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The caption on this Times photo published Feb. 21, 1947, the day after the explosion at O'Connor Electro-Plating Corp. building, read: "Firemen, police officers and volunteer rescuers here are combing the ruins, searching for victims still trapped beneath fallen bricks, timbers and whole sections of broken buildings. Compression blew out windows in nearby buildings and shattered glass in some structures more than a mile away, while reverberating roar carried as far as San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles Harbor."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Andrew Arnott / Los Angeles Times

Rescuers carry a victim of the O'Connor Electro-Plating Corp. building blast.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Victims leave the scene of the explosion at the O'Connor plant, in a photo taken by a Los Angeles Daily News photographer.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Daily News / UCLA

An aerial photo of the O'Conner Electro-Plating Corp. building blast scene taken from the Goodyear blimp. This photo was published in The Times the day after the blast; the names of the streets were added by a Times staff artist.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Rescue workers carry out a victim of the O'Conner Electro-Plating Corp. building blast.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Father Bernardine from St. Joseph's Catholic Church administers last rites to a dying victim of the O'Connor plant blast.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Catholic priests move among victims of the O'Connor blast, administering last rites.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Volunteer rescuers bring out a victim of the O'Connor Electro-Plating Corp. building explosion.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times

Rubble is all that remains of the O'Connor Electro-Plating Corp. building after the explosion. This photo, made from two prints, ran on the front page of The Times the day after the blast.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Volunteers and firefighters work to put out flames and search for victims of the O'Connor plant explosion.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Jack Lindsay and Marguerite Fuber, great-grandchildren of Maria Lithgow, help move Lithgow's belongings from her home, which was condemned after it was damaged by the blast at the O'Connor plant.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: R.O. Ritchie / Los Angeles Times

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Explosion at O’Connor Electro-Plating Corp.

Feb. 20, 1947: A blast rips apart the O’Connor Electro-Plating Corp. building in the 900 block of East Pico Boulevard, killing 17 and injuring about 150. The force of the blast shattered glass in some buildings a mile away.

Times writer Marvin Miles reported the next morning:

Violence of the explosion – one of the worst in Los Angeles’ history – disintegrated the one-story plant and trapped many of the injured in the shambles of the building and the wreckage of a score of adjacent structures….

Volunteer rescuers raced to the scene, dodging spot fires that raged in the chaos of wreckage to help men and women pinned beneath fallen bricks and timbers.

Householders stumbled from collapsed dwellings, their faces streaming with blood, and screamed for rescuers to aid injured loved ones trapped under caved-in roofs and collapsed walls.

In this Aug. 17, 1997, article, Times staff writer Cecilia Rasmussen reported on the O’Connor blast:

At 9:45 a.m., a vicious chemical blast at the O’Connor Electro-Plating Co. ripped apart a four-block area in the manufacturing district on Pico Boulevard between Stanford Avenue and Paloma Street, leaving 17 dead and 150 injured.

The explosion that destroyed or damaged 116 buildings had opened a crater 22 feet wide and six feet deep. The blast shattered windows across a one-square-mile area and was felt as far away as Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley.

Mayor Fletcher Bowron was soon on the scene, comparing the disaster to the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which caused 102 deaths and thousands of injuries.

Relatives of the dead, injured and missing gathered amid the confusion. Among them were the families of the plating company’s chief chemist, Robert M. Magee, 35, and his assistant, Alice Iba, 22, whose bodies were never found…

A twisted 15-foot pipe had been hurled over a four-story building, landing a block away, where it killed a 10-year-old boy riding his bike.

Trembling switchboard operator Edna Aukerman was left sitting in her swivel chair out in the open, surrounded by shards of glass.

A young man visiting the plant with his salesman father struggled to safety as firefighters pulled the body of his father out of the rubble. Other workers were bleeding and moaning; some were tinted green by chemicals.

Father Luis Antlitz, shaken by the blast at nearby St. Turibius Catholic Church, sprinted four blocks to the scene, holding up his long brown Franciscan robes.  He and four other clergymen began anointing victims with holy oil.

The O’Connor Electro-Plating Co. had been in business in the same one-story brick building for almost 20 years. The plant was managed by Robert J. O’Connor, son of the company’s founder. O’Connor knew little about chemistry, so he had hired Magee, who presented impressive credentials. But in truth, Magee had been working as a foreman at a local dairy and was only an aspiring chemist without even a high school diploma.

For almost a year, Magee worked on a revolutionary process for polishing aluminum, anxiously waiting to get it patented. He was using a mixture of 140 gallons of perchloric acid and 70 gallons of acetic anhydride, nearly as volatile as nitroglycerin. It was imperative that the acid be kept under refrigeration. But an hour before the blast, the refrigeration unit broke down. About the same time, as investigators later surmised, Magee apparently inserted a plastic rack into the solution, triggering the blast.

The coroner’s inquest found no criminal negligence on the part of the O’Connor family and laid responsibility for the devastation on Magee.

The City Council later passed an ordinance giving the fire and health departments more power to regulate dangerous chemicals.

The Los Angeles Times went all out in its coverage with more than 20 photos and graphics in the next morning’s paper.  To illustrate the size of the disaster, the  Times broke company policy and published photos of dead victims.

The O’Connor plant explosion, as pointed out in Rasmussen’s story, was the first local disaster  broadcast live on television.

5 Comments

  1. February 20, 2012, 7:35 pm

    What tremendous devastation! From looking at the photographs I am surprised that there were only 17 fatalities. The rescue workers all have the expression of shock. Scott, are there any folks around that can give an oral history of that event? Did the families affected by this event receive any compensation? If an event like that were to happen today there would be as many lawyers on the site as rescue workers!
    That whole neighborhood is now fully industrial and I looked in Google maps that the building across the street is still there now.

    By: rafaelc@racen.com
  2. November 13, 2013, 3:50 am

    Hi Scott Harrisonb, that is really serious information which you have described via your post. I have got some info regarding the Electro-Plating Corp. which is needed. Besides this, I have understood to see images. Looking ahead to your site for further info like that. Thanks 🙂

  3. December 5, 2013, 11:07 am

    My dad had mentioned this explosion this weekend. We immediately googled it and came to this page

    By: heyx2paula
  4. February 15, 2014, 10:27 pm

    calsjandp64@sbcglobal.net I was in school the day of the explosion at 9th street elementary, I still remember hearing the blast we all thought it was a passing street car though quite a bit louder. My parents owned a restaurant in the same area as the plant and I recall that the house in which we stayed was no longer usable, so we spent a few days sleeping in the booths. The day following the explosion we were interviewed my news people and my picture was taken and printed on the front page, my mother used to keep a copy in her cedar chest but when she passed I could not find it nor do I recall the Newspapers name. I would like to see if I could find a copy of the paper or how to begin tracking it down !

    By: Peter
  5. March 28, 2014, 4:22 am

    Robert Moninger Magee was my dads father. my dad was born about four and a half months after the blast. I would like any information, stories or pictures that anyone is willing to share. This is part of my family history and is very interesting to me. Please email me at sjmagee78@gmail.com thank you

    By: sjmagee78@gmail.com

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