Peter D. Lax, D for Danger

Dan Kotlow (1961) reminisces:

Did you know that in the late '60s (maybe early '70s) some malcontents tried to blow up the NYU computer center, and Peter Lax stamped out the fuse? The guy who lit the fuse was a crony of mine, from my home neighborhood (Washington Heights). His name was Nicholas Xxxxx, and he served jail time for that. Nicky went to Bronx Science (naturally!). He was, and I assume still is, a true-life, proud, card-carrying member of the Communist Party of the United States.

If memory serves, my knowledge of the specifics of the incident, including Lax' involvement, comes from an article I read. The fact of Nicky's involvement may come from a separate source, hearsay maybe, from someone who sent me the article. My knowledge of Nicky's political proclivities comes from childhood (ages 11-16, roughly). While I never saw a physical CPUSA card, he spoke proudly about being a Communist, how his father (Abraham Xxxxx, a lawyer) was cited 13 times by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, etc. His mother and older sister were likewise cadre.

Editor's notes:

Peter Lax confirms the account, placing the event shortly after the Kent State shootings (4 May 1970). He reports that he led the troops into the smoking computer center, but that Emile Chi and Fred Greenleaf stamped out the burning fuse. Professor Chi, by the way, was the Stuyvesant valedictorian in 1953, and lent us a document prepared by NYU several months after the incident. The picture above is taken from that document. The caption reads: "Bomb materials found with burning fuse at Warren Weaver Hall. Containers held gasoline and explosives."

From The Disruptions at Loeb, Courant, and Kimball: A report to the New York University community on the occupation of three University buildings at Washington Square during the Cambodian crisis period of May 1970, published in September 1970 by the News Bureau of NYU:

Approximately 100 strikers first entered Warren Weaver Hall at about 11 a.m., Tuesday (May 5), and attempted to gain entrance to the computer center on the second floor. This initial entry was not successful. However, it was made clear by the apparent leaders of this group that if the computer were not shut down immediately, they would take other measures. Dr. Jacob Schwartz, chairman of the department of computer science, decided that in light of the circumstances the computer had better be shut down. This action was taken immediately. After the second floor was cleared and secured, members of the Courant Institute faculty engaged in brief discussions with the strikers on the first floor of the building. After more than an hour's discussion, a group of about 60 strikers again tried to gain access to the computer center.

...

[Wednesday afternoon, the following telegram was received by the University.] We, as members of the N.Y.U. community occupying the Courant Institute, are holding as ransom the Atomic Energy Commission's CDC 6600 computer. At a general meeting in Loeb Student Center, the people put forth the following demands: the University must pay 100 Thousand Dollars to the Black Panther Defense Committee for bail for one Panther presently held as political prisoner in New York City. Failure to meet this demand by 11 a.m. Thursday, May 7, will force the people to take appropriate action. In addition, if the University Administration should call in police or other authorities, the above action will be taken immediately. In the meantime, no private property will be destroyed.

(Signed) N.Y.U. Community on Strike

...

Sometime between 10:30 and 11 a.m. [Thursday morning], Dr. Cartter indirectly received word that the Courant strikers had decided at a meeting held about 10 a.m. not to harm the computer but rather to leave at 11 a.m., hold a press conference, and denounce the computer's presence on campus.

But about 11 a.m. Thursday, May 7, shortly after the "no harm" message was received, a fuse to a bomb device was actually burning inside the computer center on the second floor of Warren Weaver Hall. Downstairs, more than a hundred of the building's strike occupiers were leaving, joining a crowd of approximately 1,000 demonstrators and onlookers gathered on the plaza and street outside the building entrance.

The entrance was cleared. Chancellor Cartter, Dr. Whiteman, Dr. Brown, and members of the Courant staff rushed into the building. With them were a University attorney and City Sheriff William Kehl, ready to serve the show-cause order on the occupiers.

Once inside the building, the University group smelled smoke leaking from a doorway leading to the second floor. The knob to the door had been removed, making it difficult to open. When the door was finally swung open, a group of Courant faculty hurried up the stairs to the computing center.

What they saw when they reached the second floor was described by a Washington Square Journal reporter in this eyewitness account:

"The doors opened, this reporter and several faculty members rushed up the stairs, entered the reception room, and found two steel doors leading to the Tab Room. One faculty member climbed through an open window into the Tab Room and opened the doors.

"The computer complex was filled with smoke and there were fire extinguishers strewn about the floor of the center and in the stairwell. Second-floor walls were covered with strike slogans, and puddles of water from the extinguishers, along with strike flyers, were on the floor.

"In the Tab Room, white cloth had been tied into a long fuse and was burning on the floor, leaving a charred trail on the linoleum.

"Drs. Emile C. Chi and Frederick P. Greenleaf, both assistant professors of mathematics, took fire extinguishers (having luckily found two that hadn't been fully incapacitated), and in a dramatic move doused the fuse just before it burned under the two locked steel doors in front of the computer room, which would have ignited several molotov-type bombs inside."

The computer room is located directly over the main entranceways leading out of Warren Weaver Hall. According to bomb squad experts, the 50-foot fuse to the bombs had been intended to burn for about 1 minutes before igniting the explosives– time to allow the occupiers to exit from the building and reach safety from the explosion. But apparently the gasoline had partly evaporated so that it took over two minutes to reach the door to the computer, where it was extinguished.

Thus, a matter of seconds stood between the discovery of the burning fuse and serious injury to the more than 1,000 persons outside the largely glass building and the University staff who had entered the building and gathered in the main hallway, only a few feet below the explosive device above them on the second floor.

The bombs, it was later determined by bomb squad experts, would almost certainly have gone off. The force of the explosion, moreover, could have shattered the glass windows in the room, showering broken glass and flaming gasoline on the outside crowd below and causing heavy damage to the computer and computer room.

On July 30, during the preparation of this report, Dr. [Robert] Wolfe [an assistant professor of history] and Nicholas Unger, the latter a graduate teaching assistant, were arrested following a grand jury indictment on charges of threatening to destroy the computer if the $100,000 Panther bail money were not forthcoming. The indictment, as reported by The New York Times, listed conspiracy, attempted grand larceny by extortion, and attempted coercion. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

More editor's notes:

The indictment and arrest made the front page of the Times on July 30, having occurred the day before. On May 27, 1971 (see the Times of May 28), Messrs. Unger and Wolfe pleaded guilty in State Supreme Court to reduced charges of attempted grand larceny in the third degree. Both were sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Mr. Unger's dad led a colorful career, some of which was summarized in his Times obituary on July 17, 1975. There was no mention of HUAC, but there was a 1953 close encounter with Senator Joseph McCarthy, resulting in an indictment for contempt of Congress. The judge ultimately dismissed the indictment. The government appealed, only to have the dismissal upheld by a unanimous decision in the Court of Appeals.


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