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Chester, PA: Tragedies
Third Street Bridge Collapse

Third St. Bridge; Photo courtesy of Barbara (Usavage) Montello

Photo courtesy of Barbara (Usavage) Montello, Boothwyn, PA

Chester Times
September 1951

3rd Street Bridge Collapse
Claimed 24 Lives in 1921

A barge of coal on it's way to the Crozer Mill in Upland rammed into one of the foundations of the 3rd Street Bridge over Chester River in 1909.

The force was sufficient to split half of a triangular 16 inch gusset plate which held in position a steel beam supporting one of the two wooden footwalks of the bridge.

Twelve years later, on Sept. 10, 1921 that commonplace jostling of the supports of the bridge by a coal barge pinned the crepe of horrible death on scores of grief stricken homes in Chester.

Water Claims 24 lives.

Because on that Sept. day in 1921 the tumbling muddy waters of the Chester River, laced with the yellow foam of dyes and other foreign matter, swallowed up 24 men women and children.

One of the bodies recovered was that of a three-year-old boy who's rescue attempt started in horrible  motion the circumstances that led to the mass tragedy.

One eye witness of the harrowing scene has recalled some of the drama of this ugly picture of tragedy.

Jacob Sapovits, a lawyer with offices in the Crozer Building, was 11 years old at the time. He was cycling in the 3rd and Edgmont area when a section of the footbridge collapsed, plunging almost 100 persons into the water.

Unforgettable scene

"I hastened to the scene", he said, " and saw the people struggling in the water. It's a scene I'll never forget ".

Jack Farrell, proprietor of the Hotel Moon Glow, Market St. below third, recalled how his mother hung to a sagging portion of the bridge railing---poised perilously above the water---until men dragged her to safety His voice was remote and cold.

Dr. Joseph A. DiMedio, who at the time had been practicing medicine for only a year at 811 W. Third St. recounted the kind of played out physical horror that clung to him for days, after he worked for more than seven hours reviving victims who were pulled from the river alive.

That is the present day backdrop to one of the major catastrophes in Chester's history.

Reports vary on Boy Victim

Reports do not coincide as to how three year old Apostelos Apostolos, of 423 Edgmont Ave., happened to fall into the river near the rear of the Edgmont Theater, now the Stanley.

Some have it that the boy tumbled in while he was watching another group of boys swim.  Another is to the effect that the boy struggled into a rowboat which had sprung a leak and, half filled with water, sank under his weight.

But here's the story of what happened as told to the police at the time by Thomas J Hemsworth, 709 Pennell St., one of the first to arrive on the scene.

" I was about to go into the Edgmont Theater, when a small boy came running toward me, telling me between sobs, that a boy had fallen into the river in the back of the Story Coal Company."

Grapple for the body

Hemsworth followed the boy to the spot and soon was joined by   John Perry, a former driver of the Franklin Fire Co.

Together they started grappling for the Apostolos boy with improvised equipment fashioned from long poles. Soon a crowd gathered on the bridge.

As the two men dipped experimentally in the water, dragging lines of dirty foam in twisting streaks, the crowd became swollen until the bridge was filled.

Some additional aid came to the two men including Charles "Chapple" VanDorn, who rescued several victims. The water ebbed and flowed into the small erosion caves along the banks of the river.....small caves cut out by the water and looking like dark, sad eyes.

It was shortly after 6 P. M. and the sky, earlier overcast, was clearing fast now.  The clean yellow sun was shining on the water.

Brick Landmarks

The cutlines of buildings in the section....brick landmarks like the Stetson Building on 3rd Street, built before the turn of the century, were sharp now, no longer fuzzy blurs.

The bridge with it's wooden walkways, held rigid by steel girders,......supported at each end by huge stone piers, .....was spotted here and there with dark iron rust. And the 16 inch gusset plate which had been removed and hammered straight again 12 years before was still there, .....still, too, with it's eight inch split.

Over the years the quietly gnawing current hadn't been able to weaken the massive stone bridgeheads, but....

There was a thrumming vibration in the bridge, noticed only by a few.  They ignored it in favor of the view below them in the river.

Span trembles...and shivers

The bridge shivered and trembled, ever so slightly.  And there was a deep hum in the wooden timbers that apparently only a few heard.

One end of the bridge gently parted...then came little strained cries from the aged timbers as iro turnbolts went through.  Then a section of the walkway facing the Edgmont Theatre, let go with a shrill, piping sound.

The collapsed portion of the bridge formed a chute over which   the wildly clutching spectators slid in a mass of writhing legs, Arms and bodies.

Fear swelled in those who were fortunate enough to scramble to safety. 

Struggle to reach Shore

The river boiled and swirrled as hapless victims lashed about in the water in their efforts to reach shore---barely forty feet away.

There were sobs, some strangled and dry, others piercing with hysterical horror, from those who's nimble feet or location on the farther  end of the bridge avoided the dive into the water.

An outstanding hero was Emanuel Vadvarka, 530 Penn St.

He dove, and with his powerful arms fought the water as he swam to the struggling mass of people.

He seized a woman by the hair and got her to shore. Then he returned, towing two children to the muddy bank of the river. And again he swam out into the midstream, this time bringing a small boy back with him.

Taken to Hospital

There was a moan in the labored breathing of the woman the youth pulled out of the water, as Dr. DiMedio sloshed in the mud, resuscitating her.  Assisting the young physician was City Comptroller Albert H. Hughes.

Men lifted the soaking limp bodies to carry them to private automobiles and trucks for transportation to the Chester Hospital for further treatment.

Meanwhile the river had become alive with row boats as rescuers sought to keep deaths at a minimum.

A group of 15 policemen, under the command of Capt. Harry Robinson, worked ceaselessly pulling victims out of the water, keeping crowds in nearby streets ......now swollen into the thousands, under control and aiding Dr. DiMedio in ministrations.

One of the policemen, Detective John McKinney, saved the lives of two sisters, Grace and Mary Meehan, 916 W. 3rd Street. His son Paul now is a Chester detective.

Soap Pierce saves 15

Another hero was George (Soap) Pierce, who later became a member of the Chester Police Force. He is credited with saving 15 lives.

And still another was Morris Baylin, then in his teens, who saved the lives of four persons, one of whom was Mrs. Rebecca Levin, 123 W. Third St. Baylin lived at Third and Penn Street.

Pulling one girl out of the river and working until exhausted and ordered home by Dr. DiMedio, was Morris Schwartz, then operator of the Chester Taxi Service and now the owner of the Yellow Cab. Company here.

Mrs Florence Whittington, 402 West Second St. was saved by James Rush.

Daughter drowned

"Where's my Child? Save Dorothy" she pleaded to Rush. Neither of them knew at the time that Dorothy, 12, was under the water drowned.

Within a few hours, working under floodlights, Leonard Miller, a diver, was descending into the water from a large boat owned by the Chester Construction and Contracting Company. He made five trips beneath the water, staying under for periods of 10 minutes duration. On one trip he released the body of a boy almost buried in the muddy bottom of the river, and brought it to the surface.

One incident stood out during the feverish late afternoon   and early evening. That was the feat of James Silverstein of Third and Dock Street.

Weighing 120 pounds he clung to an iron railing of the bridge with one hand and held 195 pound Mrs. Jacob Shapero by the other until assistance came.  He prevented her from sliding down the sharp wooden incline, formed by the collapsed walkway, into the water.

Two Girls Saved

Volunteers were numerous. Members of American Legion Posts  throughout the City begged police officials to permit them to dive    into the river. But they were restrained.

Alex McCloskey. 600 West 9th Street, Head of the Chester Lodge of Moose, dove into the water however and saved the lives of two girls.

Morris Knopf, who conducted a pawn shop on W. 3rd St. near the bridge, was among those drowned.

Had he not changed plans at the last minute on the preceding day he would not have died. He was to have left on vacation to be spent at Kirkwood, N. J.

Article contributed by Louis J. Warfel, loujwarfel@juno.com

If you have any information and or pictures that you would like to contribute about the history of any tragedies or other unusual events in the history of Chester, please forward it to john@oldchesterpa.com

2000, 2003 John A. Bullock III.

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