However, one of science’s greatest achievements came at a very heavy price. Not only were countless lives lost when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but there were also many lives lost in secret while this technology was being developed. This is certainly true in the case of the Philadelphia Incident.
On September 2, 1944, three men entered a secret pilot plant facility at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, but only one of them made it back out.
The three men were Peter N. Bragg Jr., a chemical engineer from Arkansas that was hired in June of that year by the Navy Research Lab; Douglas P. Meigs was an employee of the H. K. Ferguson Company of Cleveland, OH (the prime contractor for the project); and Arnold Kramish, a physicist by education and a member of the Special Engineer Detachment (SED) who was on loan from Oak Ridge, TN.
These men were sent into the pilot plant, which was barely out of its experimental stage, to repair a clogged tube.
The men had to enter the transfer room of the liquid thermal diffusion semi-works at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to reach the clogged tube. This tube consisted of two concentric pipes with liquid uranium hexafluoride circulating in the space between them; the innermost pipe contained high-pressure steam.
Unfortunately, as soon as repairs were underway, the tube ruptured causing a massive explosion. So massive that this explosion would later be described as “perhaps [at that time] the largest release in history of radioactive materials.”
Bragg and Meigs were instantly covered with hydrofluoric acid and died inside the transfer room before help could arrive. Kramish suffered third degree burns all over his body and was on the edge of death by the time help could get to him.
Karmish would later recover and live until the age of 87. However, his colleagues were not so lucky. Not only did Bragg and Meigs die in what can only be described as one of the most horrific deaths possible, but due to the nature of the project their causes of death remained classified. So classified, not even the Philadelphia coroner’s office was privy to the information.
Karmish made it one of his missions in life to make sure that America would know what these two civilians gave up for their country.
In a 1991 Washington Post article, Karmish summarized the incident and its aftermath. He described the indignities the two men had to suffer, even after death. One such case was the description of the bodies of the two men. Since they were immersed in such high levels of Uranium, Manhattan Project leaders decided that the men’s organs were “classified materials.” Bragg and Meigs were both buried without any of their internal organs.
Though the government was very intent on keeping the project secret, they did make an effort to make sure it was known that the men died in the line of duty and not under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. Later, Karmish would receive letters from high ranking government officials somewhat recognizing the efforts, but only after petitioning these individuals to officially recognize the sacrifices of his colleagues.
It was not until June 21, 1993, that Bragg posthumously received the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the highest award given to a civilian employee of the Navy Department. However, Douglas Meigs has yet to receive any official recognition from the Navy, and efforts are currently underway to change that.
Unfortunately, those efforts will no longer have the driving force of Arnold Kramish behind them. Karmish died this past summer (June 2010) of a neurological disorder. He was 87 years old.Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com