Late in the morning of February 5, 1923, the crew of the lighthouse tender Pansy arrived at the Fuller Rock Light in the Providence River near Providence, Rhode Island to install six new acetylene tanks at the lighthouse. This was a normal, routine job. Little could the men have realized that the day would end much differently than any other humdrum day.
The Fuller Rock Lighthouse and its twin, the Sassafras Point Light, were built in 1872 about a mile apart. Fuller Rock was virtually in the middle of the main shipping channel and Sassafras Point Light was near the river’s western shore.
Although money was requested for a keeper’s house to be built on shore, none was ever constructed. It seems that the government could not find anyone willing to sell them some land. So the keeper, who was assigned to care for both lighthouses, was on his own for housing. The keeper would have to row out and back to both of the structures every night and every morning. This was a difficult job in an area with strong currents and heavy shipping traffic. In 1911, the keeper position was eliminated and the lights were automated using acetylene gas, which would have to be replaced once every six months. The lighthouse keeper of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse was then assigned to occasionally stop by to check on things.
When the lighthouse tender Pansy anchored near the Fuller Rock Lighthouse on that fateful February day in 1923, five men departed the tender to go and remove the empty tanks and install the six new acetylene tanks. The steel tanks were six feet long, about ten inches in diameter, and they weighed 300 pounds each when full.
After the new tanks were installed at the lighthouse, the men went back on board the Pansy for lunch in the ship’s galley. After lunch, they returned to the lighthouse to make sure everything had been properly installed. The men had just landed on the lighthouse deck when suddenly there was a tremendous explosion that created a giant fire ball. The men were blown through the air and landed on the sharp and jagged rocks below. As other crewmen from the lighthouse tender rushed to the men’s aid, what was left of the lighthouse was burning from the fire.
Once the injured men were back on board the lighthouse tender, they were immediately taken to the State Pier where waiting ambulances transported them to the Providence Surgical Hospital. Amazingly, none of the men died from their injuries, but for some, the recovery was long.
Listed below are the names of the men, who were all from Newport, Rhode Island, and their age and injuries:
George Samuelson, 45, face & neck burned
Clarence Gustafson, 20, right leg broken
Manuel Rudda, 30, head cut and bruised
Joe Wyatt, 18, right leg broken, body burned
Joe Maccadea, 24, face burned
Eventually, the government installed a steel skeleton tower at the site with a beacon on top. In 1977, the government refurbished the granite pier at Fuller Rock, installed 25 tons of riprap, and erected a new 20-foot-tall erector set style tower with a red flashing light. The lighthouse that once stood there can only be seen now in a few images from the dusty pages of time.
This story appeared in the
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