Horrific Explosion on 7th Street Kills Six

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Aftermath of the McCrory disaster, a virtually forgotten chapter in the history of Washington, D.C.: At 1:32 p.m. on Nov. 21, 1929, a boiler in the basement of the McCrory five-and-dime store at 416 Seventh Street NW exploded, demolishing the ground floor and igniting a fire in a deafening blast whose final toll was six dead and dozens injured. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative.
Aftermath of the McCrory disaster, a virtually forgotten chapter in the history of Washington, D.C.: At 1:32 p.m. on Nov. 21, 1929, a boiler in the basement of the McCrory five-and-dime store at 416 Seventh Street NW exploded, demolishing the ground floor and igniting a fire in a deafening blast whose final toll was six dead and dozens injured. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative.

Study this photograph carefully. Look at the complete destruction of the building. This was the McCrory five-and-dime store at 416 7th St. NW just after it exploded in the afternoon of November 21st, 1929. The blast and fire killed six and injured nearly 30 others, throwing debris all the way across the street. Firemen and ambulances from across the District came to help put out the fire and rescue the survivors.

Washington Post - November 22nd, 1929
Washington Post – November 22nd, 1929

The blast was the result of a faulty, old boiler in the basement of the building, which hadn’t been inspected since it was installed in 1920. At the time, there was no regulation in the D.C. building code mandating the inspection of hot water tanks like this one. The tank that exploded was slight over five feet tall and three feet in diameter, holding around 500 gallons of water. The bottom blew out first, rocketing the tank upward, right into a steel beam supporting the sidewalk, turning the massive projectile into an explosion of shrapnel, ripping through the building.

The tank was full of boiling water, which immediately turned into steam, expanding with great force, cracking the pavement, sending bits of concrete and steel flying through the air. Wilbur Smith, a man standing across the street, was violently thrown against an automobile, fracturing his skull.

Several hundred others were near the scene at the time and miraculously escaped serious injury, given that the accident occurred right in the middle of a busy fall afternoon. Below is a graphic description of the event from The Washington Post, printed the following day.

Struck down as they walked along the street in front of the store, the victims of the explosion never had a chance. It was as though an earthquake had suddenly seized the entire block. Pieces of concrete, steel and wood shot from the store front with terrific force, sweeping all obstacles before them and the sidewalk in front of the place collapsed with a loud roar.

As the dust slowly settled into the yawning cavity in front of the McCrory store, a scene of indescribable horror was presented to the first rescuers who rushed into action.

Men, women and children lay in the street, where they had been thrown by the force of the explosion. Blood-covered, the most seriously injured lay inert while others, still conscious, groaned and shrieked. Hats, shoes, clothing and personal effects of the victims were strewn for many feet in all directions as huge pieces of debris from the store front covered other articles torn from the grasp of the stricken.

Such a horrific accident.

victims listed in the Washington Post
victims listed in the Washington Post

No store employees were killed and only three were injured, none seriously:  Olga Shipley (18) of 3560 Alton Pl. NW, Florence Davis (18) 701 South Lee St., Alexandria, Mary Virginia O’Neil (21) of 61 East Maple St., Alexandria.

One of the crazier stories of witnesses — and one of extreme good fortune — was that of L. E. Donaldson. He was a few doors away from the blast when it occurred, and in his witness testimony, he mentioned that he had also been at the scene of the Knickerbocker Theater disaster in 1922. At that time, he had just purchased his ticket and was on his way into the theater when the roof caved in under the weight of the snow, killing 98 people.

Another man was found an hour after the explosion in the elevator shaft of the store. He recalled behind struck by an automobile, and awoke to find himself in the shaft. He was unable to recall his name and was sent to the hospital to be treated for shock.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • mia kulper

    All of these stories of D.C. are so unreal. My maternal grandfather was born in DC in 1875/his oldest brother was born there in 1859. There were 11 kids, mostly born in Washington & my great grandfather operated a liquor store on 9th St. I need to check the addresses on all the businesses that family operated. Odenwalds Shoe Store; a Millinery store on 7th . I believe; A relative via marriage operated a hotel/bar in DC and in fact shot the son of the former chief of police (in self-defense). I am learning so many stories. The pictures and additional posted here just add to the discoveries. I wish my dad were alive as he would love all of this. He too grew up in the District , moving to VA as an adult but still working at the US Capitol for 30 plus years. Memories for me……….cannot imagine how many there would be for him. Not sure if my mom would follow any of it anymore. She won’t get on a computer …….sigh.