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disaster

After I learned about the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, I quickly got wind of a rival event that happened more than a century before the Bostonian food disaster: the London Beer Flood.

In short, on October 14, 1814, heavy metal hoops that held a larger vat broke and ignited a chain reaction that smashed the other surrounding vats. In total, 1,224,000 litres of beer under pressure exploded through the twenty-five foot high brick wall of a London brewery and literally flooded the crowded area nearby. Two houses were destroyed in its path and nine people lost their lives because of the unusual flood.

Although the death toll was not as high as the Boston Molasses Flood a hundred years later, there were several fascinating details that if reenacted in the movie today, would have been accused as sensationalism, but life, alas, sometimes does ring stranger than fiction. Read on:

“Fearful that all the beer should go to waste, though, hundreds of people ran outside carrying pots, pans, and kettles to scoop it up – while some simply stooped low and lapped at the liquid washing through the streets. However, the tide was too strong for many, and as injured people began arriving at the nearby Middlesex Hospital there was almost a riot as other patients demanded to know why they weren’t being supplied with beer too – they could smell it on the flood survivors, and were insistent that they were missing out on a party!”

One of the victims actually died some days later of alcohol poisoning!

“Because of the poverty of the area, relatives of the drowned took to exhibiting their families’ corpses in their homes and charging a fee for viewing. In one house, though, too many people crowded in and the floor gave out, plunging them all into a cellar half full of beer.”

(source: BBC)

I guess too much food really CAN kill ya…

Again, the best succinct retelling of the event is by Tony Sakalauskas, a free-lance writer, on 3AmMagazine.com.

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It happened on January 15, 1919: a giant vat containing thick heavy molasses exploded, and the heavy goo flooded the streets of Boston’s North End, reportedly clocking at 35 miles an hour. In the end, 21 people died from this tragedy and hundreds of people were injured. It took many days and efforts afterwards to clean up the mess and put people’s lives back together.

The cause was surmised to be the drastic rise in temperature from the day before: the molasses expanded too quickly and the structure simply couldn’t withhold the sudden expansion.

Amazing!

I found the best retelling of the event by Tony Sakalauskas, a free-lance writer, on 3AmMagazine.com:

“Chunks of metal flew everywhere, piercing into people and buildings for hundreds of feet around. One huge chunk of steel smashed through a massive stone pillar supporting an elevated railroad. A piece of the railway sagged and fell. An alert train driver had his locomotive come to a screeching halt just moments before it would have plunged over.

The disappearance of that huge tank sent out a blast of air that pushed people away. But seconds later a counterblast rushed in to fill the vacuum and pulled them back in.

But most of the damage was caused by the molasses itself. It splashed onto city streets in all directions, speeding as fast as a man could run. The molasses smashed freight cars, plowed over homes and warehouses and drowned both people and animals. A three story house was seen soaring through the air as well as a huge chunk of the shattered vat that landed in a park 200 feet away.

Rescuers were bogged down in the stuff and were scarcely able to move as the molasses sucked the boots right off their feet. Trapped horses couldn’t be removed so they had to be shot to death. The black sticky stuff filled cellars for blocks around and it took months for the hydraulic syphons to pump it out. Salt water had to be sprayed on cobblestone streets, homes, and other buildings because fresh water would just wash off the stuff. For months afterwards, wherever people walked, their shoes stuck to the goo. Some people even claimed that on a hot day one could still smell molasses even after thirty years.”

The following is a mesmerizing account taken when it was happening: (Courtesy of Bostonist)

“[Boston police patrolman Frank] McManus picked up the call box and began his report to headquarters. A few words into it, he heard a machine-gun-like rat-tat-tat sound and an unearthly grinding and scraping, a bleating that sounded like the wail of a wounded beast. McManus stopped talking, turned, and watched in utter disbelief as the giant molasses tank on the wharf seemed to disintegrate before his eyes, disgorging an enormous wall of thick, dark liquid that blackened the sky and snuffed out the daylight.”

I would love seeing a computer-generated re-enactment of the whole event. Who’d have thunk that molasses can do such damage?!

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