized account of the most tragic day in the history of the Philadelphia Fire Department. The day of the Berg explosion.
The explosion of this chemical lab in 1954 killed 11firefighters (not all instantly) and touches many, many Philadelphians to this day. The tragic event was the genesis of today’s Police and Fire Hero Scholarship Thrill Show. The “Thrill Show” as it’s known around town was set up after this incident to provide college educations for the children of cops and firemen who are killed in the line of duty. Back in 1954 such social protections did not exist. Survivors of those who paid the ultimate price in service to the citizens of this city were often left impoverished after the loss. The show continues to this day.
On October 28, 1954, at 6:07 AM, Engine 2, Ladder 3 and Battalion 6 were dispatched to 1827-29 N 5th Street to investigate fumes coming from the Charles W. Berg Laboratories building. Upon arrival, companies forced entry into the building and were searching for the source of the fumes when they saw a puff of smoke coming from a large tank in the rear yard. After all the fire companies called were on scene the tank exploded, hurling pieces of metal at the firefighters and releasing its poisonous contents. In all, eleven members of the Philadelphia Fire Department died as a result of injuries received at this incident. During November 1954, City Council, at the urging of the mayor and the Fire and Police Commissioners, established the Survivor’s Fund. This fund was established as a result of the Berg explosion. Payments of ten thousand dollars were provided to the families of firefighters and policemen killed in the line of duty and educational scholarships were provided for all dependent children. Today, the proceeds of the annual Thrill Show go toward the funding of these scholarships.
There are relatives of some of the firefighters killed at the Berg still on the job. Their memories are of loved ones lost in another era. Their pain may be diminished by time, but it can never be eliminated. The Berg job still lives on in our memories and our realities. Kids who grew up without fathers, wives who lost husbands, brothers and sisters who lost siblings. Is it any wonder why Firefighters are obsessed with history, tradition, and pride? We have paid for our place in American history with service and lives. Our legacy is tragedy and heroism.
One firefighter who was seriously injured at the Berg recently passed away. He was listed in a newspaper article from that day and, by chance, I saw his name listed in the local obituaries. He lived for many years after that day with the pain and memories. Undoubtedly, his life was never the same after.
So today we remember those men killed and injured at the Berg. A tragic day that lives on in our collective memories. A day that sobers us to the chances we take and the price we pay. A day to honor our traditions and remember our history.