By George DeFeis, Intern, Media Relations
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Since the opening of the Holland Tunnel in November 1927, a number of minor fires had occurred within the tunnel, all of which were handled without incident. In the spring of 1949, an unusual fire underscored the potential hazards that exist in the day-to-day transport of hazardous materials through the tunnel. The fire started around 8:30 a.m. when a drum of carbon disulfide fell off a trailer truck on Friday, May 13 about a third of the way into the tunnel. The highly flammable chemical leaked out onto the hot surfaces of the truck. In 1949, trucks were required to display decals to signify the transportation of dangerous cargo. This tractor-trailer entered the tunnel without decals, and police were completely unaware of the potentially hazardous chemicals moving through the tunnel. Had they known, the fire might never have occurred as the truck would have been redirected to one of the bridges instead.
Minutes after the fire began, Port Authority Police officers started helping drivers escape to safety. Just after 9 a.m., the Port Authority realized the intensity of the blaze required help from the Jersey City Fire Department and the New York City Fire Department. Firemen entered the eastbound tube from the New Jersey side and worked their way through more than a hundred automibiles, buses and trucks. Progress was slow due to the heavy fumes. It was a step-by-step process until the nearest truck fires were extinguished. By 10:15 a.m., all the vehicles not on fire had been removed from the Jersey entrance, which simplified fire fighting efforts. By 1:00 p.m., the fire had been largely controlled.
The flames spewing from the truck caused a chain reaction that exacerbated the situation. Four nearby trucks caught fire almost instantly, and as the fire expanded, five additional trucks a few hundred feet behind were also set ablaze.
The tunnel fire destroyed inner walls and the ceiling for a distance of 600 feet. Ten large trucks were completely burned. Thirteen other trucks were partially damaged. Authorities later called it “miraculous” that most of the passenger cars and buses in the tunnel were not involved. Three bus loads of children were stopped at the entrance of the tunnel when the fire occurred. In total, ten trucks were destroyed, dozens of cars lost, and 600 feet of tunnel was badly damaged. The fire caused $1 million in damages or an estimated $7.5 million in today’s dollars.
The fire also caused the disruption of telephone, telegraph, radio and television connections between New York and points south and west of the Hudson. Some 2600 long distance message circuits that depended on five cables laid through the tunnel were put out of service. More than 650 tons of debris were removed from the tunnel by a crew working round-the-clock.
After extinguishing the fire, the emergency crews worked for the next 16 hours before they were able to remove the charred remains of the trucks involved. One of the trucks contained large rolls of newsprint which continued to smolder long after the truck was removed.
The driver who caused the ordeal received little more than a slap on the wrist: a $50 fine and five days in jail. However, this fire resulted in new rules and harsher penalities for those who violated protocol. Thanks to the effort of all involved, the Holland Tunnel was up and functional just two days after the incident.