Teacher’s film tells story of So. Amboy explosion

Documentary offers accounts of 1950 blast that killed 31


About 15 years ago, Frank Yusko, a history teacher at Spotswood High School, made two films about a city that blew up twice, as he put it.

Those films, “The Morgan Explosion of 1918” and “South Amboy’s Night to Remember: Powder Pier’s Explosion of 1950,” captured first and secondhand accounts of these events.

Both explosions, Yusko said, were likely the result of worker error.

“I explore that in both films,” Yusko said. The cause of the 1918 explosion, which resulted in the death of more than 100 people, will likely never be known. “Anybody who really knows the answer got blown to bits,” he said.

But the second explosion, which on May 19, 1950, killed 31 people, injured hundreds of others, and caused damage for miles around, was likely due to the mishandling of mines that were deemed unsafe by the Army and were being shipped out to the Asian market for sale, Yusko said. Military products would come from the Raritan Arsenal in Edison and would leave through South Amboy.

As the 60th anniversary of the Powder Pier explosion approaches, local cable channels have been airing the film. To commemorate the anniversary, Yusko added a new introduction to the beginning, as well as a piece at the end where he is interviewed by Spotswood High School History Club President Chris Chan. The interview, Yusko said, is about “putting it in perspective.”

Yusko had started compiling information on the explosions in the 1980s.

“I thought it was an interesting story,” he said. He had taught at St. Mary’s High School in South Amboy, so he had strong ties to the city and knew many people who could be interviewed about their experiences. “It was not really that difficult. You’d be surprised,” he said of finding people to interview about the explosions. “It was a lot of fun for me,” Yusko said, explaining that his passion is history.

Soon Yusko had material but needed help taking the project to the next level. He sought out then-high school student Peter Frintrup, who at the time lived in Milltown and was known at Spotswood High School, where Yusko was now working, for his filmmaking interest. Together they realized that there was just too much material for one film — so they made two.

“Peter was doing it because he was my student, and he was intrigued by the project,” Yusko said. “He was more than happy to be a part of it.”

Frintrup said the projects gave him an appreciation for documentary films.

“I had never had an interest in documentaries. Frank was great,” he said. Frintrup added that he enjoyed hearing the firsthand accounts of the explosions. “At the time, there was no History Channel,” he noted.

Frintrup not only helped Yusko on the technology front but also shot on location in South Amboy as needed. Yusko often came to Frintrup’s house to work on the film, particularly since the technology to edit film was far more primitive than it is today.

The second film, because the event was more recent, had different challenges.

“For me it was a little more pressure because the people I interviewed at the time were parents or grandparents of ex-students of mine,” Yusko said. “On that level it was a little more personal for me.”

The Powder Pier explosion, Yusko said, happened just before the start of the Korean War.

“I think it might have added another dimension of fear to the explosion,” he said. “People thought it was an atomic bomb.”

Both Yusko and Frintrup said they still get questions about the films.

“I know I’m going to get quite a bit of feedback,” Yusko said, basing the assumption on the feedback he received following the airing of the first film again in October, marking the 90th anniversary of the Sayreville explosion.

“Older people love it,” Frintrup said of the South Amboy film, “because they get to hear about what they went through.”

Frintrup and his father, Fred, launched Visionary Video in Milltown many years ago and Fred still runs the business. Peter Frintrup now has a filmmaking career at Santa Monica-based in Ocean.

Visionary Video will sell Yusko’s films, Peter Frintrup said, for those who request them. “We are still getting calls.”

Yusko, for his part, is glad to be able to retell the story, which is an integral part of South Amboy’s history.

“As a historian,” he said, “I would like to have people be aware of these things.”