Grover Shoe Factory Disaster
Located on the corner of Main and Calmar streets in the largely Swedish neighborhood of the Campello section of Brockton, the Grover factory burst into flames at 7:50 am on March 20, 1905.
The over-worked pressure boiler exploded tearing through the four story building and turning it into a crematorium. The factory roof collapsed and the four floors crashed down on each other. Those workers who survived the explosion and collapse were now entombed beneath heavy timbers, flooring and thousands of pounds of the latest shoe manufacturing equipment. Unable to move, the workers were helpless and could only wait for the flames to consume them. It would not take long because the gas lines that fed the factory were broken and highly flammable gas fueled the fire. The Grover was a modern building and the more than three hundred glass windows, which had allowed the factory floor to be bathed in sunlight, now contributed to the chimney effect.
The new boiler had to be flushed out as part of its regular maintenance, so Rockwell had put the old boiler back into service temporarily. Early that cold damp Monday, he fed its coal fire and put the boiler to work heating the building for arriving day-shift workers. At 7:45 a.m. the plant manager telephoned Rockwell to ask about some strange noises coming from the radiators along one wall. Rockwell had just stepped out of the building, but his assistant assured the manager that everything was in order.
A few minutes later, the old boiler exploded, rocketing up through three floors and the roof.
The flying boiler knocked over an elevated water tower at one end of the building and its full tank smashed through the roof, causing that end of the building to immediately collapse, with the floors pancaking and the walls falling in on top of them.
Many workers who survived the initial explosion and collapse were trapped by broken beams and heavy machinery. Burning coals thrown from the boiler's fire pit landed throughout the debris, starting fires that were fed by broken natural gas lines. The factory's more than 300 windows, now blown out, created a chimney effect in the parts of the factory still standing, resulting in a fire hot enough to melt iron pipes and radiators. The wooden floors, treated nightly with linseed oil to keep the dust down, burned quickly. High winds helped spread the fire to nearby storage sheds and neighboring buildings including a hardware store and a rooming house.
The Campello neighborhood's district firehouse shared a city block with the factory and its firefighters arrived quickly, as did many local citizens. Using long timbers as levers, they were able to lift some of the wreckage and rescue some workers before the flames reached them. Local newspapers recount many acts of heroism in the rescues made that day.
Barrels of naphtha, a volatile industrial solvent related to gasoline, were stored in a wooden shed directly behind the boiler house. The shed was set afire by the burning coals and the naphtha exploded, throwing sheets of flame onto the wreckage and driving rescuers away.