HAWTHORNE, N.J. – Former Hawthorne volunteer firefighter Harry Shortway, Jr. has vivid memories of February 17, 1967.
“I will never forget that morning. People coming out of the building on fire. Clothes on fire,” said Shortway, the mayor of Midland Park.
Shortway, also formerly a police officer in Ridgewood, was the first responder to arrive at the scene of the Morningstar-Paisley chemical explosion and fire that killed 11 people and injured many more.
“When I pulled up, people were screaming there was a girl trapped on the second floor. Myself and a Hawthorne patrolman were the first ones to run up the stairs. It was on the second floor, 55 gallon drums going off, we could hear the explosions. Our job was to save people,” Shortway said.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the chemical plant explosion, Hawthorne Mayor Richard Goldberg honored Shortway and other first responders at the borough council meeting Wednesday.
“It is something I never forgot, and when I realized this was a special year, I wanted to thank those first responders who are still with us for the sacrifices they made,” Goldberg said.
“Many heroes that day from Hawthorne and the surrounding communities fought the fire, rescued workers, and assisted aiding the volunteers who selflessly searched the rubble,” Goldberg said. “Some 250 volunteer firemen from Hawthorne and 10 neighboring towns continued to search for the bodies of the missing men.”
Among the first responders honored Wednesday were retired police officer Alfred Soder, retired captain Carmine Terrizzi and retired sergeant Charles W. Mabey.
Soder, one of the first officers on the scene, recalled helping about 15 people off the loading dock, and running upstairs to help free the woman trapped on the second floor.
“She was under a massive pile of rubble and we had to dig her out,” he said.
Mabey recalled the shear strength of the explosion knocking train cars off the railroad tracks, and the long days he and his colleagues spent at the scene.
“We put in 14 hours a day,” he said.
“Thirty days straight in a row until all the rubble was taken away,” Terrizzi added.
Terrizzi said he remembered the people most. “The Red Cross was there, the Salvation Army, giving out blankets … And neighbors notifying others of the dangers. I’ll never forget that,” he said.
Fifty years later, Shortway still remembers one man who couldn’t be saved. “It bothered me all my life. He wasn’t breathing … a couple times I ran out, I got a crow bar, I tried to go back and get him, but I couldn’t do it,” he said.
On Friday a plaque will be hung in Hawthorne Borough Hall that includes the names of those who died as a result of the explosion.
The names etched on the plaque are: Joseph J. Alnemy, Newfoundland; Thomas Carroll, Clifton; Ernest W. Furler, Sr., Hawthorne; Arthur Langston, Paterson; Peter N. Pieters, Hawthorne; L.R. Robinson, Hawthorne; George Rosner, Englewood; Joseph Schwartz, Fair Lawn; Gustave Tilstra, Paterson; George Van Campen, Hawthorne; and Lawrence Wesley, Paterson.