Thompson Chemical Plant Explosion

January 12, 1964

I remember stories from relatives who lived on South Main Street at Tiffany Street, of being knocked down on the porch of the house and having windows blown in. This must have been a terrifying event for all involved.

The story was national news with the New York Times publishing this account :

ATTLEBORO, Mass., Jan. 12 —An explosion that was heard 25 miles away wrecked a chemical plant here tonight, setting off a fire that raged out of control for six hours. Five employees of the Thompson Chemical Company were known to have been killed and several others were missing. About 40 persons were believed to have been injured. Some were residents of the community near the Thompson plant who were struck by flying glass or affected by shock. The windows of homes and other buildings in a radius of a quarter of a mile were shattered. Residents were evacuated by policemen and National Guardsmen as a precaution against new explosions and poisonous fumes. The main line of the New Haven Railroad, which runs past the Thompson plant, was blocked, holding up the Merchants Limited from New York, the Pilgrim from Boston and other trains. The explosion occurred at 6:50 P.M. in a three-story brick building devoted to the manufacture of vinyl chloride resin, an important plastic material. Henry Cutler, 89 years old, who lived 200 feet from the plant, said he heard “a little whistling sound and then a noise just like a bomb.” Witnesses said the roof flew off the building, and was followed by a sea of flame. A row of houses near-by was pushed off foundations. As far as Boston, 25 miles away, the blast sounded like a jet breaking the sound barrier. The flames leaped across a yard to a long warehouse on the Thompson grounds. One of the workmen there, Rober A. Herbert, said the blast had knocked down at least six men in the building, but he thought all had escaped. Plant officials declined to say how many were at work. Fifty cars were in the company parking lot. A second explosion came five minutes after the first one, and a third at 8:30 P.M. Fifty pieces of fire and rescue equipment from dozens of communities in Massachusetts and nearby Rhode Island fought the blaze. At one point, all equipment was ordered away in fear that the flames would set off one of the large storage tanks on the property. The fire was still out of control at midnight, but the tanks held. Firemen in masks then returned to the scene, supported by a foam unit from the Naval Air Station at Quonset, R.I. Irving Jay Farn, vice president and secretary of Thompson Chemical, said he believed there were 10 employees in the building when it blew up. He said he did not know what had happened nor how many had escaped. Residents of the area, known as Hebronville, were evacuated to a schoolhouse. Many were thinly clad. The temperature was in the low 20’s and a snowstorm had been reported due momentarily. The Thompson plant was the scene of a loud but relatively minor explosion last week when a safety valve blew out, injuring a workman slightly. The safety of the plant was a subject of controversy here last spring, when the company applied for permission to increase its storage of napthalene and phthalic anhydride by 225,000 gallons to a total of 340,000 gallons. Councilman Raymond L. Macomber opposed the expansion and denounced the plant as a hazard to the community. He said the local fire company had been called to the plant once a week, on average, with half the calls due to minor fires and the other half to false alarms resulting from the failure of safety gauges. Herbert Mallon, the works manager, replied, “This stuff is safer than gas or oil.” He told the Council that the chemicals could not burn and were not regarded as explosive in their liquid state. The Council approved the expansion.

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