Greenwich Village townhouse explosion
|Accidental detonation in
Greenwich Village townhouse
Firemen contain blaze fed by broken gas lines caused by explosion
|Location||Subbasement furnace room
at 18 West 11th Street
New York, NY
|Date||March 6, 1970|
|Weapon(s)||Dynamite, during bomb assembly|
|Deaths||Theodore Gold, age 22
Diana Oughton, 28
Terry Robbins, 22
The Greenwich Village townhouse explosion occurred on March 6, 1970, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. It was caused by the premature detonation of a bomb that was being assembled by members of the Weather Underground, an American radical left group. The bomb was under construction in the basement of 18 West 11th Street when it accidentally exploded – the blast reduced the four-story townhouse to a burning rubble-strewn ruin. Three persons preparing the bomb were killed instantly, and two others were injured but escaped from the scene.
Shortly before noon on Friday, March 6, 1970, people in the townhouse were assembling nail bombs packed with dynamite and roofing nails. Former members of Weatherman later advanced differing claims as to the planned uses of the bombs. According to Mark Rudd, the plan was to set them off that evening at a dance for noncommissioned officers and their dates at the Fort Dix, New Jersey Army base, to "bring the [Vietnam] war home". Other reports say that some were destined for the Fort Dix dance and some were to destroy the main library at Columbia University.
Preparation and construction
According to Cathy Wilkerson, who was a leader of the New York collective of the Weatherman, they were disappointed with the minimal effects of their earlier use of Molotov cocktails at the home of Judge Murtagh and other locations. At the suggestion of Terry Robbins, another of the leaders, they decided to use dynamite for newly planned actions.
They purchased a considerable quantity of dynamite and a number of electric fuses. The group investigated and designated three targets, including a dance at Fort Dix, an army base in nearby New Jersey. It was reported that "arguments went on day and night" in the townhouse, with Kathy Boudin favoring the use of antipersonnel bombs and Diana Oughton having misgivings.
No one in the collective was experienced with explosives. Terry Robbins and Cathy Wilkerson lacked knowledge even in the basics of electricity. Members worked up a simple circuit without safety features, consisting of a battery, a fuse, a clock, and wires connecting these elements. They inserted dynamite into a one foot length of water pipe packed with nails. Precisely what went wrong remains uncertain, but the resulting series of blasts in the sub-basement of the townhouse killed those near the bomb and caused the collapse of the townhouse.
Theodore Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins were killed by the blast. Two Weatherman members who were upstairs at the time of the blast, Kathy Boudin and Cathlyn Wilkerson, survived, stunned and bleeding.
The two surviving women were led from the burning structure by a police officer and an off-duty New York City Housing Authority patrolman who entered in search of survivors. Rescuers were treated at St. Vincent's Hospital for smoke inhalation.
Boudin and Wilkerson disappeared before they could be questioned. They had been free on bail on assault charges stemming from the Days of Rage riots in Chicago. A neighbor who rendered aid after the blast described them as "dazed and trembling" as they were led "staggering" from the wreckage, one clad only in blue jeans and the other naked. The neighbor brought them to her house, where they showered, borrowed clothing and told a housekeeper they were going to a local drugstore, then hailed a taxi and disappeared.
The building was owned by Wilkerson's father, a radio-station executive. As the search for bodies continued days after the explosion, Wilkerson's parents made a televised appeal to their missing daughter to avoid needlessly risking the lives of searchers. They asked her to "let us know how many more people, if any, are still left in the ruins of our home", saying "more lives would be needlessly lost and only you have the key".
The blast was initially thought to be a series of natural gas explosions, but investigators quickly concluded from the extent of the damage that dynamite or some other powerful explosive was the cause. Gas lines broken by the blast fed an ensuing fire. According to the police investigator in charge, "The people in the house were obviously putting together the component parts of a bomb and they did something wrong."
An initial search turned up a 1916 37-mm antitank shell. In the following days, a brick-by-brick search of the rubble uncovered 57 sticks of dynamite, four 12-inch (300 mm) pipe bombs packed with dynamite, and 30 blasting caps. The pipe bombs and several eight-stick packages of dynamite had fuses already attached. Also found were timing devices rigged from alarm clocks, maps of the tunnel network underneath Columbia University, and literature of the political protest organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), from which the Weatherman organization had split. Police described the building as a "bomb factory", and said that at the time of the explosion dynamite was apparently being wrapped in tape with nails embedded to act as shrapnel.
The crime scene was gory. It took nine days of collecting body parts to determine how many persons had died in the blast. Fingerprint records were required to identify the corpses of Theodore Gold, a leader of the 1968 Columbia University student protests, and Diana Oughton, the organizer of the 1969 SDS national convention. As to the identity of the third corpse, rumors circulated in radical circles that it was that of Terry Robbins, a leader of the 1968 Kent State University student rebellion and a founder of the Weathermen, who would be indicted the following month along with 11 others for organizing and inciting riots during the "Days of Rage". That May, this rumor was confirmed in a communique purportedly issued by the Weathermen. The message was a "declaration of war" by the organization which warned that it would "attack a symbol or institution of American injustice" within the next two weeks. This communique named Robbins as the third body and described Gold, Oughton, and Robbins as revolutionaries "no longer on the move".
The fate of the survivors
Neighbors positively identified Wilkerson as one of the two women who had been led out from the wreckage. Boudin was not positively identified as the second survivor until some weeks later. Both women were charged with illegal possession of dynamite in the townhouse blast. They forfeited their bail on the above mentioned Chicago assault charges by failing to appear in Chicago for trial ten days later. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) placed them on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, but they succeeded in avoiding capture for a decade. Wilkerson surrendered in 1980. Boudin was apprehended in 1981 for her role in the Brink's armored car robbery.
The Greek Revival townhouse at 18 West 11th Street, located between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue), was originally built in 1845. In the 1920s the home belonged to Charles E. Merrill, co-founder of Merrill Lynch; in 1930 Merrill wrote a note to its subsequent owner, Broadway librettist Howard Dietz, wishing him joy in "the little house on heaven street." Poet James Merrill, who spent his infancy and first few years in the house, lamented the bombing in a 1972 poem titled "18 West 11th Street":
In what at least
Seemed anger the Aquarians in the basement
Had been perfecting a device
For making sense to us
If only briefly and on pain
Of incommunication ever after.
Now look who's here. Our prodigal
Sunset. Just passing through from Isfahan.
Filled by him the glass
Disorients. [. . .]
Actor Dustin Hoffman and his wife Anne Byrne were living in the townhouse next door at the time of the explosion. He can be seen in the 2002 documentary The Weather Underground, standing on the street during the aftermath of the explosion.
After considerable debate by New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission, the home was rebuilt in 1978 in an angular, modernist style by renowned architect Hugh Hardy. (“It was this whole idea that a new building should express something new,” Hardy has said, adding, “we were deeper into diagonals at that point.”)  The home was sold for $9,250,000 in December 2012.
- Robinson, Douglas (1970-03-07). "Townhouse Razed By Blast and Fire; Man's Body Found". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-05.
- Rudd, Mark. "The Kids are All Right". Retrieved 2009-05-18. "On the morning of March 6, 1970, three of my comrades were building pipe bombs packed with dynamite and nails, destined for a dance of non-commissioned officers and their dates at Fort Dix, N.J., that night."
- Mel Gussow (2000-03-05). "The House On West 11th Street". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-07-03.
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- Wilkerson, Cathy (2007). Flying Close to the Sun. New York: Seven Stories Press. pp. 316–347. ISBN 978-1-58322-771-8.
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- Robinson, Douglas (1970-03-10). "1916 Antitank Shell Is Found In Rubble of 'Village' Building". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-05.
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- Charlton, Linda (1970-03-09). "'Village' Fire Victim Identified as Leader of '68 Columbia Strike". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
- Robinson, Douglas (1970-03-18). "2d Victim in Blast Is Identified Here". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-10.
- McFadden, Robert D. (1970-03-15). "3d Blast Victim Is Found In Ruins of Townhouse". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
- Kifner, John (1970-04-03). "12 S.D.S. Militants Indicted in Chicago". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-10. "A Federal grand jury indicted 12 leaders of the Weathermen today on charges of conspiracy and violation of the Federal antiriot act."
- Kifner, John (1970-05-25). "A Radical 'Declaration' Warns Of an Attack by Weathermen". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
- Chattarji, Subarno (2001). Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN 0-19-924711-0.
- "18 West 11th Street." Merrill, James (2002). J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, ed. Collected Poems. New York: Knopf. p. 316. ISBN 0-375-41139-9.
- Paglia, Camille (November 12, 2008). "Obama surfs through". Salon. "..the 2002 documentary "The Weather Underground"... the news footage of the Greenwich Village townhouse destroyed in 1970 by bomb-making gone wrong in the basement still has enormous impact. Standing in the chaotic street, actor Dustin Hoffman, who lived next door, seems like Everyman at the apocalypse."
- Barron, James. Recalling Blast at a House Where Bombs Were Made. New York Times blog, January 16, 2012. Retrieved May 9, 2013.
- "Townhouse on site of Weather Underground explosion sells for $9.3M". The Real Deal. January 4, 2013. Retrieved April 22, 2013.