Twenty 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...