Framework

Inferno in the harbor

Dec. 17, 1976: A helicopter searchlight illuminates wreckage in Los Angeles Harbor after an explosion aboard the oil tanker Sansinena. The nighttime blast split the 810-foot vessel in two and rocked the coastline, shattering windows in Costa Mesa 21 miles away. Six crewmen died and more than 50 people were injured. Two crewmen and a dock security guard remain missing.

The next morning’s Los Angeles Times article by staff writer Richard West reported:

The explosion was so tremendous that it broke the 70,000 ton Sansinena in half, shoving the fore and aft sections 150 feet apart, and heaved the entire superstructure of the vessel up on the dock in San Pedro.

The blast at 7:40 p.m. was felt as far away as Dana Point, 45 miles to the south. It broke windows in Costa Mesa, 21 miles away and rattled dwellings in Glendale and the Hollywood Hills.

Days later, Coast Guard divers reported an 18-inch-deep layer of heavy oil on the harbor bottom.

Los Angeles Times staff photographer Jack Gaunt’s smoking-ruins image of the Sansinena was Page One lead art the next morning.

Staff photographer Robert Lachman remembers feeling the blast while eating dinner in The  Times’ 10th-floor cafeteria at First and Spring Streets in downtown Los Angeles. After rushing to the scene, he took the second photo in the above gallery using a slow exposure with a tripod mounted Nikon F.