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Matt:

Did you ever hear of the Great Boston Molasses Flood, sometime back in the 1920s? Lots of people drowned in a nasty, sticky, slow death. Details, please.

-- Tim, not in Boston

Just my kind of disaster. Big, messy, weird, and very far away. It happened the day before the Prohibition amendment was ratified, January 15, 1919. Ironically, the molasses belonged to the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company. Between the rum and the baked bean factories, molasses was always a hot commodity in Boston. USIA's storage tank, a 2-1/2-million-gallon behemoth made of riveted steel set in concrete, was 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter. Topped off, the contents weighed 14,000 tons. About noon, newspaper accounts say, there was a huge roar, the rivets shot out, and a 15-foot wall of liberated molasses made a beeline for downtown. (A "beeline" for molasses in Boston in January is estimated to be about 35 miles per hour.) When the stuff finally gurgled to a stop, the resulting blob covered several square blocks three feet deep. It had flattened workmen's shacks, shoved houses off their foundations, smothered 21 people, and injured 150 more.

The flood was one thing. The cleanup was something else entirely. Mostly they used harbor water pumped by fireboats, then covered the residue with sand. Anyone who came in contact with the stuff spread it around the city on their hands, clothes, and shoes. The greater Boston area was reportedly one big piece of flypaper for months as people spread the stickiness into the suburbs. The smell lasted for years.

In the ensuing court case, explanations for the explosion ranged from Bolshevik bombs to fermentation. The judge ultimately blamed the company for shoddy maintenance. A few years ago, there was a similar molasses disaster in Nebraska, this time a million-gallon tank. The goo never made it off the company's property, though. It knocked down a couple of small buildings and glued three or four people to their workstations for a while. We must be making progress in molasses-safety technology.

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