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Boiled Alive: The 1937 Explosion Aboard the U. S. S. Cassin

Kelley enjoys writing about the history her family members witnessed.

Photograph of USS Cassin (DD-372) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 26 February 1944.

Photograph of USS Cassin (DD-372) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 26 February 1944.

A Family Story

I once heard a story about my mother's great-uncle, Daniel Miller Vautier, one of the many children of William J. Vautier and Catherine Miller. He had died from injuries he had received as a civilian in an accident in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Little else was given in the stories that I heard, so I decided I would look into the accident. The ship was the USS Cassin. The year was 1937.

History of the USS Cassin

The USS Cassin was named after Stephen Cassin, a Philadelphia naval officer who distinguished himself in the War of 1812 and in the war against pirates in the West Indies.

The ship was a 1500 ton destroyer with several five-inch guns that had been built in the Philadelphia Naval Yards along with a sister ship, the USS Shaw. Each destroyer cost the Navy over 2.7 million dollars. It had been commissioned during Naval Days in October of 1935, but was in dry-dock in the Philadelphia Naval Yard the summer of 1937 to undergo a few last minute repairs before joining the fleet in the Pacific Ocean.

The Accident: 18 August 1937

Fifteen men were in the fire room of the warship, deep in the bowels of the steel vessel. Eight were sailors, but seven were civilian workers glad to have the work in this Great Depression era. The group was raising steam through the pipelines to test the safety valves, a routine test. There was no indication that anything was wrong with the lines, no indication that something was about to go horribly wrong.

Suddenly there was a burst in one of the main pipes in the fire room. According to one of the survivors, the explosion sounded like a huge roar. The room was filled instantly with live steam. The explosion was barely audible outside of the room, and because it didn't sound like an explosion, no one was alarmed. The only thing that alerted others to the danger was the sound of men screaming as they were being boiled alive. Rescuers tried to get in, but were driven back by the steam. They could rescue the men only when the pressure abated.

Multiple Victims

Four men were killed instantly from the burning steam; Joseph Vissaluza, Michael Scavo, William Miehl, and George Driesbach. Daniel Vautier, Louis Sherby and and Whitney Thompson McCallum, water tender first class and the only sailor to be killed, were scalded severely and carried to local hospitals, where they all died from their injuries. The other nine in the room were injured, some suffering severe burns as well as other injuries when they tripped and fell trying to escape.

Injured in the explosion were: Jerome Sullivan and Naval men Lt. Henry Morris Marshal, John Koif, chief water tender, Thomas Leonard Athey, fireman second class, Cornelius Leonard Minnehan, water tender first class, Daniel Harlan Phillipee, fire man third class, Alfred Ernest Bryan, water tender first class, Albert Louis Kohlstrom, fireman first class

Each of the dead men were not expecting this day to be their last.Michael Scavo was engaged to be married within a few weeks of the accident. Joseph Vissaluza was married with two children. George Driesbach was the father of three young children who loved his job. William Miehl had just been called back to the navy yard after a two month furlough and was happy to provide for his wife and three children. Daniel Vautier had also been unemployed for a time before getting hired on at the yard and was a steam fitter with a wife and five children in Camden, New Jersey. According to family tales, he died at St Agnes hospital before his family was able to see him to say goodbye.

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Daniel Vautier, 2nd great-uncle of the author.  From her personal collection

Daniel Vautier, 2nd great-uncle of the author. From her personal collection


The Navy launched an inquiry into the explosion, as the safety valves should have popped off as intended, instead of ripping apart. It is not known what the outcome of that inquiry was, but it can be assumed repairs were made, as the USS Cassin did join its fleet. It was sent to the Pacific and was nearly destroyed in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was decommissioned in 1945 after ten years in service and sold for scrap in 1947.



Kelley Wood-Davis (author) from Norwalk, Iowa on July 28, 2013:

Charlie, thanks for contacting me (and my apologies for getting back to you so late!). I could add info to the hub about your uncle if you'd like, as history to me comes alive better if there are names and faces!

Charlie Doran from Chicago, Illinois on July 23, 2013:

My Great Great Uncle , My Grandfathers Uncle Was John Koif he was awarded the navy Cross for trying and rescuing men from the ship

Kelley Wood-Davis (author) from Norwalk, Iowa on July 07, 2012:

Thanks Millionaire Tops - I actually have done that to more then one of my family stories too!

Shasta Matova from USA on July 07, 2012:

I think it is great that you took a family story, and took the time to learn the facts around it. It is an interesting story and adds a rich texture to your family heritage.

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