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July 7, 2014

American Cyanamid Blast, Part 3: Tears, questions and heroics all surfaced 50 years ago

NEW CASTLE — What happened?

In the minutes and hours following the deadly July 6, 1964, blasts at American Cyanamid, that question would be asked often.

What happened to cause the explosions?

What happened to co-workers who couldn’t be found?

And for employees’ families, what’s become of my husband or father?

Smithfield, Va., resident Mike Kearns was 7 years old that morning and playing outside at his Union Township home. At 10:30 a.m., he recalls “feeling the ground shake, the house shake and seeing this big white cloud of smoke rising above Union Area High and the tree line. We heard on the radio there’d been an explosion at the American Cyanamid plant, and we knew Dad was working there.”

Patrick F. “Mickey” Kearns Jr. was a carpenter at the explosives manufacturing plant, and he later would tell his family that when the first blast went off, he had taken cover under a workbench that he had built himself, and that he had been staying at the site to help with recovery efforts. But in the hours before he was able to call his family with that news, uncertainly and fear hung over the Kearns home as thick as the billowing smoke.

“It made for a long afternoon,” Mike Kearns said. “There were no cell phones around then. We’d listen for updates on the radio, but we still didn’t hear from Dad. It was a scary event for a young person like me. I had a younger brother and sister, but I don’t think they realized what was going on.

“But I sure did. You didn’t know whether your dad was going to come home that night. It was an experience you don’t forget.”

DEVASTATING NEWS

For Rich Schenker, 15, and living in New Bedford, it was a day that would change his life. His father, Donald, was one of five men killed in the explosion. And the news arrived in the worst possible way.

Schenker’s dad worked in Building 362, the stuffer house where the first of four blasts took place. Schenker’s mother was in the hospital, and his grandmother was staying with him and his twin toddler siblings.

“We didn’t know anything had happened,” Schenker said. “It might have been three o’clock, and my uncle pulled in. I was outside. My uncle didn’t come in and he didn’t stay. He just asked, ‘Is the paper here yet?’ I said ‘no,’ and he said “OK’ and left.

“I thought that was kind of weird, so when I saw the paper go, I went out and got it. I’m walking down the driveway, and I read it in the newspaper. That was the first I saw it.”

Minutes later, Schenker’s uncle returned and found him reading the paper. “He says, ‘I see you found out.’ I say, ‘yeah.’ He said, ‘Does Grandma know?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t go in yet.’ So he went in the house, and she was putting plates on the table, and he says, ‘Mom, there’s been an accident at the mill with Don.’

“We had one of those little islands in the kitchen, and she bent over that island and she beat that table. She’s saying, ‘World War II — I get two boys come home without a scratch on them. Then this happens!’

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