A Townhouse Bomb Factory Explodes in New York

Last week I featured the work of New York’s Mad Bomber. This week we look at another case where radical students turned a New York townhouse into a bomb factory. But this time, the bombers themselves were the victims.

Explosions in Greenwich Village

West 11th Street at the edge of New York City’s Greenwich Village is normally quiet. Expensive townhouses crowd the picturesque, tree-lined street. But shortly before noon on Friday, March 6, 1970, West 11th Street shuddered with a violent explosion. The blast came from the quaint townhouse at number 18, which began to burn furiously.

FDNY works to extinguish the blaze at 18 West 11th
FDNY works to extinguish the blaze at 18 West 11th

Authorities first suspected that natural gas leak had caused the explosion. But they quickly determined that the ruptured gas mains were a result of the explosion, not its cause. Besides, the blaze didn’t look like a natural gas fire. As Chief of Detectives Al Seedman later remarked, the townhouse burned “like an ammo dump.”

Workers clear rubble from the site of the townhouse explosion at 18 West 11th
Workers clear rubble from the site of the townhouse explosion at 18 West 11th

Sorting Through the Rubble

After the firefighters finally extinguished the fire, investigators began to sift through the ruins. They discovered an improvised bomb factory in the basement of the townhouse. Cathy Wilkerson, the daughter of the building’s owner, belonged to the radical-left Weather Underground. Unhappy with the limited success of Molotov cocktails, Wilkerson and some of her colleagues decided to use dynamite bombs instead. To make them especially lethal, the bombmakers packed the dynamite with roofing nails so that deadly shrapnel would accompany an explosion.

A view of the space where the townhouse at 18 West 11th used to be before the explosion
A view of the space where the townhouse at 18 West 11th used to be before the explosion

There was some disagreement later as to precisely what the bombers planned to target. One candidate was a scheduled dance for non-commissioned officers at nearby Fort Dix in New Jersey. Another was the main library of Columbia University. The dispute was largely academic since the “factory” blew up before the Weathermen could plant any bombs.

The investigation revealed that on March 2, someone using stolen identification bought two 50-pound cases of dynamite in rural Keene, New Hampshire. The dynamite ended up at 18 West 11th along with blasting caps and a 1916 37-mm antitank shell.

The Bombmakers

Two young people, 28-year-old Diana Oughton and 22-year-old Terry Robbins were assembling crude bombs in the basement. Neither Robbins nor Oughton had any experience handling explosives. Nor did they have even a rudimentary knowledge of electricity. Consequently, they failed to incorporate any safety features in their bomb circuitry. As they taped nails to sticks of dynamite something went wrong.

Diana Oughton, one of the bombmakers killed in the blast at 18 West 11th
Diana Oughton, one of the bombmakers killed in the blast at 18 West 11th

Perhaps the inexperienced Robbins had crossed wires but for whatever reason, a bomb prematurely detonated, killing the pair instantly. A third person, Theodore “Ted” Gold died when the building’s exterior collapsed onto him. Wilkerson and a fifth person, Kathy Boudin, escaped with cuts and bruises and went into hiding.

Terry Robbins, also killed in the townhouse explosion
Terry Robbins, also killed in the townhouse explosion

Wilkerson remained underground for a decade before she surrendered to authorities in 1980. Boudin also remained underground and continued her radical activities. Police arrested her in the aftermath of a botched armed robbery in Nanuet, New York.

Epilogue

The lot at 18 West 11th remained vacant for a few years but a new townhouse was built on the site in 1978. Although it blends well into the tony neighborhood, it has a distinctly different appearance from the 1840s Greek Revival architecture of the neighboring buildings. In 2012, it sold for $9.2 million.

The townhouse at 18 West 11th in 2017 (Author Photo)
The townhouse at 18 West 11th in 2017 (Author Photo)

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