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.