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The explosion that shook Utrecht

Last updated 2 weeks ago by Michael Darmanin

The 1960s were tumultuous times. The world was in flames, waiting to detonate. On one side raged sex, drugs and rock’n roll; on the other wars, rebellions, agitation and struggle. And in the midst of all that, on 12 June 1967, the relatively peaceful city of Utrecht was shaken to the core by an earth-shattering explosion.

The stormy sixties

The decade had started with the nightmarish massacre at Sharpeville. The Cuban Missile Crisis had seen the world totter on the brink of a nuclear disaster. The Iron Curtain had been drawn firmly through the middle of the planet, turning the earth frigid with chilly undercurrents of the Cold War. Vietnam and Czechoslovakia had been overrun by the two Superpowers. Fires had blazed all over for civil and other basic rights.

Albert Luthuli’s fight for human rights had earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, Malcolm X had been rewarded with a bullet from a sawed-off shotgun, and Nelson Mandela’s efforts had landed him in Robben Island. John F Kennedy had been gunned down in 1963, Che Guevara would be in October 1967.

In 1968 the world would finally implode. Mayhem would boil over from Paris to Mexico; Martin Luther King Jr would be gunned down in Memphis, Robert F Kennedy in California.

The sparks of rebellion around the world had touched the Netherlands as well. For two years Amsterdam was overrun by the eccentric Provo movement with their creative, hilarious anarchism—in keeping with the city’s growing status as the Magic Centre of the World.

The marriage of Princess Beatrix to the German diplomat Claus von Amsberg in 1966 had sparked plenty of criticism and chaos with the scars of the Second World War still fresh and raw.

However, amidst all this turmoil, a real-life explosion took place in Utrecht that had nothing to do with the conflicts or controversies of the world.

At 1:10 PM on that summer day, the ammunition disaster took place at the Kernkade. It has gone down in history as the munitieramp.

The Explosion

The Lage Weide industrial estate was set up during the beginning of the 20th century to the east of the Amsterdam Rijn Canal. The early years saw heavy metal companies such as Werkspoor and Demka settling in. After the Second World War, the municipality of Utrecht developed a business park with a number of ports to the west of the canal.

With the nearby traffic junction Oudenrijn, the railway lines and a waterway all serving as connecting channels, the business park soon flourished. Traditional industries were established, followed by a proliferation of distribution companies immediately next to them.

A defence ammunition ship was docked in the Kernkade at Lage Weide. That June afternoon, tens of thousands of kilograms of rejected ammunition was being loaded into the vessel. And suddenly, due to causes that still remain unknown, a fire broke out. A massive load of ammunition ignited by sparks. One can imagine the consequences.

Explosions! Loud enough to resemble the announcement of doomsday. Debris flew far and wide. Parts of the ship ended on the quay. For miles around, buildings were damaged —including the PEGUS power plant, the Philips factory, and a large number of residential houses. The roller shutters of a HEMA warehouse were pushed out by the negative pressure. The COBU goods storage facility suffered considerable damage to the roof and walls. As did the storehouse of NV AGAM—the Dutch importer of Mercedez. The nearby gas works was just about spared. One wonders about the degree of resulting destruction had that been set alight.

There were human casualties as well. A fisherman was killed and so was an employee of the Philips factory. About 140 people had to be hospitalised with serious injuries. Multiple hospitals had to admit the wounded, including the Central Military Hospital “Dr A Mathijsen”.

Ammunition that did not explode was scattered around a radius of a kilometre. The total damage was estimated at several million guilders.

Aftermath

A serious investigation was obviously carried out, with the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee in charge. However, while it unearthed plenty of technical glitches around the safety rules and procedures that had been broken, the cause of the fire that started all the disaster could not be determined.

In 2009 the Kernhaven, the specific location of the explosion, was deepened to cater for the ships which had grown steadily bigger down the years, the propellers assuming giant dimensions with time. During this operation, some high-explosive shells and part of a missile were found—remnants of the 1967 explosion.

Arunabha Sengupta
Arunabha Sengupta
Arun is a freelance writer, sports correspondent, statistician and a tour guide. He has lived in The Netherlands for the last 12 years and is in love with the country. He is especially fascinated by the way the country combines fascinating history with modern liberalism, the busy touristic hub with the quaint peaceful countryside.

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