Weather Underground Bomb Factory Explosion

On March 6, 1970 West 11th Street was rocked by a huge explosion at No.18, just what happened?

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. The two persons preparing the bomb were killed instantly, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins, as was a third "Weatherman" who happened to be walking into the townhouse, Ted Gold; two others were injured but were helped from the scene and later escaped.

The Weather Underground, was an American militant radical left-wing organization founded on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan. Originally called Weatherman, the group became known colloquially as the Weathermen. Weatherman organized in 1969 as a faction of Students for a Democratic Society composed for the most part of the national office leadership of SDS and their supporters. Their goal was to create a clandestine revolutionary party for the overthrow of the U.S. government.

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 the Weathermen 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.

Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins, who were assembling the bombs, were killed by the blast, as was Theodore "Ted" Gold, who was returning to the townhouse and was crushed when its exterior collapsed. 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 who was vacationing in the Caribbean at the time. 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".

An initial search turned up a 1916 37-mm anti-tank 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 communiqué 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 communiqué named Robbins as the third body and described Gold, Oughton, and Robbins as revolutionaries "no longer on the move"

Photo Credit: Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Weather Underground Bomb Factory Explosion


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