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July 5, 2014

American Cyanamid Blast, Part 2: Workers were all too aware of what could go wrong — then it did

NEW CASTLE — Nobody ever reported for work at American Cyanamid expecting to die.

But neither did anyone believe it couldn’t happen.

Having already experienced deadly blasts in 1940, 1947 and 1956, the explosives manufacturing plant near Edinburg, according to Chester J. Hoover, recognized that its enterprise “was a deadly serious business, and the company was big on safety.”

Hoover and his father, also named Chester, both were working at the plant on July 6, 1964, when a series of four explosions killed five employees and destroyed five buildings. He recalls in an oral history that he provided to the Lawrence County Historical Society that upon arrival at work, employees would enter a “dress house,” where they would “dress out in white pants, shirts and hats. All items of metal, like our car keys, were left in the dress house. Nothing of metal was allowed at the work site to avoid any possibility that a spark could ignite the dust.

“When the day was done, we would return to the dress house, remove the white uniforms and shower, removing all the explosive powder-dust from our bodies.”

Still, despite such precautions, plant veterans recognized the potential for disaster. Hoover recalls that on his first day of work at age 24, a veteran employee took him inside the mix house, where powder was mixed with nitroglycerin to form a substance with the consistency of wallpaper paste. That substance was gravity-fed through lines to the gelatin pack house, where it would — in a process similar to stuffing a sausage — emerge from a horn or nozzle and be packed into a tube.

“The paste had to maintain a constant temperature to remain stable,” Hoover said. “The old veteran explained to me that it was my job to watch the wheel (that mixed the powder and nitro) for sparks, so I earnestly began watching.

“He followed up those instructions with ‘as soon as you see a spark, put your head between your knees and kiss your a** goodbye.’ ”

It was a worst-case scenario described with gallows humor. But at 10:30 a.m. on July 6, 1964, it became a terrible reality.

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