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Sole survivor of 1971 Sylmar tunnel collapse tells his story

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Forty-four years later, 76-year old Ralph Brissette tells the harrowing story of the Sylmar Tunnel explosion that killed 17 of his MWD co-workers. He was the only survivor.

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.

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