Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

4 Women Killed, 14 Injured in Bermite Powder Blast.

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Thursday, January 28, 1954, 12:58PM — Eighteen women were injured, four fatally, when an explosion in a detonator cap assembly room blew the roof off of a building at the Bermite Powder Company plant in Saugus. Succumbing to their injuries at Newhall Community Hospital were Mrs. Della Mitchell, 43, of San Fernando, who lost both legs, and Frances R. Floyd, 19, of San Fernando, who lost both eyes in the blast. Two others — Leola Tolle, 25, of Acton, and Lupe Viramonte, 23, of Santa Paula — died at St. Vincent's Hospital in Los Angeles.

The accident was shrouded in a veil of Navy secrecy.

Bermite instituted all-women assembly lines during World War II and continued to utilize them into the 1950s.


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SAUGUS, CALIF.: Suffering from shock, Carolyn Thompson is helped into an auto after being caught in an explosion at the Bermite Powder Plant near Saugus, California. Sixteen women were injured, three of them critically, when an explosion occurred in the detonator inspection room of one of the buildings, where reportedly secret work is being done for the Navy.


Thomspon was not listed as one of the women injured. The men shown in the photo are identified in the Los Angeles Times (below) as Thomas Scribner (left) and Ray Medina.


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SAUGUS, CALIF. ... Sixteen women were injured today in an explosion at the Bermite Powder Company in Saugus. The explosion occurred in the detonator inspection room where, it was reported, highly secret work is being done for the Navy. The Navy immediately took charge and placed guards around the plant and wrecked building. Here, Carolyn Thompson (on ground) is being helped to her feet after collapsing in front of the emergency hospital. Both girls are employed at the plant.


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Arms Plant Blast Kills 1; 17 Injured.

Woman Employee from San Fernando Dies After Explosion.

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One woman employee was killed and 17 others injured yesterday in an explosion which rocked the Bermite Powder Co. plant in Newhall.

Mrs. Della Mitchell, 43, of 1175 Cross St., San Fernando, suffered fatal injuries when she and three other women employees were blown through the wall of the building in which they worked. Mrs. Mitchell died four hours after the noontime blast at Newhall Community Hospital.

Miss Frances Floyd, 20, of 13288 Herron St., San Fernando, was one of the others most critically injured. Miss Leora Tole, 25, of Acton, was also reported on the critical list.

The roof of Building 60 was blown off and half of the structure was shattered. About 25 workers had just entered it at the end of the lunch hour to resume work on a secret-Navy-detonator loading line.

Blaze Put Out.

Sgt. William Jordon of the Sheriff's Newhall office reported most of the injured had concussion and broken bones.

The Bermite plant fire unit extinguished a blaze which caused damage estimated by the management at $2,500.

The $2,500,000 plant manufactures shells, blasting powder, railroad and rocket fuses and highway flares.

The plant is situated a mile and a half northeast of Saugus in a small canyon off Highway 6, the Mint Canyon road.

Injured List.

Besides the three critically hurt, the injured are:

Lupe Viramonte, 23, Santa Paula.

Lena Saulier, 32, of Fillmore.

Coleta Wells, 26, of Saugus.

Phyera Scribner, 38, Newhall.

Berdie V. Palmer, 48, of Santa Paula.

Pearlee Braughton, 29, of Fillmore.

Ruby Smith, 40, of Fillmore.

Jane Holiday, 20, Santa Paula.

Wanda C. Lawrence, Saugus.

Treva Secrest, 42, of Fillmore.

Mrs. Frances Cummings, 27, Santa Paula.

Mildred Bradley, 52, Piru.

Edith Loper, 34, of Fillmore.

Edna Chambers, 36, of Saugus.

Mrs. Elwanda Blankenship, 28.

"There was a lot of screaming when the thing blew," said Mrs. Cummings. "I was blown against the wall. Two or three people had to be pulled out. I don't know what happened. It just done it."

Mrs. Blankenship said, "We all ran out when we heard the explosion."

Suffers From Shock.

She was suffering from shock and didn't know she was injured. Blood was splattered on her blouse and friends pointed out her cheek was cut. She went to the hospital for treatment.

The munitions factory's buildings are small and scattered to lessen the danger from blasts.

Sheriff's Dep. H.J. Smith said the building where the blast occurred is about 80 feet long and L-shaped. The explosion hit at the long end of the L, knocked out three walls and collapsed the roof.

The factory employs 450 workers. Operations were shut down temporarily after the explosion.

The Bermite plant has been troubled by other fires and explosions in the past.

Fire destroyed three buildings and caused $200,000 damage Aug. 2, 1950, when a flare-packing machine burst into flames and the blaze spread rapidly.

Last June 1, Mrs. Marie P. Thomas, 43, of Saugus, was killed while working near a pellet compressor which blew up. A flash fire caused $2,000 damage. Harold L Smith, a Navy civilian employee at the plant, later received a Meritorious Civilian Service award for rescuing burned and injured employees.

Last Nov. 23, Carl Lang, 56, of Palmdale, was injured when a blast of unknown origin occurred in a small powder room near the main plant. Damage was estimated at $175.

During and since World War II, the Bermite plant received Army-Navy "E" awards for munitions production.

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16 Injured in Powder Plant Blast.

Saugus, Calif., Jan. 28 (UP) — A detonator inspection room of a powder plant near here was blown apart today by an explosion, injuring 16 persons, four of them critically.

Deputy sheriffs originally reported one of the all-women crew employed in the detonator room was killed, but a recheck by officers disclosed no deaths, Sgt. William Jordan announced.

The Bermite Powder Co. plant was reported engaged in top-level Navy projects, and tight security regulations were imposed immediately after the explosion.

No representatives of the firm would talk on the telephone, and investigating officers said they could only learn that "an explosive" accidentally went off in the inspection room.

Some of the women victims were blown out of the building bodily. The most seriously injured were identified as Frances Floyd, who had both of her eyes blown out and the top of her head sheared off; and Delia Mitchell, who lost both of her legs. Several others were in almost as critical condition with fractures, burns and concussions.

Two ambulances and doctors returned from a quick trip to the Bemite Powder Co.'s plant on the outskirts of Saugus with the injured who were taken to the Newhall Community Hospital for treatment.

Sheriff's officers at the scene said the explosion occurred at 12:58 p.m. (3:58 p.m. EST) just as employees of the powder company were returning to their jobs from lunch.

The blast took place in building number 60, one of many structures on the grounds of the powder company's plant, located a mile and a half from this community in northern Los Angeles County.

The buildings are small and scattered to lessen the danger from explosion of the highly explosive product, chiefly black powder, which is manufactured there.

The plant is located between Saugus and Newhall, about 32 miles from the city of Los Angeles.

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Three in Serious Condition After Powder Blast.

Three women were pronounced in a serious condition yesterday in the Newhall Community Hospital from injuries received in an explosion at the Bermite Powder plant in Newhall. The blast occurred in the noon hour Thursday and killed one person and injured 17.

In a critical condition, with her life hanging in the balance, was Miss Frances Floyd, 20, of 13288 Herron St., San Fernando. Miss Floyd received flash burns over most of her body. The others in a serious condition were named as Miss Leola Tolle, 25, Acton, and Miss Lupe Viramonte, 23, Santa Paula.

10 Leave Hospital.

Four others were still in the hospital yesterday and 10 had been released to their homes. The others in the hospital are Phyera Scribner, 38, Newhall; Ruby Smith, 40, Fillmore; Edith Loper, 34, Fillmore, and Edna Chambers, 36, Acton.

Coroner Edward Winstanley said that there were no plans to hold an inquest in the case of Mrs. Della Mitchell, 43, of 1175 Cross St., San Fernando, who was blown through a wall and who died four hours after the explosion. He said the death would be listed as an industrial death.

Navy Investigates.

Deputy sheriffs were told by Jack Arnold, treasurer of the company, that Arnold could give no information on the explosion, the investigation of which is being handled by the Navy. Arnold said he did not know the cause. The building in which the blast occurred was described as a detonator inspection room.

Cause Undetermined for Worst Bermite 'Blow' —
Two Killed, 16 Injured.

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Work on Navy ordnance contracts moved ahead at the Bermite Powder Co. plant Friday despite the most disastrous accident in the firm's history the previous day.

A sudden explosion in a detonator cap assembly room where 18 women were working put all of them in hospitals, and two of them died.

The blast came utterly without warning, in a corner of the room where the finished caps were getting a final inspection. Since the materials in the caps are extremely sensitive and extremely powerful, it is considered that the blast was a sort of chain affair, starting in one small cap, and triggering outward with frightful rapidity and force.

The cause of the "blow" will probably never be known, since the two workers who were closest to it lost their lives without being able to tell what happened.

Bermite President Pat Lizza said that millions of the caps had been manufactured previous to the explosion, with no previous accidents of any consequence. The materials involved were those which the plant had been handling all during the war and afterwards, and with which operators had become familiar.

Pres. Lizza gave high praise to employees in adjoining buildings who rushed to the assistance of the injured, and who got them all out by the time ambulances arrived on the scene.

The explosion took place about noon.

Word of the catastrophe spread rapidly. A large crowd gathered at Community Hospital, seeking news of the injured.

A big delegation of metropolitan paper reporters and camera men mingled with the crowd, popping flash bulbs and questioning witnesses.

The Casualty List.

The three most critically injured were Mrs. Della Mitchell, 43, Forrest Park; Miss Leola Tolle, 25, Acton; and Miss Frances Floyd, 20, of San Fernando. Mrs. Mitchell was blown through a wall and terribly injured. She passed away about 4 p.m. in Community Hospital.

Miss Tolle died Saturday in St. Vincent's Hospital.

Miss Floyd sustained third-degree bums over most of her body. She lingered between life and death for three days at Community Hospital but Tuesday was reported to be showing slight improvement.

Phyera Scribner, 38, Newhall, was one of the more severely injured but was able to leave the hospital Saturday.

Still confined to hospital beds Tuesday were Ruby Smith, 40, Fillmore; Edith Loper, 34, Fillmore; Edna Chambers, 36, Rancho Santa Clarita; Mildred Bradley, 52, Piru; Treva Secrest, 42, Fillmore; Lupe Viramonte, 23, Santa Paula.

Suffering mostly from shock and able to go home soon after the accident were Lena Saulier, 32, Fillmore; Coleta Wells, 26, Saugus; Berdie V. Palmer, 48, Santa Paula; Pearlee Braughton, 29, Fillmore; Ruby Smith, 40, Fillmore; Jane Holiday, 20, Santa Paula; Wanda G. Lawrence, Saugus; Mrs. Frances Cummings, 27, Santa Paula; Edna Chambers, 36, Saugus; Mrs. Elwanda Blankenship, 28, Fillmore.

Cap Loading Room.

The building in which the explosion took place was numbered 60 and located about halfway up the east canyon of the Bermite reservation. It contained a number of small presses, part power operated, part hand operated, in which were loaded the small detonating caps, which are a vital component of U.S. Navy rocket missiles.

After the detonating material was pressed into the small metal caps, they were taken to a table at the inner end of the room for inspection. It was here that Mrs. Mitchell and Miss Tolle were working, and here the most violent explosion took place.

Considering the violence of the blast, the building suffered remarkably light damage. One end of the frame structure was blown out, and the roof just above it twisted and shattered. The wood framing caught fire but was quickly extinguished by the Bermite Fire Department.

Fast Rescue Work.

Although there was naturally a great deal of excitement and confusion at the scene after the explosion, the employees from adjoining buildings did a remarkably good job of rescue work immediately after the blow. All available ambulances and a number of private cars were used to hurry the victims to Community Hospital.

Employees who helped in the rescue work had special words of praise for Bill Gilbert, foreman of the department where the blast took place. Despite the machine gun-like detonations of caps, and the flames curling about the building, he rushed in, brought out Miss Floyd, then heedless of danger, went back to bring out several more of the stunned and confused women. "He should get a medal," is the way watchers expressed it.

The hospital was the scene of a whirlwind of activity as the 18 victims were brought in for checking and medical aid. Drs. Innis and Field were aided by the entire hospital staff, working at top speed and energy. Deputies from the Sheriff Station across the street gave valuable assistance in controlling the crowd and keeping the hospital halls clear.

The daily paper newspaper contingent had to content itself with what pictures and information it could get outside the hospital doors. Because of Navy security rules, all newspaper men had been barred from the Bermite plant. Some of them were quite upset about being kept from the scene and used threatening words to the plant management, but to no avail.

Return to Work.

Work at the Bermite plant was suspended immediately after the accident. But Friday morning, 85 per cent of the working force showed up as usual.

Oddly enough, during the morning of the big explosion, there had been a minor blow in one of the presses, at which the operator sustained slight injuries from flying bits of cap metal. She was sent home after being treated at Community Hospital and thus escaped the major explosion, and possibly more serious injury.

In discussing the nature of the work in which the victims were engaged, Pres. Lizza declared his belief that the plant safety rules were adequate and effective. "These caps are mighty 'hot,'" he said. "They have to be, or the fuse which they are a part of is no good and the missile will be a dud. Nevertheless, we had successfully and safely loaded millions of them, and they had been used on the Korean front and proved very effective. Nobody could possibly hate these tragic accidents more than I do, or feel more sympathy for the unfortunate victims. We will never know why this one had to take place. We cannot place any blame on anyone. It was just a dreadful, unfortunate accident."

Eyewitness Reports.

By Mary Shackleford:

It was after lunch, and work was going on as usual. The first thing I knew anything was wrong was when I glanced up. It seemed like the whole room was going to slap me in the face, then I heard an explosion and the tables and whole building seemed to go to pieces and we were all on the floor. I heard the girl next to me call for help. The air was full of dirt and haze and I got her by the hand. I saw a yellow haze like the yellow sun and we crawled for it and found the door. When we got outside, another blast went off and knocked me down. There didn't seem to be any panic, just shock, and the ones hurt the worst stood up the best. At first I thought it had happened in another building and didn't realize it had happened in our room. It was just a matter of minutes before a car drove up and took us to the hospital.

By Mrs. Phyllis Nelson:

I had gone back to work after lunch in the building opposite to the one where the blow happened. I had a feeling of that something was wrong, maybe at home. My stomach felt like it was going to turn over. I had a sickish feeling. I don't know why. Maybe it was because I hadn't worked there long, and the blow about ten thirty that morning up set me. Work was going along as usual. Suddenly there was a terrible explosion. I have never heard anything like it in my whole life. All the women except two of us ran out of the building, then I heard another blow and they all ran back in. Some of them were vomiting, some were fainting, and some were screaming. Two of the women had friends or relatives in building where it happened and had to be held to keep them from going out to look for them. I was afraid to look out the window, afraid of what I would see for I heard about one that happened before I went to work but I must have glanced out the window for I remember the jagged edge of the building where the roof had been. Then we were all ordered to leave. They told us the building we were in could go any minute. When I got outside, I knew why, for it sounded like thousands of firecrackers at a Fourth of July celebration. I will never forget the look on the face of one woman I saw come out of the building, as I was leaving to come home.

(Name withheld by request):

The first thing I heard was a noise like a firecracker, then a big boom. I ran out. There was no roof on the building. I saw a woman under some boards, then someone carried a woman out. Her clothes were almost burned off. Then another woman ran out. All her hair was gone and her head was smoking and her clothes were all gone. It was awful. There was no order, women were crying and hysterical Then we were told to go home.

Card of Thanks.

The Newhall Community Hospital wishes to express its sincere gratitude and appreciation to the people of Newhall and the surrounding communities for their help in the tragic emergency that has just passed. This assistance, so freely and generously offered, did much to ease the pain and relieve the suffering of the victims of the accident. The Newhall Community Hospital is proud to be a member of the community in which such an outstanding spirit of loyalty and cooperation has been displayed.

Newhall Community Hospital.

Funeral services.

Funeral services for Mrs. Della M. Mitchell were held at 2 p.m. Monday at the Hilburn Chapel and were marked by an outpouring of saddened fellow workers and friends. The services were conducted by Rev. Emmett Watts of the Adventist Church, and interment followed in Glen Haven Cemetery. The deceased was born September 29, 1910, in Springfield, Missouri. She leaves a husband, James D. Mitchell, mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Lee Ramsey of Springfield, and a brother, Glen, of that city.

The last sad rites for Miss Leola Tolle were to be conducted today (Thursday) at 3 p.m. at the Mottell Mortuary, Third and Alameda Streets, Long Beach.

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Fourth Victim of Bermite Blow Dies.

The fatality roll of the Bermite explosion on January 28 increased to four last Thursday night, when Lupe Viramonte died at St. Vincent's Hospital in Los Angeles, where she had been taken shortly after the accident. Mrs. Viramonte was 23 years old and made her home in Santa Paula. She was listed as among the more seriously injured, and it was at first thought that she would pull through, but her condition got worse instead of better.

The other victims of the "blow" were Mrs. Delia Mitchell, 43, Forrest Park, who died a few hours after the accident; Miss Leola Tolle, 25, Acton, who passed away the following Saturday at St. Vincent's; and Miss Frances R. Floyd, 19, San Fernando, who succumbed to terrible burns after lingering in Community Hospital for nine days.

The general strengthening of safety rules at the Bermite plant was evidenced this week when The Signal was commissioned to print ten sets of large placards, each set carrying revised and augmented safety directions for as many different plant operations. The placards are 14 by 22 inches in dimensions, printed in large type in two colors, and are to be posted at prominent places in all of the operating units.

[Webmaster's note: Much of The Signal's income was generated from its on-site commercial print shop.]

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