View Full Version : 90 years ago, island in New York Harbor blew up from suspected WWI sabotage

07-31-06, 06:54 AM
90 years ago, island in New York Harbor blew up from suspected WWI sabotage

By: RICHARD PYLE - Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- The sound of the blast was unearthly, and the tremor was felt 100 miles away in Philadelphia. The night sky over New York Harbor turned orange. People were jolted from bed and windows shattered within 25 miles.

The Statue of Liberty, less than a mile away, was damaged by a rain of red-hot shards of steel. Frightened immigrants on Ellis Island were hastily evacuated to Manhattan.

The epicenter of the blast -- a small island called Black Tom -- all but disappeared in what was then the largest explosion ever in the U.S., on Sunday, July 30, 1916 at 2:08 a.m.

It destroyed about 2,000 tons of munitions parked in freight cars and pierside barges, awaiting transfer to ships and ultimately destined for the World War I battlefields of France.

Evidence pointed to German sabotage, and some historians regard it as the first major terrorist attack on the United States by a foreign party -- 85 years before the 9/11 attacks.

Marked today by a plaque in New Jersey's Liberty State Park, the blast site lies less than two miles from lower Manhattan and within sight of where the World Trade Center towers stood.

Black Tom was one of several World War I plots given little attention as time passed.

A 1989 book, "Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany's Secret War in America, 1914-1917," by former Washington Post reporter Jules Witcover, details plots that also included infecting horses bound for war duty with anthrax. "Black Tom was the centerpiece of everything that was done," Witcover said in an interview.

In 1916, the United States was officially neutral but supported the Allies, led by Britain, against the Central Powers -- Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Germany also was barred from buying American munitions, a further reason for its agents to engage in sabotage.

"There was no question about Black Tom being an act of terror, and I believe the Germans were responsible -- their spy network was based here in Hudson County -- but the case has never truly been solved," said John Gomez, a historian and founder of Jersey City's landmarks conservancy. "I think the real answers are still in Germany."

Black Tom was an especially ripe target, isolated at the end of a mile-long rail causeway and accessible by water. According to Witcover's book, investigators found security was lax and company officials had violated rules for storing explosives.

It was perhaps miraculous that only seven people were killed, among them a barge captain, two policemen and a child tossed from a crib in Jersey City. Black powder, TNT and ammunition continued to "cook off" through the dawn and into daylight.

A recent study theorized that the force of the Black Tom blast would have been equal to a 5.5-magnitude earthquake, more than 30 times greater than the collapse of the World Trade Center's north tower, which registered 2.3 at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Palisades, N.Y.

German suspects fled the country after being identified through a secret message, written in lemon juice and visible only when held over a flame. Tracked to Latin America, agent Lothar Witzke told investigators that he and fellow spy Kurt Jahnke had triggered the blast, then nearly drowned in the waves it generated.

Although no one was ever convicted, a postwar claims commission weighed demands by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which owned the island, and other companies for reparations by Germany. In 1939, on the cusp of World War II, the commission found Germany liable for $95 million in damages. The then-Nazi regime refused to pay. The case was finally settled in 1979.

The accusations of skullduggery devastated Jersey City's once-thriving German community, says Gomez, but "a lot of stained-glass makers, including the Germans, had big business replacing church windows."

One such window, at Our Lady of Czestowchowa Catholic church, is the only memorial to the victims of the blast.

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