NEW CASTLE —
Less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Edward Olmstead Jr. spotted something most hoped never to see.
“I was going someplace that day; I think I was out on Wilmington Road,” said Olmstead, who was just 20 years old on July 6, 1964. “I felt and saw an explosion. Then a mushroom cloud appeared shortly thereafter.”
It wasn’t nuclear Armegeddon. But the billowing smoke signaled tragedy, nonetheless.
The first of what would be four explosions had just rocked American Cyanamid, an explosives manufacturing plant near Edinburg. Olmstead, a Neshannock Township firefighter, turned around and reported to his station. There, he and Alfred DeCarbo jumped into the department’s ambulance — “pretty much a load and haul operation back then; no paramedics or EMTs,” he said — and headed for the facility.
The legacy of that day is a grim one. Five men were killed, and a sixth — an Edinburg constable — suffered a fatal heart attack while directing traffic at the site. For Olmstead, though, it was an eye opener.
“I was a bit concerned about going in the ambulance,” he said. “My first aid training was Boy Scouts; nothing like the emergency medical training of today.”
Olmstead never entered the detonation zone at the plant. Instead, his ambulance waited in a nearby field until eventually, he and his partner had an injured man to transport.
“Two things came out of that for me,” Olmstead said. “One, that I wanted to be a firefighter, but also, that I never wanted to be in a situation again where I felt so unprepared.”
Olmstead went on to carve out a career as a firefighter, retiring in 1993 as chief of the Ithaca (N.Y.) Fire Department. Along the way, he embraced every training opportunity that came his way, and ultimately found himself among the first group of emergency medical technicians in the Ithaca department. He became an adjunct instructor at the New York Fire Academy, and today, he helps each year to organize the nation’s largest conference of fire department instructors in Indianapolis.
Throughout his career, though, he never again experienced another American Cyanamid.
“Nothing that big,” he said. “I experienced a lot of other stuff, a lot of it very dramatic, but nothing with the ferocity of that explosion. It’s just incredible to me the amount of force that was released that day.
“I’ve never forgotten it. And when you’re sitting around the fire station telling stories — ‘You should have seen the one I was at’ — that was always one of the stories. I was a 20-year-old kid, and it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”
Another Neshannock Township youth pressed into action when American Cyanamid blew was Alan Candioto.
Now a resident of Fort Wayne, Ind., Candioto was a Neshannock High student who worked part time in the kitchen at Jameson Hospital, where his normal duties consisted of cleaning, mopping, washing dishes and occasionally assisting one of the chefs in cooking meals.
That changed on the morning of July 6, 1964.
“We were quickly notified of the explosion at Cyanamid and told to immediately implement the Disaster Emergency Plan that the hospital had in place,” Candioto recalled. “Under that plan, all employees had been given assignments to provide the necessary manpower to respond to such an emergency. We anticipated the arrival of multiple casualties.”
Candioto’s assignment was to head out to Wilmington Avenue in front of the hospital and to assist in directing traffic.
“Traffic was to proceed as normal, except when an ambulance was heard approaching,” he said. “It was then my duty to stop all traffic and to clear the area for the arrival of the emergency equipment. That happened several times during my assigned time.
“Motorists were pretty good in obeying my directions, despite the fact that I continued to wear my long white cook’s apron and my little white hat that was required when working with food products. I can only imagine what people thought when they saw me in the middle of the street making all sorts of hand motions.”