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The Manhattan Project Accident Known As The Philadelphia Incident

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The Manhattan Project Accident Known As The Philadelphia Incident

manhatten project accident philadelphia september 2 1944The Manhattan Project is one of history’s most famous (or infamous) secret government projects that eventually led to the atomic bomb.

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.

manhatten project accident philadelphia september 2 1944
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.

manhatten project accident philadelphia september 2 1944In 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

  • Pjsp0325

    Thank you for an interesting article, but mostly for remembering Arnold Kramish, and his contributions to others. He is truly missed.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. It seems pretty clear that Arnold was a noble guy – impressive that he worked so hard during his life to find recognition for his friends.

  • Pjsp0325

    Yes, he was. He was also my father. I am grateful for the tributes to his life.

  • Anonymous

    In that case – I feel honored by your comments, and I’m very sorry for your loss.

  • Pjsp0325

    Thank you. It helps to see him remembered. Best wishes on this interesting website.

  • Mark

    Does anyone know if there is declassified info that shows the exact location of where the thermal diffusion plant sat?
    The Naval Boiler and Turbine Laboratory (Bldg 633) which provided the steam for the thermal diffusion plant is still there and I often wonder where exact location of accident was.  I suspect that the very spot is now somewhere out in the parking lot East of Bldg 633.  There ought to be a small monument and a plaque erected on this site in commemoration of the men who lost their lives to keep America strong and free.

  • Mark

     May the good Lord bless and keep your Dad always.  I think about him and the two who lost their lives every time I park near that site at the Phila Navy Yard.

  • Mark

     May the good Lord bless and keep your Dad always.  I think about him and the two who lost their lives every time I park near that site at the Phila Navy Yard.

  • It might be worthwhile hunting through the National Archives – online for starters, but if there’s a library location near you to access an archives collection, that’s a great resource for research. Other than that, Navy FOIA files, etc… We don’t have anything on this yet, but I think this is a great avenue for research and a future article.

  • Christopher Hart

    Not too much left of the Meigs family. I’m a nephew, once removed, to Douglas Meigs. My middle name is Douglas, in memory of him. Did a lot of research years ago and even spoke with Arnold once on the telephone. Sorry to learn he has passed on. Anyone looking for family can drop me an email.

  • Dave Blatt

    It was my understanding the location was next to the powerplant. Close to the foundry and prop shop.
    Could be wrong though….

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