July 24, 1916, 9:16 PM
Workers are digging a tunnel beneath Lake Erie to bring fresh water to the city of Cleveland, Ohio. They are over 4 miles in when they hit a pocket of natural gas. The gas explodes, leaving a mass of twisted pipes and railroad tracks bathed in a fog of noxious smoke and toxic gas. The crew of 9 is buried under mud and debris.
A rescue party quickly assembles and heads into the tunnel to search for survivors. Hours pass, and when they do not return, officials put together a second rescue party. Only two members of the party return, the rest were overcome by smoke and gas.
The police call on Garrett Morgan for help. Morgan had built a business selling his patented safety hood and breathing device, which allowed firefighters to enter smoke-filled buildings. In the pre-dawn hours of July 25, Morgan and his brother, still in their pajamas, arrive at the scene.
Morgan and his team made four trips into the tunnel and rescued the surviving members of the previous teams.
A grateful city honored the rescuers. They were given money and Carnegie medals; all of them, except for Morgan.
Ironically, the publicity surrounding the rescue harmed Morgan’s successful business, because his prospective clients found out he was a Black man. Morgan had successfully promoted his invention by hiring a White man to be the front man. Morgan posed as his assistant.
Morgan would go on to invent. He devised a 3-position traffic signal that saved lives, and which he sold to GE for $40,000. He developed the modification that created the zig-zag sewing machine. And he established a newspaper in Cleveland.
Morgan’s breathing device was awarded a gold medal by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. It would be modified to be one of the first gas masks used in WWI.
Morgan passed away in 1963. One month after his death he received recognition at the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago, Illinois. His name would eventually appear on schools, street signs, and especially, part of the Cleveland water works.