Contra Costa County, CA Powder Explosion, Feb. 1953
POWDER PLANT BLAST UNDER PROBE BY FBI
12 Killed, 5 Injured in Explosion Shaking 4 Counties of Eastbay.
The toll of dead stood at 12 men with five others hospitalized today in the atomic-like explosion that ripped through the dynamite-producing Hercules Powder Company's plant in Contra Costa County yesterday.
An FBI investigation was started immediately although company officials said the plant produces only commercial products. The blast, so severe it rocked four counties and registered on the University of California's seismograph, was the worst except one in the 74-year history of the plant on Contra Costa County's San Pablo Bay in the loss of life.
Company officials listed 12 dead and two missing and presumed dead. All of the dead and injured were among 350 workmen employed at the sprawling, isolated plant which covers 3000 acres near the town of Hercules.
The bodies of eight have been positively identified but while the remaining four are known their bodies are too mangled to permit identification readily.
Rips Apart Building
The force of the fire-caused explosion ripped apart the "dope house" where chemical ingredients for the manufacture of dynamite were being mixed and demolished a wooden shed about 250 feet away. Bodies of the fire fighting workmen, were hurled from the scene, one landing in a five foot creek bed.
A huge, grayish-black mushroom-shaped cloud visible some 20 miles away arose from the debris.
Wives and families of many of the workmen hurried to the plant, where a heavy security guard was clamped down, to attempt to get first hand news of their men.
Damage to the plant was estimated at $50,000.
Some three minutes before the explosion at 12:50 p.m. the fire warning whistle sounded.
EUGEN D. HATFIELD, plant employment supervisor, who went to the scene, said, "We have no idea what caused the fire. We probably never will know."
Bricks Rain Down
Bricks from the building rained down as far as 700 feet away.
Just before the building erupted, witnesses said there was a small explosion "like a can of gas going off" and flames licked out the door.
Four construction workers hurriedly piled into the clam-shell scoop of a bulldozer-loader.
They were joined there by two workmen who came running out of the building.
"We had hardly scrambled inito it and laid low, when the big blast went off," according to JOHN MOUNTJOY, 29, of 680 Andrew Way, El Sobrante. He and his partner, ALVIN SCHMIDT, 38, of 1604 Elm Street, El Cerrito, were on a dirt moving job for Fessenden and Co. of El Cerrito.
They reported the explosion "almost knocked our heads off" but they were just shaken up.
Newsmen were barred from the scene of the explosion. An executive said "we are running an explosives plant. We don't allow people in the plant."
None got any further into the premises than the administration building. Operations are carried on behind a guarded high fence and gate.
H. M. FITTS, 59, of 761 Smith Avenue, Pinole, one of the injured men, said he was in his dump truck waiting for the train to pass over the crossing in the plant. The top of the truck cab was crushed by a pice of angle iron blown through the air, causing the truck top to crash upon his head, dazing him. The truck was 100 feet away from the blast area.
Another of the injured, TONY MARTINEZ, 61, of 316 1/2 Lake Street, Rodeo, said he saw a man nearby killed when struckin the head by flying bricks.
"All of a sudden the explosion came. He was standing right beside me. A brick flew towards us and it hit him in the face. I guess he was killed instantly. He didn't say nothing. He just went down."
JOE MARTINS, 60, of 825 3rd Avenue, Pinole, hospitalized at Richmond Hospital for a leg injury, said he threw himself on the ground and covered his head with his hands and arms when he heard the brief warning of a low rumble.
Unidentified workers say the "dope houses" were considered relatively safe from explosion. They said three had burned in the last three years without exploding.
Two Men In Building
Only two men were in the 25 by 50 foot brick building which was used for mixing "dope" liquid ingredients of dynamite. They presumable touched off the plant fire whistle. The flames ignited "chemical dust" in the air, touching off the explosion, officials believe.
The shock was felt across the bay in Marin county where a housewife in Mili Valley said she believed her hot water heater had exploded.
In the San Francisco Presidio, ROD IRELAND, Sixth Army headquarters public information officer, said a "decided shock like an earthquake", was felt here.
At Berkeley Seismologist CHARLES HERRICK of the University of California said his instruments recorded a shock lasting 15 seconds.
This was small compared to the one when two ammunition ships blew up at Port Chicago, also in Contra Costa County on July 17, 1944, killing 322 men.
There have been other explosions at the Hercules plant. LEON H. REICHERT, of San Pablo, was killed in an explosion of 2000 pounds of black powder last March. Two men were killed in June 1948, when a nitroglycerine explosion destroyed a large plant unit and an itinerant was killed in December of that year.
Two men were killed and 50 other persons were injured in an explosion December 9, 1944.
Although no records could verify, plant veterans said that 22 Chinese laborers were killed in an explosion at the plant during World War I.
Oakland Tribune California 1953-02-13