Just like that, out of the blue

WAY BACK WHEN

Other disasters gave little warning

March 13, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Last Sunday, 91 years to the day rescuers were desperately searching the area off Fort McHenry for victims of the Alum Chine disaster, a new generation of rescuers were frantically combing the same waters for survivors of the Seaport Taxi accident.

The Alum Chine, a British tramp steamer, exploded on March 7, 1913, while being loaded with 350 tons of dynamite (nine boxcars' worth) headed to Panama for construction of the new canal.

The ship, named for the deep fissures that overlook Alum Bay in the Isle of Wight, was built in 1905 and was 268 feet long and weighed 1,767 tons.

While stevedores were busily loading the vessel, a horrific explosion roared from its hold at 10:30 a.m. Thirty-three were killed instantly while 60 injured crewman and stevedores fought for their lives in the frigid waters of the Patapsco River.

The blast's concussion was so great tremors were felt as far away as Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J.

Debris roared through the air and rained down two miles from the scene as an ominous nuclear-like mushroom cloud gathered and rose high above the harbor.

"The Alum Chine was itself rent into a thousand pieces by her death-dealing cargo. The ship leaped into the air. Then there came a crash and a flare, fragments of iron, steel, woodwork and cases that contained the explosives were hurled hundreds of feet into the air and the ship - or what was left of her - sank beneath the waters," reported The Sun.

"Many of the men who were on the Alum Chine and on the barge from which the vessel was being loaded were caught face to face with the selection of instant death through the flames or explosion or a fight for life in the swirling waters," said the newspaper.

An inquest several days later determined it was a stevedore's bale hook stuck into a case of dynamite that caused the explosion. James I. Keith, a dynamite expert, disagreed with that conclusion and blamed the explosion on spontaneous combustion in the ship's coal bunkers.

The Alum Chine was back in the news in the late 1970s and early '80s, when divers working on construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel found chunks of metal thought to be remnants of the 1814 British bombardment of the fort. They were later determined to be remains of the old ship.

Baltimore Harbor and environs are not immune from the savage winds that from time to time seem to appear out of nowhere and cause such disasters as that which wrecked the Seaport Taxi last week.

Showers and thunderstorms forecast for Baltimore on July 20, 1902, were nothing out of the ordinary for a typical warm summer Sunday.

But at 1 p.m., the skies darkened as a gale with winds of more than 64 mph and a pelting rain swept over the harbor and city. The temperature plummeted 25 degrees.

The ferocious storm left 10 dead, unroofed 200 houses, damaged shipping in the harbor and almost "entirely severed telegraphic and telephonic communication with the outside world," reported The Sun.

Falling live wires electrocuted horses on city streets while streetcars ground to a halt. Many majestic old trees were uprooted by the intense storm.

"Just before the storm broke there was a slight lull and then came a blast which warned all that the blow would be one to be remembered," said The Sun. "This blast was marked by the whirlwind features peculiar to the advance wind of a thunderstorm, but the rotary motion was not particularly fierce or destructive."

However, in a moment came the main body of wind that blew 5 3/8 miles in five minutes, or an "equivalent of 64 miles an hour," reported the newspaper.

Out in the unprotected waters of the harbor, Michael Schouler, his wife, and three children were aboard their sloop-yacht Olive, near Lazaretto lighthouse, returning from a trip to Rock Creek, when the storm struck. Schouler survived, but saw his wife and children perish.

The unrelenting winds capsized many small boats in the harbor. Four Highlandtown youths out for a day on the water in a rowboat were trapped by the storm near Taylor's Wharf. Three were rescued by a passing tug, and one drowned.

Six South Baltimore boys weren't as lucky, as three of their party who couldn't swim were swept away and drowned.

The Young America, a skipjack, capsized about a mile and a half off Fort McHenry, and its crew of four was rescued after they were found clinging to the vessel's bottom.

The sloop-yacht Tulip, belonging to C. Hamilton Melbourne, was sunk in 15 feet of water off the Arundel Boat Club's pier.

The storm also damaged many buildings including the steeple of St. Mary, Star of the Sea, Roman Catholic Church on Riverside Avenue. The church and its light in the shape of a star had been a navigational landmark to mariners for years. The storm damage was such that the steeple had to be taken down and rebuilt.

Across the city, the west dial of the clock in the tower of St. Michael's Catholic Church, at Lombard and Wolfe streets, was blown out of its frame by the winds.

"Only 45 minutes elapsed between the first threatening crash of thunder and the last dying murmur as the cloud passed to the northeast, but in that time more damage was done in this city than ordinarily occurs from the same cause in several years," said The Sun.

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