Monday, July 18, 2016

Dad's Memories of the Sheridan Park Volunteer Firemen of Tonawanda NY

Alger Gochenour
Emma Becker Gochenour
My dad Gene Gochenour wrote a memoir of his life from 1935 until 1963 when he lived in Tonawanda, NY.

My grandfather Alger Gochenour, father Gene Gochenour, Uncle Dave Ramer, (and perhaps other family) were part of the Sheridan Park Volunteer Fire Company during the 1950s.

My Aunt Alice wrote me saying, she remembered the firemen would practice first aid on her, wrapping her arm or legs in bandages. And even I remember going to the field days and parades the firemen held.

Al Gochenour, Fire Chief at his Military Rd house

Sheridan Park Volunteer Fire Co. Dist. 4
Town of Tonawanda NY
Here is an excerpt from Dad's memoirs called Volunteer Fireman Stories: 

"I belonged to the Sheridan Park Volunteer Fire Company during the fifties.

"One day as I was working at the station a huge explosion happened less than a half mile away. A plant called The Lucidol Corporation blew up. They made epoxy resin there and the dust in the plant exploded.

"I was at the scene in a few minutes and saw a fireman I knew. He worked at the plant and he was spraying the fire with a small hose. I went up to help him but just then the first fire truck arrived and I went with them to hook up the truck to a fire hydrant. The fire hydrant was on the far side of another building, and when we got there there was another explosion. It blew out all the windows in the building we were standing by. The fireman I almost joined was hurt during the second explosion and went to the hospital. Had I been with him, I would have gone to the hospital too! The first explosion killed thirteen people. It blew off the end of a nearby house, and the wall of a steel warehouse a quarter of a mile away was cracked in several places.
"One day the fire siren went off and I drove to the fire station to find where it was. Both fire trucks had left by the time I got there, but there was bulletin board at the fire hall with a message telling late arriving firemen where the fire was. A 50,000 gallon gas tank was on fire at the Richfield Refining terminal on River Road.

"When I got there I saw an above ground storage tank burning. The flames reached high into the sky. The fire was so hot that even with our rubber coats and boots and steel helmets, we could not get close.

"The only way we could put out a gas fire was to spray a fire retardant foam on it. While we were hooking up the foam making device we saw a burning truck come driving out of the burning garage. It must have been parked in low gear, then the starter shorted, causing it to drive itself out of the garage. Once the foam device was set up, we could work our way close to the fire and put it out.
"On another occasion we were called to a steel mill where a huge cupola full of molten iron had spilled into a subterranean room. We took turns spraying water on it to cool it. As we sprayed the water, it turned to steam so we had to take turns handling the hose. Many hours later it was decided there was no more threat, and we left. It took many days for it to completely cool, and I don’t know what they did with all that iron on the floor!
"One of the calls we had was to go to the housing project [Sheridan Park war time housing, or The Projects] where a house had blown up. When we got there, we saw that one end of a duplex house was not burning, but the wall had been blown off. The story was that the lady who lived there had put gasoline in her washing machine thinking it would take the grease out of her husbands work clothes. We will never know if it worked, but luckily she was at the other end of the house when it blew and did not get hurt.
"A gasoline tanker caught fire right under the Grand Island bridge. The flame was coming out of the last compartment of the tanker. Had the fire spread, it could have been a disaster. But one smart and brave fireman climbed up the ladder on the tanker and closed the cover of the compartment, extinguishing the fire. The truck was only a few blocks from the terminal where it had just been loaded. How the cover got left off and the fire started we did not know.
"There were many field fires during the spring and fall. Most of them were caused by railroad steam engines or people burning leaves or trash. We had a small fire truck that was used at field fires. It had a large water tank and it carried many brooms. The truck would be driven to the field, then the driver would drive along the fire line, upwind of the flames, and another fireman would spray the flames using the water hose on the truck. The rest of the firemen followed, stamping out the remaining flames using the brooms. That was a hot, smoky job on a hot day!"

The September 23, 1953 Lucidol explosion is well known in Tonawanda history. Eleven people were killed and 17 injured. The plant was situated at 1740 Military Road at Sheridan Park Drive.

Read the 1953 Tonawanda Evening News headline article here.

The explosion knocked out telephone service and the Sheridan Park Fire Department siren!

I found an account of the incident written by a local pastor here. He wrote,
"...a distant explosion broke my peace. It was followed by a resounding impact against the outside wall. My window shook with the force of the impact. I jumped to my feet and ran to the window. Off in the distance, in the direction of our church property, a high mushroom-like cloud was forming in the air. I moved quickly out the door, pulling on my jacket as I raced down the stairs. I jumped into our car and headed in the direction of the cloud. The cloud hovered in the air against a clear blue Fall sky. As I drove down Sheridan Drive toward Elmwood Avenue, the cloud was spreading out over the Military Road area. I turned onto Elmwood and stopped at Homewood Avenue leaving the car at our property site. I hurried down Homewood.
""What happened?" I asked Mare Krauss. "There was a terrfic explosion at the Lucidol plant. It shook everythg in our house. We lost some windows." Marie Krauss told me. Elva Graf added: "There are bodies all over the place." I ran toward Military Road, which was at the end of Homewood. Military Road ran north and south. It was dotted with industrial plants built to access the cheap electric power of Niagara Falls.
A crowd had already gathered outside the chain fence of Lucidol, one of the many chemical plants which dotted the Military Road. The police began moving people back to the other side of Military Road away from the fence. Fire engines were on the grounds of the plant inside, some were still arriving. The sirens of ambulances from the Kenmore and Buffalo hospitals could be heard coming in all directions. The police continued cordoning off the area around the plant and moved the crowd to the other side of Military Road. 
 "One glance showed the extent of the destruction. Crumpled steel, and loose boards and brick were strewn across the ground. One building had been blown apart - the site of the explosion. The Lucidol plant had been a low level plant, probably no higher than two or three stories. Smoke and low level fie were still coming out of several buildings. One could see bodies lying in disarray across the plant property. It was difficult to tell how many people had died in the explosion." 
An article about the explosive material that caused the blast is found here.


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