Black Tom

In the early hours of Sunday July 30th 1916 New York City was woken by a terrific explosion, rolling across the harbour:  Black Tom was on fire.  It was the largest ammunition depot in America, with more than two million pounds of explosive waiting to be loaded onto Allied ships bound for the battle Front.  The yard was built along a spit of land running into the harbour from the Jersey shore, just across the water from the Statue of Liberty.

From the first, German saboteurs had placed the yard at the top of their target list, their leader, von Rintelen carrying out a reconnaissance the year before.  But it was his deputy, Captain Frederick Hinsch – another of the characters in The Poison Tide – who was responsible for the eventual execution of the attack.  Security at the depot was lax, and Hinsch could count on intelligence from his ‘inside men’ on the payroll.  Just before midnight on July 29th, one of his men strode into the yard unchallenged, while two more approached by boat from the direction of Liberty Island:  it took them just half an hour to place their explosives.

The first fires started a short time later; at 2.00 a.m. the ammunition began to blow – a detonation estimated to be the equivalent of 5.5 on the Richter Scale [the collapse of the north tower of the World Trade Centre registered 2.3].  The thunder shook Jersey City; the City Hall lost every window and glass door, the ceilings of the assembly chamber and courtroom collapsed; glass was blown from the windows of churches, shops and houses, and at police headquarters part of the ceiling collapsed.  Across the water in Manhattan, all the windows of the skyscrapers lining Broadway, Wall Street and Broad Street were shattered, as were the windows of the stores on Fifth Avenue, while in Times Square the explosion burst a water main.

The ruins of the Black Tom yard

People  rushed on to the streets in confusion to see a bright orange light burning in the harbour and hear the noise of battle raging on the Jersey shore.  The shockwaves from Black Tom shattered windows up to twenty five miles away.  Miraculously, only seven people were killed, but hundreds were injured by shrapnel and bullets.  Liberty was rocked and scarred but stood firm.

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