Tennessee Eastman Explosion, October 4, 1960

Where were you on October 4, 1960-the day of the Eastman Explosion???

***Please remember the photographic images on this site are the property of the Archives of the City of Kingsport and are governed by U.S. and International copyright laws. Please contact the archives for permission to use images or request reproductions***

A massive cloud forms over downtown Kingsport as a result of the explosion.

On October 4, 1960 an explosion rocked the Tennessee Eastman Company plant. The explosion was centered in the aniline division of the plant. The blast was felt all around the city and even buildings downtown, which are over a mile away, were damaged.

Sixteen people were killed as a result of the explosion and 200 more were injured.

Cloud of smoke from the explosion
Scene outside Holston Valley Community Hospital

Local photographer Thomas McNeer captured excellent shots of the event as it unfolded.

Taking care of the injured at Holston Valley

Most of McNeer’s photos were taken at Holston Valley Community Hospital where hundreds gathered to check on loved ones, give blood and lend a hand.

Scene from inside the hospital
Holston Valley Community Hospital
People gathered outside of the hospital
Crowd outside the hospital
People gathered at the hospital
Scene from Holston Valley Community Hospital

For more information on the Eastman  Explosion you may want to check out Pete Dykes’ “The Eastman Explosion Tragedy.”

Here is a description of the book~

The sudden unexpected explosion at the Tennessee Eastman Aniline Plant in October, 1960, brought horrific death and destruction to the huge Kingsport industrial complex. Following the shattering blast, nearby storage tanks of chemicals exploded as well, adding to the growing piles of rubble and debris that heaped up, burying bodies and body parts in a desolate scene of destruction. Flames spread, and multiple drums of stored material exploded as the heat reached them. Nothing like this had ever happened at the forty year old facility, where more than twelve thousand employees earned their livings. “The Eastman Explosion Tragedy” takes the reader back in time with eyewitness accounts of that terrible day in East Tennessee.

The Archives of the City of Kingsport have several collections that pertain to the Eastman Explosion so come on down to the archives and check them out.

63 Replies to “Tennessee Eastman Explosion, October 4, 1960”

  1. I was in the back yard on EPark DR. playing and swinging my 2 year old nephew, and the blast was so strong it knocked us down.AT first I thought we had been bombed. My Mother worked at the hospital and was home from work. They called her in. She was a universal donor so she gave blood. We heard rummors if it had got to the next tank I would have blown us off the map. I had classmates who lost family members. Thank God for watching over us.I will never forget that day. My nephew started crying , I told it would be ok!

  2. I was 13 at the time and was in the basement of our house. The explosion forced the windows open.

    My father worked for Eastman, the aniline plant was his responsibility. We did not hear from my father until late that day. There was so much confusion.

    My father knew all those that were lost in the explosion. Later he told us that he was against building the aniline plant because it was a dangerous process and analine was so inexpensive to buy.

    I look back on that time and my family now as an adult and feel the pain of the loss.

  3. I was in school in Knoxville. Remember getting a call from my mother saying my uncle, Jess Ray Shell (Junior) was missing. I remember coming home on the Grayhound bus that night. Only a few parts of him were found the next day.. His widow, my aunt Helen, is in a nursing home.

    1. I knew Mr. Shell. My bother and sister-in-law were renting the house next door from them when this happened. Such a sad time.

  4. My grandfather, Bernard Arnold, was one of the first of the dead who were found. I never met him but some of the old timers at Eastman shared stories about him when I worked there during college summers. My friend Helen Johnson, who was his daughter-in-law at the time, remembers that her white dogwoods in Lynn Garden bloomed red the next spring.

  5. I was in my backyard, where we were having a party for my 6th birthday. The ground shook, we heard a huge blast, and we then saw the mushroom cloud coming up a couple of miles away to the south. It was during the cold war and we thought maybe we had been bombed. My Dad was a doctor who was home for my party on Tuesday, his afternoon off. He called and found out about the explosion and immediately went in for a long night. I remember staying up late and watching/listening to news reports. Seeing these pictures of the cloud and the hospital brings back memories. I believe the hospital and its entire staff did a great job that day. Kingsport was pretty much a company town back then and the entire community was shaken. Thoughts and prayers today, 50 years later, for those who lost loved ones and colleagues.

    1. Standing under a tree on the north east side of the Rock House service station in Surgoinsville Tn. talking to friends when We heard a distance boom. Looked at each other said what was that. That evening We knew.

  6. I remember it as if yesterday. My father worked at TEC but was not near the explosion site. Other family friends were injured, and deaths affected some classmates. The explosion itself shook the mirror of the living room where I was preparing to head out on my bicycle. After an eerie silence, I rode my bike up to Jackson School, the hill, to see the plume of black smoke as shown in the pictures. I still feel a dark chill about this.

  7. My husband was a new resident at HVCH and was on duty. He called to tell me that he didn’t know when he would be able to come home as he would stay to help the injured patients as long as needed. We had a new baby who was resting under a large window when the blast occured. The force of the blast went over our house and broke many windows at the old DB High School just across the street. We were safe.

  8. I was in school at the Miller-Perry School. We heard the explosion, gradually learned about the disaster, and watched the worried faces of the adults. In later years, I was to go to school in town with kids orphaned on that day — Bruce Haney, who was in my D-B class.

    Both of my grandfathers worked at Eastman, and people from elsewhere really have no idea how that company held sway in Kingsport.

  9. I was working in B-112 about one mile south of the explosion. Dust from the pipes in the building was distrubed. There was no damage to the building because we were so far away. We were instructed to go to the parking lot and leave the area immediately. I arrived home at Eden’s Ridge road and my wife and two daughters were watching the smoke from the explosion which could be seen from our front steps.

  10. My great uncle Eugene Shelton was working in the plant during the explosion. I believe he had just showered in the locker room and said after the explosion he was running down the street barely dressed. He passed away this year – I’ll never forget his stories. He said the explosion made him feel like he was back in Germany fighting in the war. So sad.

    1. Caroline Chevalier-I knew Gene. He lived at the end of my street in Greenacres. He was a friend to all the boys who lived in the neighborhood. I miss him. Rob Thompson

  11. I was 6 years old when the Eastman exploded. My parents lived on Gravely rd. 4th house on the right as you turned of Bloomingdale. I remember standing on the front porch of our house and could see the flames and the smoke. When the explosin happened it shook the house and the windows. I still have the newspaper from Kingsport Times News. It has been in the family ever since then in excellent shape just a little yellow. It has in the sports section how Yoogie Bera would be a threat in the world series Norman Slater now living in Marion,N.C.

  12. I was 5 and visiting my aunt who lived up the street from the factory. My uncle worked there but survived. I remember us walking to the top of the hill overlooking the plant and seeing flames and explosions shooting into the air. Only now researching this, I am surprised to see how many died. I never knew how bad it was.

  13. Hello, Barter Theatre is presenting Kingsport native, Lori Tate Matthews’ play “October, Before I Was Born” about this event this fall. I have read many of the comments, and my heart goes out to all involved.

    “October Before I Was Born” is set against the backdrop of the TEC explosion, and one family waits for news about the fate of their loved ones. I see many went through the same thing on that day. They pray for strength and courage to face what comes. It is a beautiful piece and was developed by Barter’s Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights. The play will be on Barter’s Main Stage September 27—November 17, 2012. To find out more information, please visit http://www.BarterTheatre.com

  14. I would like to think me and Daddy watched the first Andy Griffith show the night before he died. Yes, I am sure we watched the first Andy Griffith where Aunt Bee moves in and Opie does not accept her. After all, Daddy was on vacation up until that day.

    Mama died September 26, 2012. She never remarried after losing Daddy, so it was just me and her. I can assure you there is nothing inherently wrong with a one-parent home. I do not care to hear people speak badly of one-parent homes. Watch the Andy Griffith show sometime and see.

    Jess Ray Shell III, P.E., R.L.S.

    1. Your comments are very touching – I am so sorry for your loss.
      America could learn much from the Andy Griffith Show if they would only watch.
      God bless you and your family.

  15. Daddy left us seventeen days before my fifth birthday. I have no brothers or sisters.

    I saw the play “October Before I Was Born” at the Barter the day after Mama died and it hit home.

    Jess Ray Shell III

    1. I think that my Daddy stayed with you at your house while the funeral was going on!!! I remember a very sad, upsetting time!! Your Mother and Dad was one of my parents BEST friends!!! Love

  16. I was 15 yrs old @ the time & my Dad was a foreman in the S & M Division @ TEC,we were so worried bout him & my brother-n-law Jerry Deel..It seem like hrs. before a taxi cab pulled up & he got out to his 5 girls & son & of course our Mother running to him w/open arms,he had been in the shower @ TEC & glass had fallen in on him…he was bleeding from wounds to his head & arm,our brother-n-law was also ok,but I will never forget that horrible day & the ones who lost their lives..I pray a horrible accident like that will never happen again……wwg

  17. I was at home on E. Center St. when I heard the explosion. I ran outside and looked toward Eastman and I remember saying “my daddy”. I was 5 years old at the time. My father had been in the shower at the time. When it blew up and he ran outside stark naked. He ran across the parking lot and flagged down the car of a young man he did not know, who gave him a ride home. I remember my mother taking a rain coat to the car for him to put on so he could come inside. When he came inside, he took a bath, and my mother picked glass out of his feet. I also remember the constant stream of sirens of ambulances as they drove down Center St. to the hospital.

    1. I worked with Demp and I was coming out of the parking lot when it went off. I remember his feet were in bad shape for A while. Demp was A good man and he really helped me on my apprenticeship and he was extremely funny

  18. My father, Tom Finucane, was a chemist in the Research Department at Tennessee Eastman. He was helping troubleshoot the problems at the aniline pilot plant. One big problem was that something was precipitating out of the solution and coating the inside of the pipes. He determined that this was di-nitro-toluene, and warned his supervisors. He was told that it was impossible to make di-nitro-toluene, so he sawed off a section of pipe and sent it to Rochester for analysis. Before the results came back, the plant exploded. I have only just now heard this family story, which my brother Mike said my father told him. I don’t know how accurate it is, or whether the substance in question was indeed DNT.

    1. Joe, My dad, Eugene “Teenie” Scott, worked with your dad and I remember him saying many times that “Tom knew there was a problem but nobody would listen to him”. That was such a sad day in the history of Kingsport and could possibly have been prevented. I remember your dad very well as he and my dad were avid birdwatchers.

  19. I was eight. My brother Dick and I were riding our bikes home from the library, and just when we got to Sevier Avenue and Tennessee Street, we heard a boom that made the windows rattle in the public housing apartments on Sevier. Straight down Sevier we could see a monstrous plume of black smoke. Dick immediately rode in that direction, and I followed, catching up with him at Center and reminding him we were not to cross it, to my regret. So we rode home to 1434 Watauga and sat on the porch with the other kids looking out over the valley to the southwest. We could hear the explosions and see immense fireballs rolling around down there by the river. I remember how tiny an airplane looked flying beside the immense column of smoke. Night fell and the explosions continued, lighting up the smoke and Bays Mountain in flashes of reddish orange. I suppose my mother made us go to bed at last. My father went down there to fight the fire and my mother went to the hospital to donate blood, but apparently everyone in town had the same idea. I think my father helped roll up a fire hose, and my mother was sent away with out donating.
    Next day the headlines in the Kingsport Times-News said “Hospital swamped with donors,” as if this were the important news. I don’t recall that there was any serious investigation or that the citizens of Kingsport ever received a satisfactory explanation.

  20. i was 11 years old and sitting on the steps of what used to be called ray lanes store and watched and all the cars and trucks drove by with the wounded in the back, was a terrible day, and 1 i will never forget. still windows in that one part of eastman and still hasnt been r

  21. My dad had just filled out an application and was just leaving the plant when he said the car shook violently. He looked in the rear view mirror and said all he saw was thick black smoke. He was hired two months later and I was born almost a year to the date (October 1, 1961). But my ex-step mother lost a brother.

  22. I’ve heard the story from my grandmother and mom. My grandfather was Doug Sievers, he was head chemist over the science dept. and worked on the Manhatten project. I was told the team he worked with had to do it’s own investigation and were required to do the clean-up. I’m sure it was to keep certain things they were working on from being exposed at least that’s what my grandmother said. She attended so many funerals due to that and some relatives passing the same year she never wore black again. The clean up was a matter of great stress on my grandfather according to Twila.

  23. in 1961 my family lived in Cloud Apts. We had moved to Kingsport from Virginia so my dad could get work. When the first explosion happened it knocked my sisters high chair backwards with her in it. To this day, I can still smell the smoke when I think about it. Although many died, thank God many more were spared.

  24. I remember exactly where I was. I was home and it shook the windows, doors, dishes and the whole house. My dad was in the middle of this and was saved by getting inside a box car. He had just finished talking to his boss and his boss was killed. All of our family came to our house and we did not know of dad was dead or alive until he came walking up the road late that night. I remember everything about this day even though I was just a little girl.

  25. I was 3 and on a swing set in the backyard on Ridgeview St. above the Garden Basket when the explosion occurred. I remember the concussion of the blast knocking me off the swing set. My father was at work at Eastman in his office at Gate 3. It was hours before he could get home. We went next door to a neighbor’s house to watch the smoke from the blast. It was a very scary time. Thankfully, Eastman has put a huge emphasis on safety to help prevent something like this from ever happening again.

  26. My grandfather, James H Ray, was inside the plant when the explosion occurred. He told us that a co-worker saved his life as he tried run out of the nearest exit in the building he was in to see what had happened.
    As he attempted to bolt out into the open, his co-worker grabbed him and pulled him back inside, just as a large piece of debris was thrown in front of the door from the force of the blast.
    I’m not sure what all happened after that, but I do remember my grandfather talking about being held in a safe area for a while, and my mother says that it was many hours before they knew if my grandfather had survived or not.
    I myself have worked in the Tennessee Eastman plant and I have seen the damage that remains as a reminder of that day, and I found it very surreal and disconcerting to say the least.

  27. I was 8 years old with my mother down on broad st at Woolworth’s,she had just bought me a squirt gun and we had just stepped out side the store then BOOM,the blast knocked me down and windows falling out of many stores,we ran inside and most Items were laying in the floor.People were screeming and I was terrified.We then went back out side and I looked up and saw what looked like a Nuclear explosion with a mushroom cloud rising to the heavens,We hurried home on foot which was closer to the Eastman and took cover.I remember many small explosions and the sirens of many rescue workers going that way through the night and into the next days.I wont ever forget that day and I’m now 63.It seems like just yesterday,,

    1. I was four and was just across the street from Woolworths (so we were close together!). My memories are a little more vague, but I remember the windows cracking and the big BOOM, and people screaming and running. My mother grabbed me and ran with me to the car and said “We have to get back home right away!” We lived in Colonial Heights. My father was at work at the plant, but thankfully, he was far enough away from the explosion to not be injured.

  28. I was 17 yrs old and was 7 mths pregnant with my first child. I lived on E. Sullivan on the hill above the Eastman. It knocked our cabinets off the wall, broke our windows and knocked our venetian blinds off the windows, We had several antique dishes that got broken. We stood outside and watched the ambulances go by. They had so many injuries that they were hauled out In p/u trucks , Jeeps and anything else they could find to haul them in. Me ,my mother and a friend of ours were playing gin rummy at the time this occurred. The metal cabinet on the wall full of dishes fell and missed me by about 6 inches. I had 2 small sisters taking there afternoon nap and we had to grab them and run with them to keep them from getting hurt by flying glass. My brother was on the railroad below and he ran up the hill to keep from being hit by debris from the explosion. He was about 10 yr old at the time, WE first ran out our back door and I was trying to climb a chain link fence with my 2 yr old sister.The man that lived behind me helped me and her across the fence. Everyone of our neighbors was in a state of shock. I will never forget that tragic day.

  29. I was very young, probably six. I remember my mother’s panicked reaction to the explosion the most. My dad was working there at the hour of the explosion. She was crying on the side porch when my uncle whom she had summoned arrived to babysit so that she could go to the hospital to give blood. Then on the 11W we saw my dad’s old green dodge coming down the road toward our drive way. I’ve never seen a more welcomed homecoming. My dad was white, shaken and weak looking. My mother hugged and kissed him. Then she spent time brushing glass shreds off of him as he sat down on the porch. I remember her saying that she had never been so happy to see that old dodge coming down the road. She knew a woman who received a disabling injury and another lady who lost her husband.

  30. I was at football practice at Ross N. Robinson Jr High. The explosion was terrible and the blast wave knocked us to the ground. We had no idea what had happened. All we could see was the gigantic plume of black smoke. We lived on Sherwood Rd at the time, and once I got oriented, my first thoughts were for the safety of my mother and sister – since the house was near the Eastman. My mother’s cousin, Billy Sage was killed in the blast. He was a fine young man with a beautiful wife and family. I always thought is was such a shame that such a nice person was taken prematurely. But I was young and naive.

  31. I was 8 years old and at sunbeams at the salvation army. It knocked me off my chair. We lived on Beach St. Just across the river from where the explosion happened and we had to walk across Long Island to get away from it We were all very young at the time and our mother and father wasn’t home at the time. We walked over to what they can happy hill.

  32. I was eight years old playing with friends in the front yard of our home on Morningside Circle,
    I happened to look toward the plant at time of explosion and saw the top of a tank blow skyward.and then the huge mushroom ball of fire. My uncle worked there and he was safe.
    Never will forget that tragic day.

  33. Jackie Head Perry July 21 2016 I was 12 years old and lived on Jared Drive on Long Island which was very close to the factory and now consumed by it. I was outside in our backyard when the ground starting shaking violently I looked up and saw a huge mushroom cloud with a building on top of it then a loud explosion the building blew to bits and the black clouds grew larger and spread wider . I was so scared I will never forget it. My mom worked at Woolworth and when she tried to get home they told her no one was allowed to go onto the Island she finally talked the police into letting her come in so she could be with me and my sister Soon after we got the word that the Island would have to be evacuated because they were afraid that more buildings would blow up. There was debris from the explosion all over the Island including, sadly some body parts .The tragic lose of so many that probably could have been prevented is horrible I hated Eastman Kodak then and even more now that they have destroyed my home. Sometimes progress doesn’t feel like progress. .

  34. Mrs Squibb, my 6th grade teacher at Andrew Johnson ES, lost her husband that day. I recall not knowing how to react to the situation.

  35. As horrible as this experience was to those dear families. The exposure to Aniline is quite possibly still affecting many of us in 2016. I was diagnosed with a Blood Disorder and was asked if I’d been exposed to chemical exposures like Benzene and Butylene. It took me a while to remember the Eastman Explosion. Analine is used in these chemical productions. There is a great probability that others suffer similar medical conditions and have failed to remember this day in Kingsport. I lived on Garden Drive while growing up.

  36. I was 15 years old and on the football practice field at Sullivan High in Sullivan Gradens. The ground shook and we could see the black cloud in the distance. At that time, we did not know what had just happen. Later we were told Eastman had blown up and many were killed. Practiced was cancelled. I remember everyone was stunned and silent since many of our parents worked at Eastman.

  37. I was on the way to a football game at Tennessee High in Bristol. It sounded like a big rumble of thunder. My dad worked there and called to tell us what had happened. Ironic that this is on the same date.

  38. I was living in Lake Zurich, Illinois and that was on my 25th Birthday, when the news came on tv saying there had been an explosion at the Tennessee Eastman company in Kingsport, Tn. We were rushing around like crazy trying to find out if my father and uncles were working that shift. It was a great relief to find out that they were off that day. But we were saddened by the loss of the lives, that fell that day, some of our friends and neighbors were among those who lost their family members that day. Now we pray that no one else ever looses their life, in a tradegity like the one that happened that day.

  39. Thankfully the company does not make the photo chemicals it did back them, but today October 2017, mini one was a wake up call for their plants to consider a shutdown for good. Don’t blame it on coal.

  40. I was 5 years old and was out in the yard with my grandparents on Glendale Rd. The sound was terrible and the ground was shaking…..then there was a strange complete silence before the sirens started. My grandmother’s sister called to say that her son, Billy Sage was missing. She was understandably hysterical and the whole family gathered at her house to wait for news. When the news finally came, it was terrible. Billy had been killed and only parts of his body were found. He had a beautiful wife and two young children. Billy and his father-in-law road to work together, and had just left the shower house. They was almost to the car when Billy noticed that he left his wedding band on the sink and went back in the building ……..that is when the explosion happened. This story is from a 5 year old’s memory and the way I remember it. I’m hoping all of the facts are correct. It was a sad and tragic day.

  41. I was working in the Civil Dept. of the T.E.C. Engineering Division at the time of the explosion. I had a project assigned to route a new sewer on Third Street Originating in Building 207 to replace an existing one that had broken down. I had only been at T.E.C. 13 months after working in the City Engineering Dept. the previous 10 years. I had gone to the building on the afternoon of the explosion to measure the location of the sewers down comer line inside the Southwest corner of the building. Not being able to identify the line I walked toward the door leading to where I thought the office might be. I met Mr. Haney coming out. He said he was in a hurry that they were having a problem top side. I left the building and went back to my workplace in Bldg. 54D by way of the tunnel under Eastman Road. I walked in and placed my measuring tape and book on the corner of my drawing table and went to the second floor to wash my hands. I returned to my desk but had not yet sat down when I felt a pressure that caused me to drop to the floor and then the big bang came. As I was getting up a man who was sitting in the same room turned around on his stool and said; ” do they do that around here often why are you in the floor”. It was his first day at T.E.C. My supervisor and the Superintendent of Engineering told me to get to my car and go home that my work would be cut out for me the next day. I did not know that it was Bldg. 207 that had exploded until I looked at the plant from Long Island. Only about 15 minutes had passed from the time I left Bldg. 207 until the explosion. Luck was with me that day. I am 85 now but I will never forget that day.

  42. I remember the day very well. I was a senior at DB working on a history paper about John F Kenney, the Democratic presidential candidate at the time, and had gone down town to the democratic headquarters to obtain some information. While there, I heard the explosion, of course no one knew what had happened but just assumed something had happened at Eastman. As I rounded the corner by the old Charles store heading back to my car, I saw shattered store front windows and fear in everyone’s eyes. One of the store employees confirmed the explosion was indeed the Eastman as originally thought. Of course, I immediately got into my car and headed home to Highland. My Mother and Father operated the Kingsport Junenile Receiving Home on Center Street, the location of the current DB. Not sure how I got back home with all the traffic . Mother said she had been standing out in the garden when she happen to look up and saw a plane headed toward Eastman just before the explosion. I know that theory has been dismissed but I also know that several others expressed the same theory during that time. Very sad time in Kingsport. Ironically I had not been in Kingsport for months until Wed October 4, 2017. Deja vu.

  43. My husband was 1 1/2 yrs old & his father was a chemist @ the plant & was killed in this explosion. He says that all the windows where they lived shattered from the explosion & it obviously was so devastating to him even at that age where he didn’t start talking until he was 4yrs old.

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