I somehow missed the Pemberton Mill disaster that happened on January 10, 1860 when the large, 5-story factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, collapsed without warning in what is likely “the worst industrial accident in Massachusetts history” and “one of the worst industrial calamities in American history”. An estimated 145 workers were killed and 166 injured. Most were recent immigrants, either Irish or Scots, many of them young women.
As the rescue efforts went into the night, someone accidentally knocked over an oil lantern, spreading flames across the cotton waste and splintered wood — some of it soaked with oil — killing the survivors waiting to be rescued from the ruins.
The Boston Globe described the carnage more vividly:
The scene after the fall was one of indescribable horror. Hundreds of men, women, and children were buried in the ruins. Some assured their friends that they were uninjured, but imprisoned by the timbers upon and about them. Others were dying and dead. Every nerve was strained to relieve the poor unfortunates, when, sad to relate, a lantern broke and set fire to the wreck. In a few moments the ruins were a sheet of flames. Fourteen are known to have been burned to death in the sight of their loved ones, who were powerless to aid them.
Of course, the disaster was not just unpreventable act of God. Extra heavy machinery had been crowded into the upper floors of the factory built with substandard construction methods: “The brick walls were improperly mortared and supported. The iron pillars supporting the floors were cheap and brittle but had been installed nonetheless.” And, as with many disasters, “the tragedy became a rallying point for efforts to improve safety standards in industrial workplaces.”