Shorewood man recalls arsenal blast of 70 years ago
June 2, 2012 7:54PM
Updated: July 6, 2012 10:00AM
The explosion was felt in Aurora and Kankakee.
Tuesday marks the 70th annivesary of the deadliest event in Will County’s history — the explosion of the Joliet Arsenal.
To be accurate, it was the Elwood Ordinance Plant on the east side of Route 53 that exploded on June 5, 1942, but along with the Kankakee Ordinance on the west, the spot where 48 people were killed also is referred to as the Army Ammunition Plant or simply “the arsenal.”
While I wasn’t planning to immediately follow the “Joliet Cops of 1888” with another history column, I had the anniversary to write about. Better yet, I had Gordon Carrier, my parents’ neighbor.
Carrier, 93, who might be Shorewood’s longest-tenured resident, was an assistant supervisor who was working at the facility and was one of the responders to find victims of the disaster.
Carrier had been making $18 a week delivering mail when he found he could get a 50-cent increase getting himself put in charge of keeping track of the heavy equipment and rental items owned by Stone & Webster Engineering that were being used at the ordinance.
Operations ran around the clock, but Carrier was sleeping at 2:45 a.m. when the massive explosions shook his Ingalls Park apartment building. He remembers his 3-year-old son being scared and the man living across the hall correctly guessing what it was.
“I called my office in the (company) garage, and Pee Wee Powell answered the phone. I said, ‘Get your ass in gear and get trucks and anything that moves to Elwood,’ ” Carrier said.
Besides heavy equipment, Carrier and his crew brought pickup trucks and sedans that ended up being used as hearses.
“The bodies had blown through the cyclone fences like they were strained through,” he recalled.
Investigators initially were concerned one of those bodies belonged to a saboteur, but it turned out to just be a guy who’d been working in a boxcar being loaded.
The Herald-News later said the explosion was not sabotage but was caused by a worker dropping a fuse. Carrier remains equally skeptical of both rumors and the official reports because “there were no survivors in the area that could’ve seen it.”
Carrier and the others searched for other victims throughout the day, finding one in the late afternoon on the roof of a nearby building after noticing a group of birds.
After taking a break for sandwiches and lemonade that were brought in about 5 p.m., Carrier finally left the plant about two hours later.
Heading back to Joliet, he passed cars filled with curious spectators parked four abreast stretching for miles on Route 53 to Nowell Park.
Carriers other memories of working on the arsenal property include watching the horses being used by the Army for calvary training and the orange chemicals DuPont used in manufacturing.
“You’d see orange women around Joliet and knew where they worked. It was the (natural) color of no living person,” he said.
But images that still make Gordon Carrier chuckle over his experience at the arsenal are matched by the horror of the explosion in June 1942.
“It was a tragedy,” he said. “(I can’t forget) I saw a man that had been in the next building — he was shaking, every muscle was moving, but he couldn’t move his face. That was an awful, awful deal.”