Two Pairs of Brothers, Together In Life And Death
100th Anniversary Of The Forgotten Brooklyn Explosion That Killed Two Sets Of Young Brothers
While wandering the bucolic grounds of the Evergreens Cemetery on the Brooklyn – Queens border you come across many interesting monuments. There are Triangle shirtwaist fire victims, General Slocum memorials and many historic notables. And then there are the monuments like this one that are inexplicable on first inspection.
Two sets of brothers each between 7 and 11-years-old all dying on March 13, 1915 and are buried together. This unique memorial has an angel, with a few fingers and toes missing, head bowed in sorrow, standing between the two columns that are connected at the top by a triangular stone with the Gospel of Luke quotation inscribed across it, “Suffer Little Children To Come Unto Me”.
But checking the news accounts from the following days reveals a senseless tragedy of two unrelated families children just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Zimmer boys, Henry age 11 and Herbert age 7, of 186 Warwick Street and the Higgins boys, Alex age 11 and Arthur age 8 of 174 Warwick Street were close friends and neighbors growing up a few doors from each other. They were considered leaders among their playmates and were liked by everyone. The children all attended the same school, P.S. 108 at Arlington Avenue and Linwood Street and were regular congregants at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation where they never missed a Sunday school class.
It was early morning Saturday, March 13, 1915 and the boys left their homes together to go to the Concord Theatre at Fulton and Richmond Streets and attend a lecture given by the B.R.T. (Brooklyn Rapid Transit) titled “Safety First.” They then watched a film called “The Locked Door or The Price of Carelessness”, which concerned the loss of life by neglecting fire safety. They had received the tickets free from school for being good boys.
According to their parents, the effects of the lecture and film may have played a role in contributing to the boys death as safety for others was probably on their minds as the day’s events unfolded.
At about 11 o’clock on their way home from the theatre the four friends stopped by the Atlantic Avenue railroad tracks adjacent to the Crew-Levick Company oil factory to watch the transferring of gasoline into tanker cars. The boys then started to play marbles right next to the two story brick and concrete wall of the oil company’s pumphouse where gasoline and kerosene were transferred and stored in large tanks.
At a few minutes before noon, Edward Bell a L.I.R.R. train engineer who was working a switching engine on the tracks about 15 feet away from the pumphouse, noticed that fluid was running down the brick wall of the pumphouse. The smell of gasoline permeated the air.
Bell shouted from his train cab to the boys playing marbles to warn the officials at the oil company. The boys saw the leak and noted the gasoline smell too. After attending the safety lecture they were eager to help.
News accounts differ if all or just some of the boys went to the Crew-Levick office, but all agree that the elder Higgins boy, Alex quickly ran about 100 feet to the main office of Crew-Levick to alert the manager what was happening.
When Alex entered the office he found Mrs. Jessie Herbert financial secretary to the company and her sister Naomi Hankins who was visiting, along with the manager of the plant George Avery, age 40, getting ready to leave for the day. According to Mrs. Herbert, Alex told the manager, “Mister, mister come out quick! The gasoline is leaking out on to the sidewalk!” Avery grabbed his hat and immediately went to investigate.
Alex Higgins, tipped his cap politely to the women, and left the office with Avery and went back outside to return to the game of marbles next to the pumphouse. Avery quickly stepped inside the pumphouse and started to head up the stairs.
Seconds after Avery entered the pumphouse, a terrific explosion rocked the entire neighborhood.
The blast broke nearly every window in the vicinity, and the concussion knocked down everyone working nearby.
Two tanks, one of gasoline and one with kerosene, had been overfilled from subterranean tanks and the fumes and excess gasoline had blown up the entire building. The excess gas and kerosene burned as it flowed over the ground. In a few minutes after the smoke had cleared the pumphouse was gone, wreckage was on fire or smoldering and debris was scattered for hundreds of feet.
Contemporary news accounts had five to six people perishing, but the actual total was seven dead with dozens of injuries from flying brick, concrete and glass.
One worker survived but was blown 50 feet across the room he was working in. Locomotive engineer Bell who had discovered the gas leak and his fireman Frank Thompson were blown out of their locomotive cab, faces and hands scorched with their hair singed.
Luckily two big tanker cars of oil that Bell and Thompson were hauling containing 21,000 gallons of oil remarkably did not explode. If the tankers had blown up the casualty rate would have been higher with much more property damage.
The four little boys had absolutely no time to move. The explosion incinerated them and the wall adjacent to where they were playing marbles collapsed on them. Rescue workers found their charred, crushed bodies under the rubble.
Unsure of how many people were trapped or injured, the responding rescue firemen were frantically searching the debris when they made another very grisly discovery, finding a man’s severed arm. They then found a leg and after more searching came upon a burned torso and head under an oil tank. The man’s watch was still running and his wallet was unscathed. After a couple of hours the body was identified as plant manager George Avery.
Near the factory, the father of six children, Francis Denham age 79, had timbers fall on him in the street and he died from his injuries five days later on March 18.
An indirect casualty was Mrs. Charlotte Budge age 68, who was near the scene of the accident and died from shock.
In the hours that followed as word spread in the neighborhood that children were among the dead, hundreds of worried parents whose children were not at home, rushed to the 153rd precinct police station on Miller Avenue to see if their children were among the victims.
Frantic mothers stormed the police station trying to get a glimpse of the dead children. Because of the disturbing condition of the boys bodies, it was decided that women would not be admitted to view the bodies for possible identification.
Seven hours after the explosion, the Zimmer and Higgins families had also grown alarmed that the boys had never returned home for dinner. When the fathers of the boys read the news of the explosion in the evening papers they hurried to the Miller Avenue police station.
It was there that the fathers of the boys identified their children who were blackened and mutilated beyond recognition. The identification was made by means of the boy’s clothing and trinkets found in their pockets.
Both the Zimmer and Higgins families were left childless.
A grand funeral unlike any other in the East New York, Brooklyn neighborhood was held Tuesday March 16.
At 10 o’clock four white hearses drew up in front of the grief-stricken homes. At a signal from the undertaker, the pall-bearers carried forth simultaneously from the two houses, just four doors apart, the white caskets containing the bodies of Alex Higgins and Herbert Zimmer. Sixteen boys who had played with the two boys and gone to Sunday school with them, acted as pallbearers.
The roadway of Warwick Street was filled with people. Three thousand men, women and children had assembled on the block and the police had to call out the reserves from three stations to control the crowd.
The coffins of the elder boys, buried beneath flowers, were placed in the waiting hearses and then, at another signal, the coffins containing the bodies of the younger boys Arthur Higgins, 8-years-old, and Henry Zimmer, 7-years-old, were brought out.
The four hearses, evenly spaced were driven slowly through the streets to the church on Barbey Street. The sixteen pallbearers walked behind the white vehicles. There was also a delegation from Public School No. 108, and a squad of letter carriers from Station D on Fulton Street where the father of the Higgins boys worked.
The four caskets were placed side by side in the front of the church and the vested choir of thirty-five voices sang the opening anthem. Then the regular burial service of the Lutheran Church was used. Three hymns were sung. They were “Rock of Ages,” Jesus Lover of My Soul” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
All along the streets and in the church there were affecting scenes as people broke down and cried as the boys had endeared themselves to many people.
The Reverend Dr. John C. Fisher, the pastor of the church, delivered the eulogy. He did not criticize anyone for the accident. He devoted himself entirely to a description of the virtues of the boys.
At the end of the service the boys were taken to the Evergreens Cemetery and placed in adjoining lots.
After the funerals, the public waited to see who would be held responsible for the accident. Unfortunately justice for the victims was not forthcoming.
There was inconclusive evidence as to what set off the explosion. The L.I.R.R. and Crew – Levick Company pointed fingers at one another, each denying responsibility.
One theory was that the gasoline was ignited from the firebox or sparks from the chimney of the L.I.R.R. locomotive which was only 15 feet away from the pumphouse. The other theory was that after manager Avery went inside the pumphouse and pulled the motor switch and furnished the spark necessary to ignite the explosive mixture of gasoline and air in the pumphouse.
Two weeks after the explosion the Coroner’s Jury voted 5-4 that the fault for the accident laid with the operator of the Crew – Levick plant, David F. Davis, even though he was not physically there the day of the explosion. An unknown person had probably left the pumps running from the subterranean tanks into the storage tank until it overflowed. Davis was found guilty of culpable negligence. He was outraged and decalred his innocence. Sure enough in early April right after the Coroner’s Jury verdict, a Grand Jury exonerated Davis and he nor anyone else was ever criminally charged.
Amazingly, both boys parents did not blame anyone for the accident and apparently never filed a lawsuit.
The Zimmer – Higgins monument at the Evergreens Cemetery remains the sole reminder in the neighborhood of the abbreviated lives of four boys and two families eternal grief. Memini, vita brevis.