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July 4, 2014

American Cyanamid Blast, Part 1: Life was good before deadline 1964 explosion

NEW CASTLE — At 65, Rich Schenker still remembers the first time he took the football field at Wilmington Area High.

“It was my first game,” the New Wilmington resident said. “I got out there, and I looked up in the stands. Every son wants to see his dad sitting up there. It just didn’t happen.

“I could hear my mom hollering with everybody else — but it just wasn’t Dad.”

Donald Schenker would never see his son play, or even get to watch him grow into a man. On July 6, 1964, at age 38, he was one of five men killed in series of four terrifying blasts at American Cyanamid, an explosives manufacturing plant near Edinburg.

Also killed that day were Eugene Rudesill, 45, of New Castle; Gerald Wingard, 30, of Mount Jackson; Wilbur Robison, 49, of New Castle; and Clarence Claypool, 63, of New Castle. Edinburg constable Patsy Deprano died as well, suffering a fatal heart attack while directing traffic at the scene.

It wasn’t the first time an explosion had claimed lives at the facility. Six men had died in 1940 and 1947 blasts, and a seventh was killed in 1956.

The explosions that occurred 50 years Sunday ago, though, signaled the beginning of the end for the plant, which had opened around 1904 as the Burton Powder Works and was still referred to by many local residents as “the powder plant.” The gelatin line — where all but the 1956 blast occured — was never rebuilt, Schenker said, and the location closed for good in 1972.

The shutdown put an end to a facility whose products, according to local author Wayne A. Cole, had ranged from dynamite used in the construction of the Panama Canal to rocket fuel in the 1960s and ’70s.

HARD WORK AND SOFTBALL

Men who recall working at American Cyanamid do so today with mixed emotions. They mourn those who died, but they also remember fondly the time they spent in the company’s employ.

Schenker, who signed on to work at the plant a few years after his father was killed — “Curiosity,” he shrugged — found a fellowship he never experienced on any other job.

“We always said it was family,” he noted. “On weekends, we were always off and you went to someone’s house for a picnic, beer or something. Nicest bunch of guys you could ever want.

“There was no pushing, shoving, swearing, fights — none of that. I screwed up a few times, and you’d get that look, and you knew you were wrong, and that was the end of it. I put in 30 years in the steel mill (after American Cyanamid closed), and out of all that, there’s only two guys I still talk to. But these guys, I try to keep in touch with them, send them Christmas cards, things like that.”

One legend that lives on is that the plant looked for more than just competent employees who could be trusted in a literally explosive work environment — it also recruited softball players.

“If you could play ball, you had a job,” Schenker said. “That was the deal, I guess.”

Bill Wise, a retired New Castle Area School District teacher and guidance counselor, remembers it the same way. He was on the plant’s softball team during the summers he worked at the facility while going to college.

“I didn’t have any relatives working there,” Wise said of landing a spot on the American Cyanamid payroll. “There was a kid named Cowboy Altman and Jim Donston, and they had a ball team. The company wasn’t going to sponsor them unless they started winning.

“So they said, ‘Listen, you gotta let us have some guys to come out here to work.’ So George Waggoner, myself and a number of us, we went to work.”

One can debate whether the company actually looked to hire ballplayers, but there’s no denying its team prospered. On the weekend before the fatal 1964 explosions, the squad had played in a national tournament in Toledo, Ohio, winning five games and advancing to the semifinals before being eliminated.

“We were emerging; we were starting to play good, industrial league ball,” Wise said. “We had played some of the better teams in the country in Toledo, and we were feeling pretty good because we were starting to play with the Ford Motor Co. and those big companies — even though they couldn’t pronounce our name.”

SUMMER BONANZA

Softball, though, wasn’t the biggest benefit to working summers at American Cyanamid.

“It paid my entire way through Slippery Rock,” Wise said of his college days. “I made $1.90 an hour down the line (where explosives actually were being made) and $1.80 if I worked up on the hill, where it was a little safer. It was 1964 — one hour’s work bought me eight gallons of gas.

“I made about $150 in two weeks, which paid for a whole semester at Slippery Rock. In a month, I had my entire tuition paid for the year. So when I reflect on that day, it was truly tragic. But when I look back on my life, I am so thankful. What could a kid do today to, in maybe 15 weeks of work, pay for a year at Slippery Rock?”

George Waggoner, a coworker and teammate of Wise, has similar memories.

“I still have many friends from my ball-playing days, and when we get together, the famous July day comes up,” said Waggoner, now retired and living in Florida after 20 years of teaching and coaching and 25 years in the insurance industry.

“It is sad that people lost their lives. But for a 20-year-old guy, it was an experience I’ll never forget. It was a way to help pay for college and to start a family.”

THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE

In such an atmosphere of camaraderie and opportunity, some may have chosen not to dwell on a possible repeat of the fatal blasts of 1940, 1947 and 1956.

“I never worried about it; maybe my mom did,” Schenker said of the days his father went off to work at American Cyanamid. “I knew most of the guys before I ever went out there. They’d come to our house, or we’d go to theirs, and he’d talk about them.

“It was interesting. I was proud that my dad made dynamite. I thought that was cool.”

Smithfield, Va., resident Mike Kearns was 7 years old and living in Union Township on the day of the 1964 blast. His dad, Patrick F. “Mickey” Kearns Jr., worked as a carpenter at American Cyanamid. Like Rich Schenker, Kearns didn’t think much about what went on at the plant.

“After the explosion, you wondered, ‘Could it happen again? Was it safe for him to go back in there?’ he said. “But before that, you really didn’t think about it. I mean, it occurred to you, but nothing ever happened, so you figured it was safe.”

Not so with Dale Cunningham. Now 86, the man perhaps best known as a local auctioneer was a year-round truck driver at the plant 50 years ago.

“You always worried it could happen,” he said, “and where you’d be. I might be here, I might be there. There were guys hurt in the explosion who were further away from it than I was.”

On the morning of July 6, 1964, though, Wise had no such concerns as he began his shift.

“I was feeling good,” he said. “It was my second summer there; never gave a thought to what we were dealing with. I’m thinking, ‘this is great.’ It was cool, one of those beautiful July mornings, and we were just doing our thing.

“And then it just — I’ve never heard anything like that, never felt anything like that. The world as I knew it just literally exploded.”

(Tomorrow: “Everything was dark, and stuff was falling out of the sky.”)

 

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