Sandia Base, NM Guard House Fire, Mar 1950



Albuquerque, N.M. (AP) -- Oil-fed flames, leaping lightning fast through a Sandia Base guardhouse, snuffed out the lives of 14 military prisoners last night.
Trapped with them in the tinder-dry wood structure, the prison's other two inmates were injured critically. It was the first major disaster in the history of the war-built installation -- now a semi-secret assembly point for the atomic bomb.
Two guards, alerted by prisoners' cries, vainly tried to rescue them from behind bars and meshed wire windows. They were overcome along with six others fighting the blaze. Twenty additional officers and men also were treated for smoke effects.
It was all over 25 minutes after the first alarm was sounded at 7:35 p.m. (MST). Thirteen of the prisoners apparently died in the first few seconds;
the other succumbed two hours later at a hospital.
Most of the victims were believed to have inhaled the intense, almost instantaneous heat and suffocated, Sandia authorities said. Guards reported there were few outcries to indicate any suffered long.
Contrary to first reports Maj. Kenneth Kolster, Sandia's intelligence officer, said there was no evidence of an explosion.
Examination of the charred, dank smelling structure afterward bore him out. Damage consisted principally of badly scorched ceilings and walls, mostly in a 100-foot L-shaped corridor and three cell blocks. It appeared the fire flashed overhead in less time than it takes to tell.
The prisoners had finished their evening meal a short time before. Some already were in bed, reading or sleeping. Bodies of two were found in a shower room; three others lay just outside the door.
Personal effects littered their quarters, some scarcely touched by the blaze. Nearly a fourth of the two-tiered bunk-beds were not even scorched.
Several contained magazines, obviously dropped as their owners leaped in alarm. Helmets and freshly shined shoes stood under some. Clothing,
hung in head-high racks, generally was part burned.
Major Kelster described five of the prison inmates as "had cookies," jailed after conviction on serious charges by a military court. The others he labelled minor offenders. He declined to detail charges on which any were courtmartialled.
The two guards were the buildings only occupants
besides the 16 prisoners. One, Cpl. RICHARD A. MILLER, 27, of 5524 E. Hobart, Stockton, Calif., was in the guardhouse office at the opposite end of the building from the flaming stove when fire was discovered. The other, Pvt. WILBUR HENRY, 22, of Rt. 2, South Zanesville, O., was walking back to the office midway along the corridor. He had passed the stove five minutes earlier.
Both were overcome by smoke, but attendants said they probably would be able to leave the hospital today or tomorrow.
Condition of the injured:
Pfc. ROBERT C. DARANEK, 20, of Minneapolis and Pvt. HARRY C. HANDLEY, 24, of Hamilton, Ohio, both remained grave this morning. Authorities reported shortly before 8 a.m. (MST). Both were in oxygen tents.
Newsmen were told neither the injured prisoners nor the guards could be interviewed.
The provost marshal Lt. Col. Ralph Tolve, and post
police and prison officer Lt. Stephen H. Perry, and four unidentified civilian firemen also were overcome by smoke.
Kolster said the fire-swept guardhouse -- a temporary type building -- is at least three-quarters
of a mile from the nearest restricted area in which activities are secret.
He reported a representative of the Provost Marshal General's office in Washington inspected
the base less than a month ago and pronounced all buildings, including the prison, in excellent condition from a safety standpoint.
Sandia is a field installation of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. It works closely with Los Alamos Atomic Installation, 60 miles to the north, and nearby Kirtland Field, the Air Force's Special Weapons Command.
The sprawling 26,800-acre reservation on the Eastern Albuquerque limits and just under the shadow of the Sandia mountains originally was an air field and later used to store hundreds of war retired planes. It became a secret installation after World War II and has mushroomed in size and importance in recent years.
The fire was sighted at 7:35 p.m. (MST). A prisoner called out to one of the guards. In approximately 15 minutes the building was gutted.
The guard, corporal MILLER, said he saw a flash of light and called out to Private HENRY to sound the fire alarm.
"I started to try to release the prisoners from the cell Blocks," he related to investigators. "Before I was able to unlock the first door, the flame and heat and smoke drove me back."
HENRY said he sounded the fire alarm and tried to get the prisoners out "but there was fire all up and down the hallway and I couldn't get to the door. When the fire department got there, I helped them remove the prisoners."
The guards were quoted by Major Kenneth Kolster, public information officer, as saying there was little outcry from the prisoners after the initial alarm.
"The only blessing -- if there can be a blessing," Kolster said, "Is that there was almost no suffering. They must have died almost immediately from inhaling the intense heat."
Flames were visible to motorists on U.S. Highway 66, just off which the main entrance to Sandia is located.
No civilian agency was called to the emergency.
The Sandia fire department -- located just half a block from the prison -- was unable to get the trapped men through the smoke.

Clovis News Journal New Mexico 1950-03-09