THE UPPER HUTT EXPLOSION
SATURDAY 28 MARCH AND SUNDAY 29 MARCH 1914
Shortly after midnight on Saturday (28 March 1914) at the township of Upper Hutt a tragic calamity occurred. A small store was discovered to be on fire just before midnight, and in the interval before the fire hose could be secured a band of helpers, including many local residents and railwaymen, entered the burning building and endeavoured to save as much of the stock as possible. While they were thus engaged inside and just outside the store a terrific explosion occurred inside, and completely wrecked the whole premises. Four men were killed outright, one died soon afterwards, and a sixth man succumbed to his injuries shortly after reaching Wellington Hospital early on Sunday morning.
Several others were more or less severely injured with the flying debris and burning timber, and, after being attended by a number of doctors, who, hurriedly summoned, were quickly on the scene, were conveyed by special train in record time to Wellington, where they were received in the Hospital.
The less seriously injured had their injuries tended, and were able to get back to their homes. Many people had miraculous escapes in the fatal rain of flying debris, which spread havoc among all the surrounding property. The windows in the adjoining buildings, the Provincial Hotel, and in the Post Office across the main road, and in dwelling houses and shops much further away were shattered to fragments by the force of the explosion.
After the explosion, the fire consumed the wreckage, and assailed and gutted the next building — a drapery store. It was finally suppressed, early in the morning, after the worst was done, by a party of fire-fighters, with one lead of hose.
The six men who met their deaths through the explosion were:
James COMESKY (COMESKEY), 57 years of age, Postmaster at Upper Hutt
William FLYNN, aged 35 years, railway guard
George TAYLOR, 19 years of age, railway porter at Upper Hutt
John Wesley VIVIAN, aged about 35 years, Storeman in BENGE’s store
Michael TOOHEY (TWOHEY), aged about 29 years, bridge contractor
The following were seriously injured and are present in Wellington Hospital: -
James HAGAN, about 50 years of age, caretaker of Trentham Rifle Range
Everard E H PELLING, 18 years of age, blacksmith’s assistant
Virgil M’GOVERN, about 25 years of age, a member of the Upper Hutt Town Board
Many others were less seriously injured, including the following: -
Charles WALTERS, signalman at the Upper Hutt
Thomas COSTELLO, shunter at Upper Hutt
R F STOREY, tablet porter at Upper Hutt
S H WEAVER, engine driver and chairman of the local branch of the Locomotive Engine-Drivers and Firemen’s Association
A J COLLETT, local chairman of Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants
C D MORPETH, Accountant, Wellington
The number of persons killed by the explosion at the fire at Messrs BENGE and PRATT’s shop at the Upper Hutt on Saturday night now amounts to seven.
Yesterday afternoon at 4.45 o’clock, Everard E H PELLING, a young man 18 years of age, died at the Hospital, never having regained consciousness. Deceased who was a son of Mr E H PELLING of the Upper Hutt, received injuries to his head, which proved fatal.
Dr MACLAURIN, Government Analyst, made an inspection of the ruins yesterday. He will be an important witness at the inquest so far as the cause of the explosion is concerned. Sergeant-Detective RAWLE is making enquiries on behalf of the police. The cause of the explosion is still uncertain.
At a meeting of the Upper Hutt Town Board last evening, a resolution was adopted, the members standing — expressing the deep sympathy of the townspeople and board with the relatives of those who had lost their lives or had been injured in Sunday’s catastrophe. The chairman announced he had opened a subscription list for the relief of the necessities of those requiring help and that he had convened a public meeting for Tuesday night in the local Town Hall.
Splendid work was done by the women of the township, who assisted in ministering to the injured. Several had knowledge of first aid and it proved useful.
After the loss of Constable MAHONEY in the ruins of the store Sergeant O’HALLORAN was summoned at once from Wellington, and came up post haste by motor, bringing with him Constable MELVILLE of Wellington, and Constable MEIKLEJOHN of Petone. Sergeant O’HALLORAN was busy right through the whole of yesterday looking after details connected with the fire. The special train, which carried the wounded into town, was driven by W GREY, with J SKELTON as fireman, who had just brought in the 10.35 train from Wellington. The special was driven through to Wellington in under forty-five minutes — a record for the distance — which usually takes over an house. Dr KEMP travelled with the four injured men, who were conveyed by two ambulances to the Hospital.
On Sunday morning, Mr W R MORRIS (Secretary of the Post and Telegraph Department), Mr A P DRYDEN (Chief Postmaster) and Mr LAURENSON (a member of the Wellington Post Office staff) went to the Upper Hutt in connection with the restoration of the Post and Telegraph services. Soon after their arrival men were set to work to screw boards over the broken windows in the local Post Office and tidy up the premises, and Mr LAURENSON was placed in charge of the office pending the appointment of a successor to the late Mr COMESKY. Public business is being carried out there as usual today.
Among the many people who had narrow escapes was Mr J HAZELWOOD, general storekeeper, whose place of business is directly to the north side of the demolished building, and whose drapery department was completely destroyed in the conflagration. Mr HAZELWOOD, at the time of the explosion took place, was nailing sheets of corrugated iron over his back windows, in an effort to prevent the encroachment of the flames on his premises. Presently there was a tremendous report, and he found himself in the midst of a tornado of flying timber, sheet-iron and debris. Some of the burning pieces were flung close on a hundred yards away to the rear of his premises.
The tragic explosion at the Upper Hutt on the 29th March claimed its eighth victim in Mr Virgil McGOVERN who died, as a result of his injuries, in the Wellington Hospital at ten minutes to 8 last evening. The deceased had been in a critical condition for the last fortnight, and the end was not altogether unexpected. Mr McGOVERN was one of the four who were brought down from the Upper Hutt in a special train to the Hospital, all very seriously injured. Michael TWOHEY died shortly after reaching the hospital, and Everard E H PELLING, the youth of eighteen, who was trapped with the late Mr J CROMESKEY in the ruins of EDWARDS’s office; part of the building shattered by the explosion, only survived a day and a half. The deceased, who had been picked up 60 feet away from the doorway of the wrecked store, sustained severe wounds from the flying debris. During the first week in hospital he seemed to make some progress towards recovery, but after that he gradually sank until the end came. Mr James HAGAN, the fourth man badly injured by the explosion and brought to the Hospital, is now on the way to recovery.
Widespread regret and sorrow will be felt at the death of Mr McGOVERN, who was one of the most popular young men in the Hutt Valley. He was unmarried, a young man of twenty-five years of age, born at Kaitangata. Together with his parents he came to Wellington in 1896. His parents for a time kept the White Swan Hotel, but later removed to Taita, and afterwards to Kaiwarra, and then to Wallaceville.
As a boy Virgil McGOVERN attended the Marist Brothers’ school and received his higher education at St Patrick’s College. His kindly disposition made him a favourite with his fellow students. After leaving college, he went into the grain business for a while at Waimate, and later entered the professional ranks as dentist. Of recent years he was residing with his mother and sister at Upper Hutt, where on the 25th March, three days before the fatal explosion, he was elected a member of the Town Board. He was, unfortunately, never able to take his seat. The funeral takes place tomorrow morning.
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