At 12:50 AM on November 30th, 1943 an explosion on the ground floor of the Western Electric Company building killed two people and injured more than 30 others. The explosion was felt through out much of Lower Manhattan and even as far away as New Jersey. The explosion broke every window in the ten story Western Electric building, and many others within a ten block radius. According to The New York Times, nearby streets were ankle-deep in shattered glass. 700 of the 1,000 Western Electric employees working the night shift were women. They were working around the clock because of the war. The workers were making radio equipment and radio tubes for the armed forces. The explosion was an accident, not terrorism or sabotage, according to the New York Police Department, the FBI was noncommittal. Sabotage was a concern, because there were a number of plants nearby also making instruments and devices for the war. The explosion was caused by a spark made by a pair of workmen who were trying to repair a leaking hydrogen tank. They and many other hydrogen tanks were on a loading platform. A 28 year old guard died of the burns he received while dragging the two workmen out to safety. Mayor La Guardia arrived at the scene around 2 AM. The fire was extinguished in about an hour and was limited to the loading platform area.
The magnificent edifice at 395 Hudson Street occupies an entire city block, and is framed by Houston, Hudson, Greenwich, and Clarkson Streets. When the building opened on July 15, 1921, it was New York City’s largest concrete building, cost $5,000,000 (approximately $69,678,813 in 2017) to build, and was the most “up-to-date warehouse-shop-office in the country.” The land “on which the new building stands was was purchased from the Corporation of Trinity Church, which received it from Queen Anne (1665–1714) in 1705.” (The New York Times, July 3, 1921.) (More information and “an excellent view of the block which will be occupied by the new 395 Hudson St. building,” before construction began, can be seen in the Western Electric News, The Employee’s Magazine, July 1920.) The reinforced concrete building was built by the Turner Construction Company. (According to the building’s website, it was designed by the architectural firm McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin and renovated in 1989, and the building has a “structural steel frame with red brick façade and contains 512 double pane, mahogany tilt and pivot operable windows.”) The photo is an amazing achievement: in a fraction of a second, in the middle of the night, during a chaotic catastrophe, a uniformed police officer displays enormous empathy and consternation while looking at the calm, placid face of an injured woman, human and helpless, on a stretcher. (Unidentified photographer in the background.) An uncropped version reveals that the cop was not the only empathetic and concerned human looking gravely at the body brought to the back of an ambulance.
On Wednesday, December 1, 1943, PM published a pair of unrelated photos made by Weegee. In one, a few people including a police officer are looking at a destroyed police car, and in the other and a police officer is looking at an injured person on a stretcher. (PM gave very little coverage to the massive explosion, no articles, just one great photo, while The New York Times ran a few articles, without photos.) The two versions of the famous photo, often called “The Human Cop,” published in PM and Naked City, are about a half of the original negative. The photo above, made from the original 4×5 negative, was not cropped and was expertly printed in 1982 by the brilliant Sid Kaplan.
PM, December 1, 1943, p. 16
End of a Bandit Chase
Two policemen were critically injured early yesterday when their radio car cracked into a truck at 55th and Eleventh Ave. They were chasing two men who were fleeing in a stolen car after holding up a tailor shop at 446 W. 57th St. One suspect was later seized by other policemen.
Proving the Cops are Human
A look of grave concern crosses the face of this policeman as he watches an injured woman being removed from the Western Electric plant at 395 Hudson St. following explosion that killed two early yesterday.
Weegee, Naked City, 1945, pp. 68-69
…and the human cop.