Three men were fatally injured and a fourth seriously hurt 70 years ago when a steam pipe ruptured inside the boiler room of a commercial laundry in Amsterdam.
Another man, Donald F. Lasher of Fort Johnson, emerged virtually unscathed from the tragic scene at the Robison & Smith laundry on West Main Street.
Lasher was 19, a truck driver working for Fort Johnson contractor Adam Haberek on an expansion of the laundry on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 1947. A steam line with 250 pounds of pressure ran from a separate boiler room into the laundry.
Checking on the job that morning was one of the firm’s founders, Franklin Robison of Gloversville, who had started the business with Willard Smith decades earlier.
In a 2011 interview, 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 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.
Contractor Haberek arrived a few minutes later. Lasher said Robison then noticed that dirt had crumbled from under the supporting wall. Steam was starting to leak from a joint in the steam line outside the building.
Robison and boiler operator William Rule, 59, went into the boiler room to shut down the system. Another worker, DeMilt Quackenbush, Haberek and Lasher trailed behind.
Lasher was just inside the building wiping the closed door window so he could see what was happening outside when he suddenly found himself on the floor in a steam-filled room. A wall had sagged and the steam pipe had broken outside and inside the building.
Lasher said, “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 and from Fort Hunter, tried 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 started his truck and forced the doors open with the truck’s bumper. He parked the truck and ran back to the side entrance.
Lasher said, “Mr. Quackenbush made it to the back of the room but not out. Mr. Robison wandered around in the room, trying to shut off the boilers. Like the walking dead, he came out.”
Rule, the boiler man who lived on Division Street in Amsterdam, came out and could not speak.
The boilers were turned off although steam was still escaping as sirens announced the arrival of firemen. Haberek came out supported on either side by firemen.
Quackenbush was dead when firemen found him inside. Rule died at Amsterdam City Hospital later that day. Robison, 57, died two days later at the hospital.
A coroner’s inquest ruled the deaths of Quackenbush, Robison and Rule accidental.
Haberek was badly injured but survived. 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.”
In 2015 Robison & Smith changed its corporate name to Century Linen & Uniform. Donald Lasher died on New Year’s Day this year. He was buried at Fairview Cemetery in Amsterdam.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected].