At 2 A.M. on December 17, 1936, Pittsburgh Banana Company employee Peter Auletta reported for work. He flipped on the lights in the banana ripening room and then turned on an electric fan to circulate the air. Reports said a spark from the fan ignited what must have been a gas leak.
“There was a massive explosion. The gentleman says all he remembers was a boom and being tossed about 50 feet.” Derris Jeffcoat, is the sacristant of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, located at 21st and Smallman Streets in the Strip District opposite of where Pittsburgh Banana Company used to be. He is the parish’s historian.
The explosion ripped out an entire wing of the banana company building. The blast wave rolled across the street, blowing out 54 windows in Saint Stanislaus School, bowing three windows in the church, and sending its two towers askew. The explosion was so forceful that the fire department didn’t wait for a call; they just went looking for the source of the sound. They found Smallman Street littered with debris. And poor Peter Auletta? He was alive, but buried to his neck in brick and banana.
The banana was not always a ubiquitous fruit. At the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, bananas were offered as a novelty, wrapped in aluminum foil and sold for 10 cents each. But by 1914, thanks to a combination of infrastructure advancements such as steam ships, railroads and refrigeration, the per capita consumption of the boomerang-shaped fruit was estimated to be 22 pounds.
But there was another factor in making the banana the poor man’s luxury, and it is precisely what caused the Pittsburgh Banana Company to explode: controlled ripening. Wholesalers like the Pittsburgh Banana Company built thick walled banana ripening rooms that were kept at the ideal banana-ripening temperature of sixty degrees with gas heaters.
The explosion might seem wild, but the Strip District took it in stride. The explosion occurred on Thursday morning. By Monday, St. Stan’s students were back at school, their windows replaced by cement block. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the building’s owner, started to rebuild—and expand—the following week.
“I guess it was kind of fatalism,” said Jeffcoat. “When you live intimately with an industrial setting you have to prepare for those inevitable things to happen. [The Strip District] was a brutal environment: cheap housing, tenement housing, all kinds of gang rivalry, drugs, drinking, gambling. Other explosions happened.”
The gritty reality of the Strip District was why St. Stanislaus was in the path of the blast wave, anyway.
“The churches provided that kind of comfort and oasis in a harsh and difficult world. That reminder of home, that testament to the faith that despite all these travails, tribulations, that the faith would sustain them,” said Jeffcoat.
St. Stan’s front door still opens into the heart of the Strip District, catty-corner to the produce terminal building. You can easily find bananas in that part of town. For sale, instead of lying in the street.
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