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Sole survivor of 1971 Sylmar tunnel collapse tells his story




The brightly lit rescue scene at the entrance to the Sylmar water district tunnel is a harsh contrast against the dark night. Rescue workers desperately work against time, looking for possible survivors trapped inside the tunnel. Photograph dated June 25, 1971.
The brightly lit rescue scene at the entrance to the Sylmar water district tunnel is a harsh contrast against the dark night. Rescue workers desperately work against time, looking for possible survivors trapped inside the tunnel. Photograph dated June 25, 1971.
Bob Steiner/LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection
The brightly lit rescue scene at the entrance to the Sylmar water district tunnel is a harsh contrast against the dark night. Rescue workers desperately work against time, looking for possible survivors trapped inside the tunnel. Photograph dated June 25, 1971.
Miner John Wallace returns to the surface after being turned back by police. Wallace wanted to return to the tunnel, contending that the miners could do a better job of rescue in the mine than that of the fire department. He was the miner who discovered the only survivor, Ralph Brissette. When he returned to the surface, Wallace bitterly complained about the fire department's handling of the rescue attempts. Photograph dated June 24, 1971.
Myron Dubee/LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection
The brightly lit rescue scene at the entrance to the Sylmar water district tunnel is a harsh contrast against the dark night. Rescue workers desperately work against time, looking for possible survivors trapped inside the tunnel. Photograph dated June 25, 1971.
Photograph shows rescue workers looking or possible survivors trapped inside the tunnel, but recovering lifeless bodies instead. Here, four Metropolitan Water District Tunnel explosion victims are being brought out. Photograph dated June 26, 1971.
Bob Steiner/LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection
The brightly lit rescue scene at the entrance to the Sylmar water district tunnel is a harsh contrast against the dark night. Rescue workers desperately work against time, looking for possible survivors trapped inside the tunnel. Photograph dated June 25, 1971.
Ralph Brissette, 33, the only known survivor at the time of the Metropolitan Water District tunnel blast, is interviewed in his hospital bed. Photograph dated June 24, 1971.
Joe Messinger/LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection
The brightly lit rescue scene at the entrance to the Sylmar water district tunnel is a harsh contrast against the dark night. Rescue workers desperately work against time, looking for possible survivors trapped inside the tunnel. Photograph dated June 25, 1971.
Photograph caption dated September 3, 1971 reads, "Lone Survivor Tells Of Blast - Ralph Brissette gives emotional account of disaster."
LAPL Herald-Examiner collection
The brightly lit rescue scene at the entrance to the Sylmar water district tunnel is a harsh contrast against the dark night. Rescue workers desperately work against time, looking for possible survivors trapped inside the tunnel. Photograph dated June 25, 1971.
Peter Rosenwald and Ralph Brissette at the former opening of the MWD tunnel. In 1971, five miles into the tunnel, a pocket of methane exploded, killing 17 workers. Brissette was the sole survivor.
John Rabe


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Angelenos — natives or transplants — learn about the big disasters as a matter of course: the Northridge Earthquake, the 1993 Malibu wildfire, the bursting of the St. Francis Dam. But the lore usually doesn't include one of the nation's worst industrial accidents: the 1971 tunnel collapse that killed 17 men. And it should.

The story starts near the corner of Fenton and Maclay in Sylmar. Here, there's a giant pit with a tall concrete wall at one end. That's the start of a Metropolitan Water District tunnel that was to bring water from Lake Castaic, and it's the emergency operation staging ground for the photos in our slideshow.

On June 23, 1971, miners hit a pocket of methane five miles into the tunnel. A few were injured by a small explosion, but work wasn't stopped. Instead, according to Ralph Brissette, they decided to try to dilute the methane by pumping in regular air.

"And I guess it didn't work," Brissette says.

He should know. The methane exploded when work resumed the next day, killing all of his coworkers: 15 miners, one electrician and an inspector. Brissette says he was apparently shielded from the blast by the radiator of the train used to transport men and materials to the job site.

"I was working as a 'brakey,' a person who rides the locomotive back and forth in case there's a derailment," Brissette recalls. "It was really cool then, and [for heat] I was standing on the front of the locomotive near the radiator, and all of a sudden there was an explosion. It was a hell of a blast. I guess I lost consciousness." He was stuck in the tunnel for seven hours.

Lockheed, the tunnel contractor, was found guilty in criminal and civil court and forced to pay almost $10 million.

READ THE CASE: People v. Lockheed Shipbuilding & Constr. Co.

The disaster, the worst tunnel disaster ever in California, also brought about the stiffest safety regulations in the country.

But it wasn't until 2013 that the MWD erected a memorial to the 17 victims. Peter Rosenwald, a librarian, community activist and friend of Brissette, says, "I first heard of [the disaster] in 2011. I was talking to Ralph. and he told me about the incident. I said, 'Was there ever a memorial?' And he said, 'No'. And I said, 'Let's try to work on it.'"

(Ralph Brissette at the dedication of the memorial to his fallen co-workers. Image: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.)

Brissette doesn't know what to make of the fact that he survived when his friends didn't — men like miner Danny Blaylock, with whom he'd go hunting for deer and rabbit. "Out here in the Valley. We were close. Very close ... family," he says.