Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Big explosion--fire, death, injuries, and flying fruit

As I do historical research about Ambridge, every once in while I stumble across something other than what I'm looking for that makes me go "whoa!" Like this front page photo and accompanying article with the headline, "Ambridge Block is Devastated by Blast--1 Killed, 44 Flee Explosion and Fire" from the May 6, 1930, Pittsburgh Press.

Rubble from explosion, 1300 block of Merchant St.
Pittsburgh Press
May 6, 1930

Press caption:
This is all that was left of a two-story building in the 1300 block Merchant St., Ambridge, after it was apparently bombed today. One man was killed. Fire following the explosion spread to the Hotel Grant (sic).
The 3:30 A.M. explosion, presumed to be a result of a bomb according to the Press, destroyed a building on the corner of 13th and Merchant Sts. which that paper said was occupied by George Scoursis'* fruit and vegetable market and Peter Ambrosio's** shoe repair shop, as well as a second floor "club room" operated by Joseph Martin.

The May 7, 1930, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said the blast was on the southeast corner of 13th and Merchant and destroyed a 100 year-old Harmonist building--although the building now at that corner looks like a Harmonist building, so perhaps the destroyed building wasn't exactly on the corner or was on a different corner at that intersection.

[Update February 4, 2016: Thanks to a tip from John Domansky, I may now know the correct location of the building that was destroyed: 1301 Merchant St., so the northwest corner of 13th and Merchant St. See Economy Fruit Market ad below.]

The Post-Gazette also said the blast was "mysterious" and "of unknown origin," and reported that Fire Chief A. G. Fisher said he didn't think a bomb or gas had caused the explosion. Instead, Fisher believed that "at least 25 gallons of gasoline were used."

The body of Joseph Musitino, a roomer in a building across the street, was later found in the ruins beneath a door. He was clutching a .38 caliber revolver and part of a door handle. Ammunition was found in his pocket, and a flashlight was found near his body.

The Post-Gazette said that laborers were still searching the ruins, looking for a friend who had been seen with Musitino the day of the blast.

The fire following the blast spread to a two-story building behind the fruit market, home to several families. The Press reported that "Mr. and Mrs. Michael Moses, their three children, Mary, 4; Rose, 3, and Gladys, 1, fled to the street."

The shock from the explosion was felt for blocks. Houses shook and residents were thrown from their beds. Windows in homes and businesses in the surrounding block were blown out. According to the Press, the nearby Grand Hotel*** lost over 100 windows. And like a comedic touch after a huge explosion in an action movie, fruit and vegetables from the fruit market flew through the air and smashed through hotel windows. The Post-Gazette said fruit "literally rained through the nearby windows."

According to the Press, B. S. McDonald's hotel room was "filled with vegetables blown through the windows," and he was quoted saying, "I was pelted with vegetables and with fragments of plate glass. Some of those glass slivers buried themselves in the wall right near my head." An adjoining room occupied by Walter Knox was "filled with fruit." The Post-Gazette had a photo (unfortunately, not a good one, at least in the digitized version) of another hotel resident, Mike Demo, holding a pineapple that "was hurled through his window, and into a wardrobe."

The Press also reported that James Dillon arrived at his home across from the fruit market about 10 minutes after the explosion and found his two-year old daughter, Geraldine, asleep under a pane of glass which had blown out of the window, but remained intact. Amazingly, the toddler not injured--and still asleep.

When the two articles were written, police were looking for two men seen just before the explosion by a milkman, running from the building.

Damage from the explosion was estimated to be $30,000.

I don't know why Musitino was in or about to enter the destroyed building with a gun in his hand. I also don't know if Musitino's friend eventually was found in the rubble, if the cause of the bombing was ever conclusively determined, or if a bomber or arsonist was ever found. If I find any additional information, I'll update this article.

Another article I found in my meanderings through old newspapers that made me say "whoa!" led to my June 25, 2015, article, "Daring daylight holdup, plucky girl clerk."

* The Post-Gazette identified the fruit market as the Economy Fruit Store, owned by "George and John Crocous." If anyone can confirm the name(s) of the market's owners, please let me know.

[Update February 4, 2016:  John Domansky pointed me to this ad in the program for Ambridge's Canady-Hull Post American Legion's February 10 and 11, 1927, musical "The Bimbo," showing the address of the Economy Fruit Market was 1301 Merchant St., owned by Geo. Scourcos.

Economy Fruit Market ad
program for "The Bimbo"
Canady-Hull Post American Legion
February 10 and 11, 1927
program courtesy of John Domansky

** I believe the Press is referring to Peter D'Ambrosio, a long-time Ambridge shoe repair shop owner who owned a shop on the southwest corner of 13th and Merchant in the 1940s (and beyond?). [Update February 4, 2016: Given the other incorrect information in the Press and Post-Gazette's articles about the explosion, I'm now wondering if D'Ambrosio moved his shop across 13th St. to the southwest corner after the explosion. Or if his shop was always on the southwest corner, perhaps damaged, but not destroyed, by the explosion, and the newspapers got it wrong. Does anyone know for certain?]

*** The Press and Post-Gazette articles mistakenly refer to the Grand Hotel/Hotel Grand as the "Hotel Grant" in the articles. You can read more about the Grand Hotel in my February 24, 2014, article, "The Grand Hotel and the Moose."


  1. jd aka john domansky
    nancy im looking at the bimbo book (play about the black face)feb 1927, there is an ad in there from "economy fruit market geo scourcos prop. 1301 merchant st all kinds of fruits & groceries, if you scanned that book you have the factual address for the explosion area, at 1st i thot it was d'ambrosios, i might be wrong, the red brick, gives it away, the block where the explosion may of been was always a vacant lot as i knew it from late 1930s to the 40s mid, then they built on it, building house a short lived tucker auto dealer there. 1948 rode in one. hope this helps, that was fun about taylor dairy too.

    1. Thanks for the tip on the address and the spelling of the fruit market owner's name.

  2. jd aka john domansky

    just reread the post gazette comments, they say explosion was on the south east corner of 13th st, that does not seem right, it should be southwest corner, southeast was the moose & old hotel ambridge.

    1. The Hotel Grand (later the Moose) would have been at the northeast corner of 13th and Merchant, no?

      What hotel are you referring to as "old hotel ambridge"? The only hotel I know of at 13th and Merchant was the Grand Hotel. The Ambridge Hotel was on 8th and Merchant.

    2. nancy about 8 yrs ago or so, walt wacht & i saw a postcard on ebay, it shows ambridge hotel, 190? shortly after the 190? date it burned down & moose was built there, anytime an ambridge poctcard came on ebay we talked about it & our ambridge escapades, my mom rented his dads house on 1925 duss in 1951 or 2 & stayed til 54, early. there is a postcard out there somewhere that shows the ambridge hotel on the short block of 13rh, east side. i have a copy of the moose lodge that shows the same exact windows that are shown in the explosion pic, 2 large front windows & a slanted entry doorway (angled) its been a while since i have seen the postcard it may of been ambridge grand hotel, all i know is i saw ambridge hotel on building it was a large building. in all the stuff i sent was rhere not a copy of the moose lodge?? beware of a
      nun bearing gifts huh??? oh yes i found an adv in a paper got of ebay showing hamerlik grocery store about 21 st.

    3. jd aka john domansky in above comment

    4. John, you are mistaken. The hotel on 13th and Merchant was not the Ambridge Hotel, but rather the Grand Hotel. If the postcard you saw on eBay said it was the Ambridge Hotel, it was wrong too.

      If you click on the link to the post "The Grand Hotel and the Moose," at the end of the post above, you'll be taken to my article about The Grand Hotel and see some photos and a postcard.

      And you're also wrong about the history. The Grand Hotel became the home of the Moose before it was destroyed in a fire. Then the Moose built a new lodge on the same corner, the one that is now Javy's/Franzee's. That history is also in my blog post about the Grand Hotel and the Moose.

      I now have more Grand Hotel postcards and an old Pittsburgh Press news article touting Ambridge's fine hotels which shows it which I have not posted yet, but intend to post in the future.

      I've also written about the Ambridge Hotel which was on 8th St. and Merchant and posted several postcards as well as photos showing it. It was contemporary with The Grand Hotel but stood until it was razed in 1964.