A policeman sounded alarm box 72 at Utah and Iron streets about
9:55 p.m. when he noticed smoke coming from a warehouse near Arizona Street.
Men from the Butte Fire Department — located in Butte’s old City Hall on Broadway — quickly loaded up the horse-drawn ladder wagon and rushed to the scene.
Less than 12 minutes later most of these men would be blown to pieces.
One hundred and
seventeen years after the giant blasts shook the Mining City, the Kenyon-Connell Warehouse
explosion remains the deadliest disaster for the Butte Fire Department. The 13 firefighters who died on that frosty evening of Jan. 15, 1895, will be honored as part of the International Association of Fire Fighters Motorcycle Group rally, which runs Monday through Thursday in Butte.
Rick Ryan, Butte battalion chief, said one reason the national organization chose to have its annual rally in Butte is to show respect for the firefighters lost on that tragic evening.
“Nearly the entire fire department was wiped out in that explosion,” Ryan said.
The 1895 blast killed
57 people, including seven full-time firefighters and six part-time firefighters. The dead also included people of all ages and nationalities. The youngest victim was
12-year-old F.G. Frazier. A 15-year-old William Smith from New York killed in the blast was described in publications at the time as “colored.”
The first firefighters
to arrive at the scene immediately attacked the dynamite-fueled fire, which was burning inside the warehouse. Assistant Chief Jack Flannery said the building’s metal siding glowed red-hot from the extreme heat.
Flannery’s job was to attach the fire hose to the plug several yards from the burning warehouse. This would ultimately save his life. While he worked on the plug, his fellow firefighters ran into the teeth of death.
The first explosion was reported at the Kenyon-Connell warehouse about 10:08 p.m. As people rushed in to look for
survivors, a second explosion occurred at the nearby Butte Hardware Co. warehouse.
Flannery described the gruesome scene as he sifted through the twisted metal and burning debris to find his comrades
“Human bodies lay piled two deep; some writhing and moaning in their dying agonies, but the great number were silent forever,” he wrote.
Butte’s current battalion chief John Paull has researched the deadly blast over the past few years. As a longtime firefighter, Paull said he’s always had a connection to this disaster.
“I just couldn’t believe what happened to those guys,” he told The Montana Standard. “They went out that night thinking they were just going to put out a stove fire.”
These men could never have expected such an incredible explosion. Paull said there were reports at the time that the blast was heard from as far away as Willow Creek and Three Forks. Debris was found more than four miles from the blast scene.
Several spectators were killed or wounded by bits of flaming debris that shot from the blast site.
Paull noted that the warehouses stored hundreds of 6-inch by 4-inch iron blocks that were used as skimming tools in the smelter. In the giant blast, these “rabble heads” became deadly rockets.
“These were like pieces of shrapnel flying everywhere,” Paull said.
One of these rabble heads was found imbedded in the roof of the Silver Bow Club building on Granite Street, more than a mile from the warehouse.
Investigators determined the warehouse owners were negligent for the disaster, because they stored more dynamite in the warehouses than was allowed by law. The limit was 100 pounds.
Paull said officials suspect there may have been as many as two railroad cars loaded with the explosives in the warehouses that night.
— Reporter John Grant Emeigh may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 496-5511. Follow him at Twitter.com/@johnemeigh.