Twenty Years Ago Today: Gas Explosion Razes Apartment Buildings

Edison ExplosionTwenty years ago today in the town of Edison, New Jersey, a gas pipe finally gave way after decades of use, and a burst of flame leapt into the air. (Well, technically this happened five minutes before it was twenty years ago today, but it wasn't until a few minutes past midnight that the flames were actually threatening a complex of apartment buildings, so I'm treating this as March the 24th. Okay? Okay. Let's move on).

The force of the blast knocked people from their beds in the nearest buildings, smashed cars to pieces and left a massive crater - but it wasn't until some minutes later that the fires actually reached the structures of the Durham Woods apartments, where a couple of thousand people were living at the time.

"It sounded like thunder, but it just wouldn't stop," said a resident. "It just kept getting louder and louder and louder. Everything in our apartment was just orange. . .  It reminded me of a King Kong kind of movie where people are just running in every direction, not knowing what they are doing--just grabbing kids, people falling, tripping, running, people just scattering in every direction to just get out of there."

The residents fled - to the woods, to railway tracks, to anywhere that was away from the blaze. Only one person could not flee: Sandra Snyder, who collapsed with a heart attack and died. Eight buildings were incinerated in the conflagration that night, and there were fears that some bodies had been completely destroyed. But in the end there was only the one fatality. The explosion had been its own warning, and 1,500 people were given enough time to run for their lives. Only sixty were injured. Here's what it looked like on the ground:

The gas pipe that burst had been weakened during excavation works conducted by the gas company several years before. Laws regarding digging near pipelines were tightened up all over the US as a result, to the extent that companies needing to excavate now have to check to see if there's anything beneath the ground. Because clearly this wasn't regarded as sensible or obvious before...

In addition to this, the pipes were being run over capacity, were made of brittle materials and suffered from faulty valves. So the gas company had little defence as the residents turned to lawyers for redress. $65m had been paid out in damages by the year 2000 (with a substantial portion going to the estate of Sandra Snyder).

Meanwhile in New York, the radio show host Art Bell was talking to the noted lunatic Neal Chase, who claims to be the current successor to the Throne of David. Chase had predicted that there would be a nuclear attack on New York on this very day. Lo and behold, at the beginning of the interview, news of a large explosion in New Jersey came in: an airline pilot was screaming that Newark had been nuked, and that a Hiroshima-style mushroom cloud was rising into the sky.

Funnily enough, Art Bell is reported to have 'lost his radio composure' at this point. And also presumably his shit. Recordings of this moment seem not to be available online, which is a crying shame. If anyone locates one, let me know...

Twenty Years Ago Today: Cameraman Dies in Zoo Rescue

Rick LombaTwenty years ago today, things were bad in Angola. A civil war raged between the two movements that had originally fought against colonial forces: UNITA and the MPLA. It had been going on since the colonial power left in 1975 and had been one of the many conflicts used as a proxy in the Cold War. There had been a fragile peace in 1991, but the fighting flared up again soon after. By 1994, UNITA had scored a devastating series of victories against the MPLA, and were threatening to take the whole country. But Rick Lomba was mainly worried about the animals.

Lomba was a documentary maker and cameraman whose 1986 film The End of Eden showed how Africa's ecosystems were being eroded by human agriculture, particularly the introduction of cattle ranching to South Africa. He supplemented a career in environmental activism by working as a TV cameraman, and it was in this capacity that he'd travelled to Luanda, to cover an effort to rescue animals trapped in Luanda zoo.

It wasn't that they expected Luanda to fall to UNITA. It was more that the chaos had left the zoo with no money to feed the animals, which were starving to death. The plan was to get the animals back to South Africa and distribute them among various zoos there - far safer than Angola, despite all the worries about violence in the run-up to the elections.

But a mistake was made. A safety gate was left open, and a hungry Bengal tiger was able to burst free and attack the first person in its way - Rick Lomba. The deputy director of the Johannesburg Zoo snatched up an AK47 from a guard, but it was too late. All he could do was kill the tiger before it pounced on anyone else.

The other animals, including tigers, lions, buffaloes, hyenas, mongooses, chimpanzees and a brown bear were secured, though an ostrich and a buffalo died after being tranquillised. At least one of the rescued animals still lives at Johannesburg Zoo - a brown bear who was named Luanda after the city from which he came.

Rick Lomba was commemorated by a ROSCAR award for environmental filmmaking. The End of Eden doesn't seem to be available to buy, but some kind soul has uploaded the film to YouTube in its entirety.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Bill Hicks

bill-hicks After reporting on murders, massacres and wars breaking out all over the planet, it is nothing but an unmitigated relief to speak for a few paragraphs about a comedian who makes me laugh. Even if the occasion is his untimely death at the age of 32 from pancreatic cancer, which is now known as the most dickish of all cancers.

Some cancers present symptoms early enough to be treated; some worm away in secret until it's too late for anyone to do anything. Pancreatic cancer is very much of the latter category. In some ways, the location of the tumour is actually a bit of a surprise: Hicks was expecting lung cancer, constantly joking about having to breathe through a hole in his throat in five years time thanks to his tobacco addiction.

So: twenty years ago today, Bill Hicks died of cancer. He last spoke to anyone beyond his immediate family on February the 14th. He didn't speak to Denis Leary at all, after being permanently disgusted at Leary stealing his routines. He'd known about the diagnosis since June the previous year, but had kept on touring until he couldn't manage it any more, despite weekly chemotherapy.

Hicks' career lifted after his death in a way that he probably couldn't have foreseen, but may possibly have hated. All his jokes about the pointlessness of Bush Senior's war on Iraq were horribly prescient of Bush Junior's war on Iraq, nearly ten years after Hicks died. He also hated the commercialism of American culture, vilifying the disposable pop stars of his day. Which included Rick Astley, who has enjoyed an 'ironic' afterlife as a bad joke designed to piss people off, but which no doubt profited Astley immensely.

I started this blog series as a way of marketing my next book, which is set in the world of twenty years ago. Here's Hicks' verdict on marketing and people who indulge in marketing: I should probably shut up about now. In the same spirit of anti-commercialism, you can find most of Hicks' work available for free on YouTube. It'll give you an extremely entertaining evening (barring the occasional repetition of material), and make you very angry about how much things haven't changed in the last twenty years. Or possibly it'll make you angry about how much worse they are.

Relentless - Sane Man - Revelations - Bill Hicks' Last Show (allegedly, can't be sure)

(meanwhile, in the don't-believe-in-heroes department, there's some homophobia in that last link. He edges closer to misogyny as well. Bill, I am disappointed. Dammit.)

Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Derek Jarman

Derek_Jarman_portraitTwenty years ago today, the film director Derek Jarman finally succumbed to AIDS. Like Randy Shilts, who passed on a couple of days before, Jarman was notable as an activist for gay causes and in AIDS awareness, though in his case the work was of a more artistic bent. His background was as a stage designer - he designed Ken Russell's The Devils (which we saw an introduction for yesterday) - but he'd been making experimental 8mm short films for years before that. When he made his first feature, it was distinctive but hardly a box office success - Sebastiane was about the martyrdom of St Sebastiane, a difficult enough subject, but the fact that the film was in Latin probably helped to keep its audience small. He struggled to get films made until he at last found funding from Channel 4 for Caravaggio, which was in English this time and garnered his biggest audience so far. Virtually all of his work was funded by TV companies from this point on, and all of it had the common theme of gay sexuality, pushing boundaries even as his own ability to make films contracted. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, and his films grew more and more stylised as his illness destroyed his eyesight. His final film, Blue, was only a blue screen with a soundtrack in which Jarman spoke of his life, his illness and his art.


Personally, I remember best his version of Edward II, in which the failed king was romanticised as a gay man persecuted by the forces of the establishment seeking to repress his love for Piers Gaveston. One of the climactic battles shows Edward's army of gay activists clashing with the riot police army of Mortimer. The real Edward II was slightly more complicated than that (and definitely not much good as a king or a general), but it's still an interesting interpretation.



Here's a piece on Jarman and Blue from 1993:


Meanwhile there still that new novel thing I'm writing, Twenty Years Ago Today. Sign up to the Newsletter to be notified when the book is published!

Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Randy Shilts

25_RandyShiltsA croppedTwenty years ago today, the journalist Randy Shilts died of an AIDS-related illness in California. He was only one of many to fall before what people ten years earlier were calling 'the gay plague' - and it's the ignorance that lies behind that opinion that he chose to fight against, as a journalist and as a campaigner. His book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, makes it clear that AIDS was not just a viral plague, but a social one, with two very different vectors: firstly, the US establishment, which had no interest in dealing with the public health consequences of an illness which seemed to be striking a community for which it felt nothing but disgust. Remember that this was in the early days of the Reagan presidency, during a massive swing in attitudes to the political right - which seemed to be all too comfortable with abandoning so many people to a lingering, agonising death, and did little to commit the kind of funding necessary to deal with a new and devastating disease. Secondly, there were the attitudes of the gay community itself. Having only recently secured the freedom to live openly and engage in the kinds of hedonism that young people of all kinds are wont to pursue, some gays treated anyone telling them they needed to close down such things as the bathhouses in the Castro district as tantamount to a betrayal - especially given that Shilts himself was gay. He was spat on in the street, and accused of being a gay 'Uncle Tom'. It didn't stop him.

Shilts did more than almost anyone to bring the AIDS crisis to public attention, but he wasn't finished there. As his illness closed in on him and sapped his energy, he wrote another book about homosexuality in the US armed forces, anticipating Clinton's implementation of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy - something we regard as problematic now, but which was a massive step forward in its day. If he had lived, he would have gone on to investigate homosexuality in the Catholic church - and doubtless he would have stumbled on all the other sexual problems that the church has spent so long covering up.

He wasn't an angel. He had an ego the size of San Francisco, and made a habit of pissing people off. But he was definitely a hero.

Here's a 60 Minutes segment from 1987, in which Shilts talks about his theory of a patient zero for the US AIDS epidemic:

Twenty Years Ago Today: Auto-Erotic Asphyxiation

Try not to picture this man in stockings and bondage gear. Twenty years ago today, the secretary of Conservative MP Stephen Milligan popped over to his house to see why he hadn't turned up to his appointments that morning. She found her employer wearing only stockings, suspenders, bondage gear and a black sack tied over his head.

He was, unfortunately, quite dead.

The honourable member for Eastleigh...

(stop what you're thinking right now. I'm not doing a member joke)

The MP for Eastleigh had perished during a bout of auto-erotic asphyxiation, a sexual practice in which oxygen intake is restricted during masturbation in order to heighten the intensity of the orgasm. However, the pleasure tends to be cut short if you manage to suffocate yourself in the process, as he did. It's not advisable. Please don't try it at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Bizarrely, asphyxiation was once prescribed as a cure for erectile dysfunction. The fact that this was done so after observation of the erections seen on the corpses of hanged men may tell you that this is not exactly a modern medical opinion; these days, it's considered a paraphilia and listed in the DSM. The reasons why should be immediately obvious: it's not necessarily wrong in any moral sense, but it can get you killed or injured rather too easily. Milligan wasn't the first, the last, or even the best known victim; Michael Hutchence and David Carradine are believed to have gone the same way.

Here's a good article from The Independent about why it's not a good idea to strangle yourself for fun. Statistics on fatalities are hard to come by and may be overestimated, but a few hundred deaths a year seems likely.

Of course, these were the days when the Conservative Party was trying to portray itself as the party of old-fashioned values and maiden aunts, so you can imagine the response in the press to such obvious hypocrisy. Still, I can't help feeling a teensy bit sorry for the guy; he was just trying to have a bit of fun, and he paid for it with his life.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Jack Kirby

Photo by Suzy Skaar Twenty years ago today, the king of comic books died of a heart attack at the age of 76. He revolutionised the visual iconography of comics across a career that spanned half the twentieth century, and co-created a whole slew of characters who are currently busy making billions of dollars in the movies, starting with Captain America way back in 1940. He's been called 'The King" for his massive output, unending creativity, and an influence on modern comics that continues to this day and beyond.

And when I first saw his work , I honestly couldn't see what the fuss was about.

Of course, I wasn't seeing how he stood out from his contemporaries. His methods had been absorbed by the comics world for so long that they weren't as remarkable any more. Instead, I could only see the aspects that later creators improved upon - mainly the writing, story and characterisation. How could a straightforward tale of derring-do compete with the death of Siadwell Rhys in Zenith, or Halo Jones' shopping trip? Or even the early 90's sitcom superheroes in the Justice League titles?

Here's a quick example of what I never knew back then. Just a quick one, or else I'll be here all night!

FightingAmerican800In this pencilled cover image of the Fighting American, you can see straight away that Kirby wants this image to jump off the page. He isn't doing this by having anything punched or shot or exploded - instead, the main character seems to be reaching out of the panel towards the reader. How? It's the foreshortening, especially on the left hand. Kirby isn't drawing in a purely naturalistic style; he's jumping off into hyper-realism and depicting that hand as though he were looking through a wide-angle lens, distorting it so that you feel like you need to be slapping it away before it reaches you.

This was new, once upon a time: the idea that you could distort the human figure according to the story or the emotional content or just the need to grab the reader's attention when the comic was sitting on a newsstand with a dozen others - telling the story not just with pictures, but through the way you presented those pictures. In Kirby's case, very loud pictures!

Kirby's comics were stories made for children, and they read like stories made for children - but grown-ups can still take pleasure in the artistic technique that tells those stories.

Meanwhile, and for no reason, here's a short film in which Jack Kirby and Ed Wood meet during World War 2 so they can fight evil. In Spanish. No, really.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Pierre Boulle

Pierre_Boulle Pierre Boulle was a French novelist whose most popular works are ones you've almost certainly heard of and possibly even enjoyed: The Bridge over the River Kwai, and Planet of the Apes. He's credited as the screenwriter on the film of the first, despite the fact that he didn't write a word of it and didn't even speak English. He only received the credit as cover for the real screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were blacklisted at the time.

The film as inspired by Boulle's own wartime experiences, when he spent two years as a captive labourer working on the death railway. The reason why he was sentenced to this living hell is just as interesting: he was actually a secret agent working to help the resistance movements in Indochina, and a supporter of General de Gaulle. Once the war was done, the French government gave him a shoulder-full of medals for his work. The British were less than happy when his novel was published, because they assumed that the character of Col Nicholson (who collaborates with the Japanese) was based on the real British commander of the troops forced to work on the railways, when he was really an amalgam of French officers who actually did collaborate.

Pierre Boulle always denied that Planet of the Apes was science fiction, and here I have to object to him and all the literary authors who dip their toes in science fiction and desperately hope that it can be washed off as soon as possible. Just because you write well and are trying to attempt something more than just entertainment, it doesn't mean that you should be ashamed of writing in a genre. I write science fiction because it lets me put interesting characters through extraordinary trials. And isn't that what fiction is supposed to be about?


Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Ulrike Maier

Ulrike-Maier-22-October-1967-29-January-1994-celebrities-who-died-young-30396358-450-600It was two weeks before the Winter Olympics, but the world's best skiers weren't just twiddling their thumbs: they were gathered at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany for the downhill World Cup. Ulrike Maier was an Austrian who had already been a World Champion, and about as far from being a novice as it's possible to be. But luck was not with her that day. She crashed near the end of the course and broke her neck, dying not long after reaching hospital. While there were concerns at the time that her death might have been due to striking an obstacle on the course, it was eventually decided that a patch of softer snow knocking her off balance was the most likely culprit.

The incident is notable partly because it was being filmed as part of a live TV broadcast, and her death was therefore seen by millions. It's far from the only time that someone has suffered a fatal injury in front of a live TV camera - Ayrton Senna will suffer the same fate, later in 1994 - and it may not seem the most startling of spectacles in these modern days when Facebook has to be shamed into removing videos of people being beheaded. But nevertheless, it brings a lump to your throat when you watch it.

The YouTube video is, of course, all too easy to find, along with a cornucopia of other final moments from people meeting their end (starting with Franz Reichelt, who jumped off the Eiffel Tower wearing a prototype parachute in 1912, recorded in grim fashion by Pathe News). I'm sure you can find it if you really need to.

Here's an article from the Independent that gives more detail on her life and death.

Twenty Years Ago Today: San Jose Helicopter Crash

sik_s-58t_1At about half past seven in the morning, a Sikorsky S-58 helicopter piloted by Richard Gleason was hard at work lifting air conditioning equipment onto the roof of the First American Title Guaranty Co in San Jose, CA, only a block away from City Hall.  A few minutes later, the tail rotor apparently failed, and the pilot found himself in a flying metal cage that was about to stop flying in a very sudden way. Witnesses reported that Gleason managed to angle the helicopter so that it struck only the roof of the building, rather than the side, which would have caused the walls to cave in and presumably multiple casualties. As it was, the roof was empty and the only person who died in the incident was Gleason himself, lost in the explosion as the helicopter crashed into the roof. Flying debris was minimised and not a single person on the ground was injured.

The FAA investigation later determined that the probable cause of the crash was inadequate pilot planning and preparation, leading to insufficient fuel in the helicopter.

Here's a news report from the time.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Brian Redhead

today-programme-logoTwenty years ago today, one of the best-known presenters of BBC Radio 4's Today programme died of complications following a burst appendix. I must confess that I never actually heard Brian Redhead broadcast, but I have been an occasional listener of the Today programme for many years since (on those rare occasions when I actually get up that early) and the loss of any of their presenters leaves a mark on Britain simply because of what the Today programme does for UK politics: set the agenda at the beginning of each day. Certainly, there are other news programmes that influence events, but none that are playing just when everyone's getting up, or in their cars, or chewing doggedly at the breakfast toast while they reassemble their synapses for the day's work. It starts at 6am every morning, and runs on until 9am. Very few people listen to it all the way through; most only grab half an hour or an hour. But that's all it takes to get up to speed. Most of the people who do listen through all the way are, I suspect, lawyers for the main political parties, desperate for any mistake they can use to their advantage against either the other parties or the BBC itself. It's a tricky job, to be at the heart of the nation's political life, and Today has occasionally slipped up over the years. Whenever the Today programme becomes news itself, the Director General of the BBC shudders in fear at what the journalists have gotten up to this time, and whether or not it's going to cost them their job.

(my favourite moment, though, was on the day of the 2005 general election, when news media are forbidden from allowing any party political comment from anyone. This means they can't report much more than the fact that there's an election on, and the news tends to be very dull for much of the day. Today gave up trying to take this seriously and played a Monty Python sketch instead)

Obituary for Brian Redhead. And here's a clip in which he beats Nigel Lawson into the ground with nothing more than a cheerful verbal slap:

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