LAFD History – The Sylmar Tunnel Explosion: June 23, 1971

February 1, 2014

Sylmar Tunnel ExplosionSylmar seemed jinxed when another disaster, a few months after the earthquake, hit the area. The Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company of Seattle was digging a 5.5 mile-long tunnel, 170 feet underground, for the Metropolitan Water District’s Feather River Project. The first clue of impending disaster came at 2:30 a.m., June 23, 1971, when Task Force 98, Engine 91, Rescue-Ambulance 98 and Battalion 12 Chief Leo Najarian were dispatched by Coldwater to 12800 Fenton Avenue, following a report of an explosion at the tunnel’s digging head.

Four tunnel workers suffered fractures and burns in what Najarian determined was a methane explosion touched off by a welder’s torch or by a “mole” digger machine striking a spark when it hit a hard rock. Najarian called for one more rescue-ambulance and was sent Rescue 89. Using generator fans, Engine 91 began venting the tunnel at an opening on Foothill Boulevard, just west of Roxford Street. Determining that the workers were only periodically testing for the presence of methane, Najarian instructed supervisors to make continuous testings and to obtain better breathing apparatus.

Najarian, who was scheduled to work a double shift, was concerned by the disaster that almost happened. During the day he monitored activities at the tunnel and learned that state safety inspectors had certified that work could continue. When no more alarms came from the 18-foot-diameter bore site, Najarian began to hope his worst fears would not be realized. Considered by the department as its foremost authority on hazardous materials, Najarian’s nagging worries continued into the evening.

Najarian had just returned from an alarm after midnight when Rescue-Ambulance 98, stationed in his quarters, was dispatched at 12:51 a.m., to a tunnel explosion at the same address as the earlier one. Najarian would have followed Rescue 98, except that at the same time he was dispatched to a fire in Engine 24’s district in Sunland. When 24’s sizeup indicated the fire was small, Najarian radioed Rescue 98 for a radio report on the tunnel explosion. Rescue 98’s firefighters said a severe explosion had occurred some five miles inside the Fenton Street portal where as many as 20 workers were digging with the mole.

En route at 1:00 a.m., Najarian called for Task Force 98 to respond to the Fenton tunnel entrance and Engine 91 to go to the vent hole at Roxford and Foothill. Najarian also called for a second ambulance and was sent Rescue 89. Najarian decided to go to the vent hole location because that would put him closer to the actual site of the explosion. Upon arrival, Najarian was told by Lockheed Project Manager Loren G. Savage that an explosion “20 times worse than the previous night” had occurred 5.3 miles inside the tunnel. Only one worker had escaped. Eighteen were missing.

Najarian asked what the methane readings were at the time of the explosion. He was told workers had recorded readings of only one percent when the digger was not working. When the mole started boring, however, the workers were entering an earthquake fault and the dirt turned into a powdery consistency. While the digger cut, the gas appeared to be coming out in puffs as if from pockets of heavily concentrated methane.

A crane was ordered to the vent hole opening on Foothill as Najarian hurried to the Fenton portal opening where a search team would have to go in to look for the 18 missing workers. En route he radioed Coldwater “in all probability, a major disaster has occurred.” Najarian called for a longer duration breathing apparatus and the air utility unit with its compliment of additional air bottles and capabilities for on-scene refilling of them as well as bottles normally carried on apparatus.

To reach the tunnel entrance, firefighters had to be lowered in a cage some 170 feet to the portal opening. Task Force 98 firefighters began loading a rescue train of two donkey engine gondola cars with all available breathing apparatus, extra air bottles, litter baskets and stretchers, flashlights, resuscitators and first aid equipment. Rescue 98 firefighters Gerald R. Rainmaker and Thomas L. Cox, along with Savage and two tunnel workers would go on the first rescue train. If one gondola car derailed, the other donkey engine car could back out of the tunnel with the rescue team. With triple backup 30 minute air supplies for each team member, it was pre-arranged that if they did not both come out after 30 minutes a second train would go in after them.

As the rescue train entered the tunnel and rounded the first bend, radio contact was, as expected, lost due to the winding nature of the tunnel. Najarian, Task Force 98, and Rescue 89 proceeded to the Foothill Boulevard vent hole. When the rescue team did not return in half-an-hour, a second rescue team was starting into the tunnel when they heard honking and saw the red light of the returning rescue team. The news was all bad. Rainwater and Cox riding in the front gondola reported that visibility, even with their powerful Wheat lamps was zero in the million-cubic-feet inside the tunnel, their gondola suddenly struck an object, derailed and turned sideways. The firefighters had climbed out of the gondola and found they had run over a body which could not be seen with their lights. Cox and Rainwater determined the body was that of a worker obviously killed in the explosion. Rainwater proceeded down the tracks while looking for more victims until he fell into a four foot hole and was injured.

Uncoupling the lead gondola, the rescue team returned to the Fenton Street portal. The firefighters concurred with Savage that the excessive concentrations of smoke and gases meant that if any of the 18 workers on the graveyard shift survived the explosion, they were almost assuredly dead from exposure to lethal heat, smoke and gases. Regardless of whether anyone remained alive inside the tunnel, rescue attempts had to be continued and bodies had to be brought out. A second search and rescue train slowly entered the tunnel, disappeared around the bend and, while proceeding deep into the murk discovered, 1000 feet inside an unconscious worker, Ralph Brissette. Miraculously, the force of the explosion threw him to an area where fresh air was being pumped into the tunnel. Rescue 39 rushed him to Pacoima Lutheran Hospital where he would survive.

During the next two days, fire companies worked in tandem, under extremely hazardous conditions, while riding rescue trains in and out of the hot smoky, water filled tunnel while extinguishing fires and searching for victims. The LAFD operations continued for three days until June 26, when all 17 bodies were recovered. Medals of Valor were awarded to Rainwater and Cox as well as to 17 other firefighters who participated in the Sylmar tunnel disaster.

The LAFD awarded the Medal of Valor to the following 19 members for their personal courage at great personal risk during rescue operations at the 1971 Sylmar Tunnel Disaster: Argus E. Abney, Donald F. Anthony, Walter F. Ball, Cameron P. Cramer, Thomas L. Cox, Frank Fasmer, John C.Gerard. John H. Holdsworth, Robert E. Radke, Gerald R. Rainwater, Leon Ross Rauh, David P. Richardson, Alfred B. Risk, Fred W. Stoddard, Forrest E. Taylor, Jerome P. Tenhundfeld, Kenneth R. Thompson, Keith A. Wilson, Thomas A. Wilson.

Forty-two years after the disaster the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District created a memorial for the workers killed in the explosion. On December 9, 2013, an event was held at their building for the families of those who lost their lives and for the lone survivor, Ralph Brissette, who with his family attended the program. I was honored to be given the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Historical Society about the heroism of those LAFD members who were awarded the Medal of Valor for their efforts to rescue those tunnel workers.

By Paul Ditzel for “The LAFD – A Century of Service”

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