At 5:00am on the evening of February 11, 1941, the residents of the 1100 block of Greenwich Street were all sound asleep in their snug two story row homes. The surrounding neighborhood (today known as East Passyunk — a popular shopping and dining district) was a tight-knit, mostly Italian-American community, in which daily life revolved around the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Beneath Greenwich Street. However, over the past couple of years, clay erosion had been causing the street’s ‘s six inch gas main to slowly settle. Residents had been complaining about the smell of gas to the Philadelphia Gas Company, but to no avail. That night, one of the feedpipes tore away from the sinking main, causing a cloud of live gas to seep into the basement of 1112 Greenwich Street.
An open flame heater in the basement set the gas alight. The house blew up as if hit by an aerial bomb.
“The first explosion, which blew both front and rear out of 1112 Greenwich Street,” John McCullough of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “leaving only the sagging roof and the debris-littered second floor, sent swords of flame through adjoining walls as though they had been made of papier-mache.”
“The window glass shattered over the floor and we got out of bed, frightened, “17-year old Tina Pellicano recalled. “I saw a man in the street with his clothing on fire. Flames were shooting out of the front of houses. My mother fainted. It was a terrible ordeal. We were all terrified. People were running from their homes and the commotion was just like an earthquake.”
A second explosion followed 15 minutes later. Firefighters arrived within minutes, but the entire block was “canopied” in flames.
“Mighty sheets of flame roared east as far as 1106 and west to 1122 Greenwich Street,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “In the lurid glare, a man with blazing nightshirt stumbled blindly amid the crumpled bricks of his home, as his son slapped at his burning clothing.”
By 6:10am, a crew from the gas company got to work plugging the gas main, shooting grease through the service pipe to block it. Crowds of curious spectators and anxious relatives of Greenwich Street residents gawked at the conflagation from behind police lines.
But even with the gas main plugged, the worst was yet to come. At 8:20am, an ember ignited 1600 cubic feet of accumulated gas trapped underneath the streetbed. The massive explosion blew the entire street to pieces, sending paving stones and bricks hurling through the air.
By daybreak, Greenwich Street looked like it had come right out of the newseels that showed London on fire after a Luftwaffe raid, only in living color.
In all, five people died in the Greenwich Street gas explosion, including one police officer and one fireman.
- Patrolman James Clark, 56
- Fireman Frank M. Ruhl, 56
- Angelina Treretola, 41
- Michilena Treretola, 21
- Marie Treretola, 14
30 were injured, and were treated either at St. Agnes Hospital, Methodist Hospital, or on the scene by medical personnel.
The residents of South Greenwich Street had complained about the smell of gas for months, but the Philadelphia Gas Works had ignored the problem. On January 4, 1943, after a two month trial, Justice Maxey of the Pennsylvania State Surpreme Court ruled in favor of the widow of Frank Ruhl, who had sued the Philadelphia Gas Company and the City of Philadelphia for negligence. In his opinion, Maxey noted that, “The gas company was in exclusive possession and control of its gas and gas mains. For two years the neighbors had smelled escaping gas and had notified the gas company. The last notification was three days before the explosions. The gas company did not try to locate the leak. It did not repair its leaking main or shut off the gas.”
The court awarded Alice Ruhl $17,892.65 in damages for the death of her husband.
“List of Victims in S. Phila Blast,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.
Ralph Crocker, “Terror-Stricken Victims Thought It Was a Quake As Their Houses Toppled,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.
John M. McCullough, “4 Houses Are Wrecked as Fire Adds to Terror Caused by 3 Explosions,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1941.
Ruhl v. Philadelphia, 346 Pa. 214, 215 (Pa. 1943), https://casetext.com/case/ruhl-v-philadelphia-et-al, accessed December 5, 2019.