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Boiled Alive: The 1937 Explosion Aboard the USS Cassin
I once heard a story about my mother's great-uncle. He had died from injuries he had received as a civilian in an accident aboard a destroyer in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Little else was known. So I decided I would look into the accident. The ship was the USS Cassin. The year was 1937.
The USS Cassin was named after Stephen Cassin, a Philadelphia naval officer who distinguished himself in the War of 1812 and in the war against pirates in the West Indies. The ship was a 1500 ton destroyer with several five-inch guns. It had been commissioned in October of 1935, but was in dry-dock in the Philadelphia naval yard the summer of 1937 to undergo a few last minute repairs before joining the fleet in the Pacific Ocean.
The day was 18 August 1937. According to one family tale, the incident took place just after lunch, though newspaper accounts from the day do not indicate a time.
Fifteen men were in the fire room of the warship. Eight were sailors, but seven were civilian workers glad to have the work in this Great Depression era. The group was raising steam through the pipelines to test the safety valves. It was supposed to be a routine test. There was no indication that anything was wrong with the lines, no indication that something was about to go horribly wrong.
Suddenly there was a burst in one of the main pipes in the fire room. According to one of the survivors, the explosion sounded like a huge roar. The room was filled instantly with live steam. The explosion was barely audible outside of the room, and because it didn't sound like an explosion no one was alarmed. The only thing that alerted others to the danger was the sound of men screaming as they were being boiled alive. Rescuers tried to get in, but were driven back by the steam. They could rescue the men only when the pressure abated.
Four men were killed instantly; Joseph Vissaluza, Michael Scavo, William Miehl, and George Driesbach. Daniel Vautier and Whitney Thompson McCallum, water tender first class, died in hospitals. The other nine in the room were injured, some suffering severe burns as well as other injuries when they tripped and fell trying to escape.
Injured in the explosion were: Jerome Sullivan, Louis Sherby and Naval men Lt. Henry Morris Marshal, John Koif, cheif water tender, Thomas Leonard Athey, fireman second class, Cornelius Leonard Minnehan, water tender first class, Daniel Harlan Phillipee, fire man third class, Alfred Ernest Bryan, water tender first class, Albert Louis Kohlstrom, fireman first class
Each of the dead men were not expecting this day to be their last. Michael Scavo was engaged to be married within a few weeks of the accident. Joseph Vissaluza was married with two children. George Driesbach was the father of three children. William Miehl had just been called back to the navy yard after a two month furlough and was happy to provide for his wife and three children. Daniel Vautier had also been unemployed for a time before getting hired on at the yard. He was a steam fitter with a wife and five children in New Jersey. According to family tales, he died in the hospital before his family was able to see him to say goodbye.
The Navy launched an inquiry into the explosion, but it is unknown what became of that inquiry. The USS Cassin would join the fleet in the Pacific and was nearly destroyed in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It would be decommissioned for good in 1945 and sold for scrap in 1947.
"USS Cassin (DD-372), 1936-1947". Naval Historical Center. Department of the Navy: 19 September 2000. Found online at http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-c/dd372.htm
Wikipedia contributors, "USS Cassin (DD-372)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Found online at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=USS_Cassin_(DD-372)&oldid=492209577
as well as family stories from the collection of the author.