It was 5am and preparations were being made for the morning melt at the Edgar Thompson Works steel mill in Braddock, PA, on August 23, 1895. The top filler, John Grengo, was exhausted and drenched in sweat from the unbearable heat of the furnace, and it would take every ounce of effort to make it through the last hour of work in this 12 hour shift. As John dumped a barrow full of ore into the bell shaped furnace, he failed to raise the boil and accidentally dropped the barrow in with the melting ore. Foreman James Harrison quickly called the other fillers over to the top of the furnace and instructed them to remove the barrow with huge iron crowbars.
As they worked feverishly to extract the barrow, the refuse material which had been accumulating over the furnace, called the “hang”, suddenly dropped into the molton metal at the bottom of the furnace. At the same time gases which had been unable to escape because of the blocked opening burst into flame and belched out of the furnace, shooting up over 300 feet in the air with a deafening roar that was heard by every person in a 3 mile radius. John and the other fillers, Slovaks Joseph Luckni, John Prokopovic, Stephen Havlin, John Mika, Joseph Csop, Andrew Drobuah and Mike Kafines were blown in all directions and down hundreds of feet to the ground below, engulfed in burning lava and gas. One flew over the elevator and dropped down the shaft landing on a car at the bottom, which split him in half. Several others were burned beyond recognition, identifiable only by their clothing or some physical uniqueness, such as height. Only one died at the scene, while the seven others, writhing and screaming in pain, were carried off by horse driven ambulance where they later died at the hospital.
The explosion dragged hundreds of wives and children out of their beds and down the road to the mill to see if their husband or father had been killed; accidents like this happened daily in the steel mills (and coal mines) at the time. Without insurance, death benefits, savings or any other social safety net, the families of the dead would be thrown out onto the streets. If the worker was lucky, a mill owner would offer to cover the cost of the funeral or medical care, but there was no guarantee. The owners were protected from lawsuits and had no economic reason to institute safety precautions such as job training, warning signals, safety gear or better working conditions. To Andrew Carnegie and the other mill owners, these men were disposable; for every man who died, four more were ready to step in to take the vacated job.
Official cause of death recorded for the steel workers: carelessness or ignorance.
The term “fricking” was coined in 1892 after the Homestead Strike, when Henry Clay Frick locked out the Slovak steel workers. His militant resistance to the labor dispute and the resulting deaths forever tarnished his name and Carnegie’s, and the yerm “fricking” began to be used to describe something disgusting.
The Shadow of the Mills: Working-Class Families in Pittsburgh, 1870-1907, By S. J. Kleinberg
Gen Disasters, Braddock, Pennsylvania Edgar Thompson Steel Works Explosion August 23, 1895