From the Richmond Examiner, 3/14/1863
TERRIBLE LABORATORY EXPLOSION ON BROWN'S ISLAND – BETWEEN FORTY AND FIFTY PERSONS KILLED AND WOUNDED – HORRIBLE SCENES – The week ended to-day, fruitful in a great calamity by fire, was rendered mournfully memorable yesterday by a more frightful calamity by the same agent, involving scores of human lives and limbs. Between eleven and twelve o'clock yesterday morning – some fix the time at exactly twenty minutes past eleven o'clock – a dull, prolonged roar in the direction of Brown's Island, across the James river from the foot of Seventh street, startled that portion of the city and directed attention to the island, on which is located the Confederate Laboratory works, for the manufacture of percussion caps and gun cartridges. – But similar sounding explosions, arising from the trial of ordnance at the Tredegar Iron Works, had been daily heard in that neighborhood, and it was some minutes before a dense smoke arising from the island apprised the citizens of the true cause of the explosion, and that arose from the blowing up of a portion of the Laboratory, in all the departments of which were employed from three to four hundred females, of all ages, ranging from twelve to twenty years.
A tide of human beings, among them the frantic mothers and kindred of the employees in the laboratory, immediately set towards the bridge leading to the island, but the Government authorities, soonest apprised of the disaster, had already taken possession of the bridge, and planting a guard of soldiers, allowed passage to none except the workmen summoned to rescue the dead and wounded from the ruins. The ambulances for their conveyance to the hospitals, and the surgeons who hurried to the scene by dozens, as soon as the nature and extent of the calamity became known, had volunteered their services for the relief of the survivors. The reportorial corps of the Richmond press were among those denied passage to the island by one who seemed to be clothed with a "little brief authority," giving as his reason, that "they didn't want anything said about it," when hundreds of parents and relatives awaited in an agony worse than death the list of killed and mangled ones. From eye witnesses, who crossed from the island to the city after the explosion, we gather the following particulars:
The Laboratory buildings are of frame, one story in heighth and detached, and present a full view from the Seventh street bridge. The building that blew up was the department in which condemned cartridges were broken up, and where over sixty females were at work.
One rumor says a keg of powder ignited and communicated to the combustibles, but this is uncertain, as none in the room escaped death or injury in some degree. The apartment in which the explosion occurred, about fifty feet in length and twenty in width, was blown into a complete wreck, the roof lifted off, and the walls dashed out, the ruins falling upon the operatives, and the horrors of fire were threatened to be added to those of the explosion; but the flames were suppressed. While the male employees were laboring to rescue the helpless victims the most heart rending lamentations and cries issued from the ruins from the sufferers rendered delirious from suffering and terror. No sooner was one helpless, unrecognizable mass of humanity cared for and removed before the piteous appeals of another would invoke the energy of the rescuers. Some ten or twelve were taken from the ruins dead, and from twenty to thirty still alive, but suffering the most horrible agonies, blind from burns, with the hair burned from their heads, and the clothing hanging in burning shreds about their parolled(?) persons. Others less injured ran wailing frantically, and rushing into the nearest arms for succor and relief. Mothers rushed wildly about, throwing themselves upon the corpses of the dead, and the persons of the wounded, trying to recognize in the disfigured features the linaments of a daughter, and calling out their names. The immediate treatment of the burned consisted in removing their clothing and covering the body thickly with flour and cotton, saturated with oil; chloroform was all administered – the sufferings of the wounded were alleviated by these means in the interval between their rescue and removal to their homes, or General Hospital No. 2, where many were taken. The returning ambulances carrying the sufferers were besieged by the friends and relations of the employees, and children clamored into the vehicles, crying bitterly in their search after sisters and brothers. The distress among friends was aggravated by the fact that it was utterly impossible to recognize many of the wounded on account of their disfigurement, except by peculiar bits of clothing, shoes, &c.
Up to two o'clock yesterday, the following were received at the General Hospital, No. 2 – George Chapall, (lad) Sarah Haney, Hannah Petticord, Ella Bennett, Mary Jenningham, Julia Brennon. Their burns are very serious, and several of them will die. The majority of the injured were carried to their homes, and until the roll of the employees at the Laboratory is carefully overhauled, it will be impossible to give a correct list of the victims, as in some instances two or three sisters were employed there. We heard last night the following additional names of those injured: Peter Perkins, Alonzo Owens, and Mr. McCarthy, a superintendent, slightly.
From an officer connected with the Laboratory we learn that the department destroyed was in charge of Mr. McCarthy, Superintendent. The condemned cartridges were here broken by the girls, and distributed, the bullets into one recepticle and the powder into another. It is surmised that a percussion cap containing fulminating ingredients got mixed in with the powder and created an explosion. Fortunately there was but a small quantity of powder in the department, or the greater force of the explosion would have extended the ignition to the next department. As it was the partition wall was not thrown down, though the doors leading into it were broken open, which facilitated the escape of a number of the girls, who received no serious injury.
The bodies of the dead were not removed from the island, and a Coroner's inquest will be empanelled to-day to investigate the circumstances attendant upon the catastrophe. None of their names had transpired up to last evening, or were given too incorrectly to warrant their publication.
A full list of the casualties will be given on Monday, prepared from the roll books of the Laboratory.
We regret to learn that Rev. John Woodcock, of Richmond, one of the officials of the Laboratory, is among those seriously, if not dangerously, injured by the explosion. Mr. Charters, one of the Superintendents, was slightly injured.
The effect of the explosion did not extend beyond the building in which it occurred, and no interruption of the operations of the Laboratory will result from it. The loss to the Confederate States too, is very inconsiderable.