Focus on History: Tragedy at laundry killed three

A steam pipe that broke in the boiler room of an Amsterdam laundry 64 years ago claimed three lives,

A steam pipe that broke in the boiler room of an Amsterdam laundry 64 years ago claimed three lives, seriously injured another man and left Donald F. Lasher of Fort Johnson with indelible memories.

Lasher was a 19-year-old truck driver working for contractor Adam Haberek on the expansion of the Robison & Smith laundry on West Main Street in Amsterdam on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 1947. A steam line with 250 pounds of pressure ran from a separate boiler room into the existing laundry.

On the scene that morning was one of the laundry’s founders, Franklin Robison of Gloversville, who had started the business with Willard Smith decades earlier.

Lasher said that Robison asked the power shovel operator, Steve “Smitty” Kaufman, to trim off the projections hanging from the end of the wall. “Kaufman put the shovel under the wall, raised the whole wall off the ground and settled the wall down. Kaufman said he couldn’t ‘get anything off.’ ” He removed the power shovel from the site.

Lasher said, “Mr. Haberek arrived to inspect the job. At that moment Mr. Robison noted that dirt had crumbled from under the supporting wall. Steam was starting to leak from the flanged joint in the line outside the building.” Realizing the line would soon break, Robison sent boiler operator William Rule into the boiler room to shut down the system. Robison followed him. Another worker, DeMilt Quackenbush, and Lasher trailed behind.

Lasher continued, “I stood by the side door and was wiping the closed door window to see the action outside when I suddenly found myself on the floor in a steam-filled room. When the wall fell, the pipe had broken outside. It swung down inside with the open end three feet from the floor. Five inches of 250-pound steam was escaping into the room.

“I realize now the good Lord was with me for before me was light. I crawled through the door that was letting in the light. It had blown open enough for me to get through. I escaped without a scratch.”

Lasher ran to the back entrance. Quackenbush, 51 from Fort Hunter, tried desperately to get out but the green swinging doors opened inward.

“An arm came crashing through the window, extended slowly and slid back into the building never to be seen again,” Lasher said.

Lasher’s truck was nearby. He started the truck and forced the doors open with the truck’s bumper. He parked the truck and ran back to the side entrance.

“Quackenbush made it to the back of the room but not out,” he said. “Mr. Robison wandered around in the room, trying to shut off the boilers. Like the walking dead, he came out.” Robison, 62, died two days later.

Rule, the boiler man who lived on Division Street in Amsterdam, came out and could not speak. Lasher’s wife, Helen, later told her husband that Rule’s adrenaline brought him out of the building. He died later that day.

The boilers were turned off although steam was still escaping as screaming sirens announced the arrival of firemen. Quackenbush was dead when firemen found him inside. Haberek was rescued, coming out supported on either side by firemen.

Lasher said, “He had found refuge in the runoff ditches along the walls of the boiler room where he had crouched in a fetal position. His burns were limited to whatever skin had been exposed. He didn’t totally recover for at least a year, when he went back to work.

A coroner’s inquest ruled the deaths of Quackenbush, Robison and Rule accidental. Lasher said, “I escaped because I saw the light to clear outside air. Thank you, God Almighty.”

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