Framework

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June 24, 1971: Aerial view of Gate Shaft leading to Metropolitan Water District tunnel in Sylmar where 17 construction workers died.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Fitzgerald Whitney / Los Angeles Times

June 24, 1971: Scene at Gate Shaft on the 5.5-mile-long San Fernando tunnel where survivor Ralph Bissette was lifted to safety. This photo was published in the June 25, 1971, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Cormier / Los Angeles Times

June 24, 1971: Paul (Dutch) Badgley, 63, leaves the site of the explosion at Sylmar Tunnel where he used a rail car to rescue one victim. This photo was published in the June 25, 1971, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

June 24, 1971: Ralph Brissette, found alive in tunnel after explosion, is attended by doctors at Pacoima Lutheran Hospital. This photo was published in the June 25, 1971, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Browne / Los Angeles Times

June 24, 1971: Firemen are lowered into Gate Shaft during attempts to rescue miners who were drilling a Metropolitan Water District tunnel in Sylmar. 17 workers were killed by an explosion in the tunnel.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times

June 24, 1971: Workers and firemen at the bottom of Gate Shaft prepare to search for victims in a Metropolitan Water District tunnel in Sylmar, where 17 workers killed by an explosion.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Cal Montney / Los Angeles Times

June 26, 1971: Remains of four of the workmen killed when a gas explosion ripped through a Metropolitan Water District tunnel below Sylmar are brought out on a mining train. Seventeen workers were killed in the June 24, 1971, explosion. This photo was published in the June 27, 1971, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bill Varie / Los Angeles Times

June 25, 1971: Equipment including bottles of oxygen is prepared by Bureau of Mines personnel for a trip down Gate Shaft of the Sylmar tunnel where 17 persons died in a gas explosion. This photo was published in the June 26, 1971, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Fitzgerald Whitney / Los Angeles Times

June 27, 1971: Helmet worn by William I. Ashe, 52, killed by explosion in tunnel in Sylmar. This photo was published in the June 28, 1971, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Tony Barnard / Los Angeles Times

Graphic published in the June 25, 1971, Los Angeles Times showing location of tunnel explosion in Sylmar that killed 17 workers.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Russell Arasmith / Los Angeles Times

Oct. 12, 1972: A year after an explosion in a tunnel below Sylmar killed 17, Municipal Judge George W. Trammell III, in coveralls facing camera on right, accompanies a camera crew filming entire length of Sylmar tunnel. Judge ordered film made after ruling a tour of tunnel by was too dangerous for jury in the trial of Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Co., on negligence, safety violations charges. This photo was published in the Oct. 13, 1972, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times

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Blast in Sylmar water tunnel kills 17

On June 24, 1971, 17 workers were killed by methane gas explosion in a Metropolitan Water District tunnel beneath Sylmar.

Staff writer Dial Torgerson reported in the June 25, 1971, Los Angeles Times:

A pocket of natural gas exploded with an earth-shaking roar early Thursday in the midst of a crew of workers drilling a Metropolitan Water District tunnel 250 feet beneath Sylmar. …

The explosion was the second in two days at the MWD’s San Fernando Tunnel, which will take the State Water Project flow from near Sylmar to a covered aqueduct line 5.5 miles away.

Both explosions were blamed on methane, the natural gas found in oil fields. Four men were injured in the blast Wednesday. One of them was treated, went back to work, and died in Thursday’s explosion.

The tunnel is being constructed by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Co., a Seattle-based subsidiary of Lockheed Aircraft Corp. …

The explosion turned the 21-foot-high tunnel into an inferno of blazing gases. The impact of the blast raced toward the tunnel portal.

Six hundred feet from the face of the tunnel, Louis Renteria, 51, was working at a switch on the narrow gauge rail line. The blast hurled him to the tunnel floor, knocking him unconscious. …

Ralph Brissette, 33, of Pacoima, who had been loading slag onto cars at the rear of the work area, was knocked down, but was able to stagger, semiconscious, toward the east portal more than four miles away.

One thousand feet from the explosion, Paul (Dutch) Badgley, 63, a veteran of 45 years in mines, was blown from the small yellow transporter, an electric locomotive for the cars which remove slag. He staggered to his feet. It was, he said later, a blast “like a heavy dynamite explosion.”

From down the tunnel he could hear the screams of the men trying to escape the holocaust. He jammed his motor in gear and drove toward the trapped and dying men through darkness so thick he could see only inches.

Six hundred feet from the tunnel’s end, he found Renteria staggering in the smoky darkness.

He took Renteria to safety. Three more times, Badgley, without oxygen, tried to fight his way down the tunnel. The second time he could still hear men crying for help. He backed out until he could get a breath of air, and tried again. This time, and the last time, he heard no sound. …

Other rescuers, with fresh oxygen, made their way into the tunnel. It was, said Fire Department Division Chief Robert Radke, “a raging inferno–everything burning, pieces falling from the ceiling, smoke so thick you couldn’t see your hand before your face.”

Two Lockheed workers, John Wallace and John Rathbun, were 300 feet from the site of the blast and nearly running out of oxygen with they heard a shout: “Help.” In the darkness they found Brissette. They put him on a car and headed for the Gate Shaft.

The steel basket lowered by the crane was waiting at the bottom of the shaft. Brissette was lifted from the concrete-lined opening, placed in an ambulance, barely conscious, and taken to Tacoma Lutheran Hospital.

He responded quickly to emergency treatment for shock and smoke inhalation. …

The explosion and following litigation bankrupted the Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Co.

In December 2013, Ralph Brissette attended a memorial service for the 17 workers killed in the explosion. Check out this Los Angeles Daily News post: Sylmar tunnel blast victims get a memorial after 42 years.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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