Sylmar, CA Water Aqueduct Explosion, June 1971

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TRAPPED MINERS SUFFOCATE NEAR L.A.; 13 FEARED DEAD.

SYLMAR (UPI) -- A natural gas explosion flared through a water tunnel today, suffocating trapped miners in one of the worst underground disasters in California history. At least one man survived.
Four bodies were retrieved, and 13 other miners were presumed dead in the tunnel. A fireman said five bodies could be accounted for by "arms and legs protruding from the rubble."
It was the third disaster to strike a section of the multibillion-dollar California Water Project, the most complex water work ever attempted, and the second explosion in the Sylmar tunnel in two days.
The explosion set part of the tunnel afire and it was still burning almost 12 hours later, firemen said.
Rail cars rumbled to the surface bearing bodies of the dead, as weeping relatives looked on from a nearby hill. The miners probably died of asphyxiation, as the gas burst into flames and consumed all oxygen in the area, police said.
Rescue workers had trouble seeing in the smoke and dust that followed the blast shortly after midnight. They were limited by their oxygen tanks to 30 or 60 minute stays in the tunnel. Huge hans were mounted to suck out the remaining gas and smoke, including some rushed up from Hollywood by a movie equipment company.
RALPH BRISSET, 33, Pacolma, was brought to the surface at midmorning covered with cuts and bruises and moaning with pain. He was unable to describe what happened to his companions.
"Methane gas is one of the hazards of mining," said WAYNE PRYOR, a sopkesman for Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Co. of Seattle, contractor for the project.
Four miners were burned Wednesday in a minor gas explosion, "Apparently they hit another pocket (of gas) and one spark is all it takes," said PRYOR.
The Feb. 9 earthquake that killed 85 persons was centered in the same area.
The worse mine disaster in state history was in 1922 when 47 men died in a timber fire at the Argonaut Gold Mine in Amador County. Five men died in 1930 at the Glenn Gold Mine in Placer County when a fire started from an air compressor.
"We're told that methane gas accumulates in earthquake faults and we happened to be drilling near the Sylmar fault," said PRYOR.
The first body was found when it derailed a car of rescuers. Police and other investigators said the men probably asphyciated, but at least some of them lived for a while after the explosion.
Main rescue attempts were being made at the big air vent, or gate shaft. A large crane equipped with a birdcage-like fixture lowered four rescue workers down 140 feet to the tunnel floor. After they discovered the body along the railway tracks they were driven back by the heat and smoke.
PAUL BADGLEY, 63, a miner for the past 45 years, was driving a large transporter called a "motor" in the tunnel about one mile from the blast when it occurred.
BADGLEY, knocked up against a fire wall, tried four times to get to his 17 trapped fellow miners before he was driven back by smoke and heat.
"The first time I went in there I could hear guys hollering for help."
"The second time I went in there I could still hear them."
"The third and fourth time I couldn't hear them. It's a hell of a feeling not being able to help them when you hear them hollering," he said.
Asked if he had any hope for the other men, he replied:
"No chance at all. If you had been in there you'd know there was no hope."
A command post was set up at the entrances of the aqueduct. The tunnel is being constructed for the Metropolitan Water District as part of a multi-billion dollar California Water Project.
A Metropolitan Water District spokesman said there were usually 20 men working in the 16-foot diameter tunnel but several always remain above ground.
The blast seriously damaged the extensive ventilation ducts in the shaft, hindering efforts to rid the aqueduct of smoke.
Two men who were about a mile from the entrance and a mile from the explosion said the blast knocked their hard hats off.
List of Casualties:
FORREST ALDRIDGE, electrician.
WILLIAM I. ASHE, miner.
R. E. BALLOW, miner.
DANNY BLAYLOCK, miner.
JOSE CARRASCO, miner.
WILLIE CARTER, miner.
RONALD DEMO, miner.
JOHN DROBOT, miner.
MIKE GUTIERREZ, miner.
GARY A. NICHOLS, miner.
RUSSELL OVERSTREET, miner.
J. V. PETERS, miner.
LOUIS L. RICHARDSON, MWD Inspector.
WILLIAM J. SNODGRASS, miner.
ALVIN H. SPREEN, miner.
R. K. STOVERS, miner.
ROBERT W. WARNER, miner

The Fresno Bee California 1971-06-24