Tragic Fire at Aluminum Goods, 1920

With demolition of Manitowoc’s Washington Street Mirro building unfolding, it has been interesting to go through the thousands of files we have in our collection on the history of Aluminum Goods.  In going through the folders, there are photos of employee parties, construction projects, and numerous sales displays.  But the history of the Aluminum Goods also has a few tragic tales, including one that took play in February of 1920. 

The headline of the Manitowoc Herald News from February 26, 1920 was “1 DIES, 2 DYING, SCORES HURT IN ALUMINUM GOODS PLANT FIRE.”  “Blast Sends a Sheet of Flame Over Girl Workers Setting Clothing Afire; Three Living Torches, Panic Stricken, Leap from Third Story; Pitiable Scenes as Rescuers Give First Aid; Relative Mingle Cries with Victims of Explosion.”

The explosion was caused by a “spontaneous combustion in a blower on the third floor.”  The initial reports were of three deaths and serious injury to thirteen but by the end five young women were confirmed dead.  The newspapers from that time listed those who were severely injured but also cited those who had tragically died as a result of the explosion:

Addie Holtz, 30 years old, 423 N. Fifth street.

Frances Budycz, 23 years old, 1138 S. Ninth Street.

Pauline Komorowski, , 21 years old, Seventeenth Street.

Josephine Schleisleder, 19 years old, 1125 S. Fourteenth Street.

Esther Rusch, 20 years old, Valders

The explosion occurred in the third story of the Washington Street plant, “the blower being located near an L connecting the old with the new factory plant, immediately adjacent to the satin finish room of the mammoth plant in which were at work some 200 or more girl employees.”

“Immediately after the explosion a sheet of flame burst from the blower, enveloping the girls seated at their work benches and soon their clothes and their hair were on fire, the flames igniting a number of paper boxes in the room adding a possible conflagration to the already heart rending scene.”

“While all seemed to agree that the explosion and ensuing fire were caused by spontaneous combustion, it had not been proven an established fact. So much confusion ensued that it was impossible to gain an accurate account of just how the disaster occurred. So violent was the concussion that the explosion was plainly heard all over the city, doors in the satin finish room and a hallway connecting with the tram were blown from their fastenings, while every window on the third floor practically was shattered, and the steel frames bulged out.”

Newspaper articles announcing the tragedy and following up in the days after all offered accounts from the public.  Some of the most horrifying include seeing employees with their clothing on fire coming down the fire escape, people “leaping” from the building and others “virtually diving, to the snow covered ground, three flights below.”

This incident certainly left its mark on the community at that time.  As the newspaper reported “The tragedy has cast a pall over the city and on every hand the terrible accident is the subject of discussion. Supt. [Hugo] Vits and officers of the Aluminum Goods Company express keen sorrow and deplore the accident and are doing everything possible for the unfortunate victims.”

The story of the Aluminum Goods explosion in 1920 is certainly one of tragedy but it is also filled with stories of heroes.  There are countless stories of employees on other floors who went to assist the victims, catching those who chose to jump from the third floor and assisting with medical treatment and organization.  Neighbors came to the aid as well and pharmacies opened their supplies for needed items. 

Days after the incident, the paper quoted Vits as saying "The damage to the building is a matter of no moment in view of the terrible toll of the tragedy. The building can be replaced, the lives lost, never..."