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The Holland Tunnel fire occurred on the morning of Friday, May 13, 1949, in a hazardous materials truck passing through the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey.



At 8:30 a.m. a truck carrying eighty 55-gallon drums of carbon disulfide entered the south tunnel at the New Jersey portal. At the time, it was forbidden to carry carbon disulfide through the tunnel.

After the truck had traveled east for approximately 2900 feet (880 m) in heavy traffic, one of the drums broke free of its restraints, fell onto the roadway and cracked open. Vapor released from the drum was ignited when it came into contact with a hot surface, probably a brake or exhaust (carbon disulfide vapor ignites when raised to a temperature of 194 °F / 90 °C).

The truck came to rest in the left (fast) lane of the tunnel on a 0.25% downgrade and began to burn. Vehicles unable to pass the fire came to rest in the right lane, blocking the tunnel completely as their drivers sought to escape on foot. The tunnel west of the fire became gridlocked with traffic.

Port of New York Authority patrolmen in the tunnel east and west of the truck radioed in to advise of the blockage (8:48 a.m.) then to advise of the fire (8:56 a.m.). They assisted drivers to escape to the north tunnel through cross-passages. Tunnel staff entered the New Jersey portal to evacuate the occupants there and started to reverse vehicles out, while a works brigade crew drove the wrong way along the south tunnel and began fighting the fire at the site of the truck where it started.

Jersey City Fire Department were alerted at 9:05 a.m., New York Fire Department were alerted at 9:12 a.m.

The New York rescue crew set up a command post in the north tunnel at a cross passage near to the fire. They relieved the works brigade and sent a "make pumps 9" alarm at 9:30 a.m.

When the Jersey City crews arrived at the tunnel portal, they also sent requests for more firefighters and for oxygen breathing equipment.

Hot smoke caused a second fire to start, in a group of trucks apparently carrying paint and turpentine approximately 350 feet (110 m) west of the original fire. After this, the tunnel ventilation system was turned to full extract & full supply in order to extract smoke and reduce the likelihood of other spontaneous ignitions.

New Jersey firemen succeeded in extinguishing the second fire, and cleared a path for brigade vehicles to the first fire site where they linked up with the New York firemen. By 1:00 p.m. the fire was surrounded, and despite a re-ignition at 6:50 p.m. the stop message was issued at 12:52 a.m. the next morning.

The wreckage was cleared up and the tunnel re-opened to traffic on the evening of Sunday, May 15.

Emergency response

At the time of the fire, the Holland Tunnel was operated by the Port of New York Authority, which had control of various other transportation facilities in the area as well. Consequently, they had a works fire brigade nearby, who initiated firefighting operations at the seat of the fire about five minutes after it started.

New Jersey and New York fire brigades called up 29 firefighting trucks of varying types and borrowed four more trucks with breathing apparatus from Consolidated Edison. In total there were about 63 emergency response vehicles (including police, medical units, port authority vehicles and brigade supervisory vehicles).

The tunnel firemain (a 6-inch (150 mm) water pipe cast directly into the secondary concrete lining) continued to function throughout the fire.

Tunnel ventilation

At 9:45 a.m. the tunnel ventilation system was turned to full extract and full supply in the zone of the fire (zone S4). The supply of air through the duct under the roadway enabled firefighters to work without masks (by taking breaths from the air coming through the supply flues at curb level). The extract duct above the roadway captured some of the smoke and when the false ceiling at the site of the fire collapsed, a hole formed between the road tunnel and the extract ventilation duct: this hole dramatically improved the capture of smoke at the main fire site, though it reduced smoke capture at the second fire site to practically nothing.

Two of the extract fans in the New Jersey River vent shaft failed due to the heat of the fire (the shaft was approximately 300 feet (100 m) west of the fire, and was apparently drawing air at 1000 °F / 540 °C). The third fan was kept in working order by cooling it with a water spray.

Injuries and damage

In total, 66 people were injured, mostly by smoke inhalation. Of these, 27 were hospitalized. One firefighter (Battalion Chief Gunther E Beake) was severely affected by smoke inhalation and died of his injuries on 23 August 1949.

The truck carrying carbon disulfide was completely destroyed, as were nine other trucks. 13 trucks were damaged.

The infrastructure suffered extensive damage. Approximately 650 short tons (590 tonnes) of rubble were removed during the weekend before the tunnel reopened.

The tiles on the tunnel walls spalled off for a distance of approximately 200 feet (60 m) west of the fire site and 500 feet (150 m) east of it. At the site of the fire, the concrete lining of the walls spalled down to the ribs of the cast-iron primary lining.

The false ceiling above the roadway (which consisted of a 6 inch-thick, insitu, reinforced concrete slab) collapsed completely in several places and collapsed partially over a length of approximately 500 feet (150 m).

The elevated side walkway had to be renewed over a length of 750 feet (230 m), and the cable ducts cast into the walkway and walls were replaced over 300 feet (90 m).

Damaged power cabling, communications cabling and lighting were all renewed over the damaged area. The road surface was renewed over a length of about 500 feet (150 m).

The Port Authority decided that the tunnel could not be closed completely for the duration of the reconstruction. Instead, the south tube was closed at 8 p.m. each night, after which hundreds of feet of mobile scaffold and other equipment was hauled in. Reconstruction work was carried out overnight until approximately 4:30 a.m., at which time the construction equipment and scaffold was hauled out before the tunnel re-opened at 6 a.m. The repairs were completed by mid-August 1949. During the period of reconstruction, an unknown number of hats were sucked out through the broken extract duct, and expelled out of the New Jersey River vent shaft.

See also


  • Egilsrud, P., Prevention and Control of Highway Tunnel Fires, FHWA report RD-083-32, 1983
  • Haerter, A., Contribution to discussion on session E, pp. Z51–Z53, Proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on the Aerodynamics and Ventilation of Vehicle Tunnels, Canterbury, 1973. BHRA 1974: ISBN 0-900983-28-0
  • Restoration of Fire-Seared Holland Tunnel, Construction Methods and Equipment. vol. 31, no. 8, August 1949, pp. 34–38
  • It's a Brand-New Construction Job Every Night in the Holland Tunnel, Engineering News Record, July 21, 1949, pp. 32–34
  • Riley, N. and Lelland, A., A review of incidents involving hazardous materials in road and rail tunnels, Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Safety in Road and Rail Tunnels, 1995; ISBN 0-9520083-2-7
  • Foote, R. S., Research for Optimal Ventilation at the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, paper B3, pp. B3-33–B3-54, Proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on the Aerodynamics and Ventilation of Vehicle Tunnels, Canterbury, 1973. BHRA 1974: ISBN 0-900983-28-0
  • Skinner, F., The Holland Vehicular Tunnel under the Hudson River, Engineering, 1927.
  • Singstad, O., Ventilation of Vehicular Tunnels, World Engineering Congress, Tokyo, 1929
  • FDNY Honor Roll—B

Further reading

  • National Board of Fire Underwriters, The Holland Tunnel Chemical Fire, 1949.



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