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How to die at Los Alamos

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 13th, 2015

The people who ran the Manhattan Project worried about a lot of different things. Usually when we talk about this, it's a story about the Germans, or the Japanese, or the physics, or other very specific things of that nature. But they also worried about banal things, like occupational safety: reducing the number of people injured, or killed, as part of doing their job.

Around half of the 500,000 or so people employed by the Manhattan Project were employed in construction. As a result, most of the injuries and fatalities associated with making the bomb were of a banal, construction-related variety. Heavy machinery, ditches, collapsing buildings — these were the most dangerous parts of the project for those who made it. Occasionally there were more exotic threats. Criticality accidents took the lives of two scientists in the immediate postwar, as is well known. Concerns about criticality excursions at the plants used to enrich uranium were a non-trivial concern. And there were other, more unusal ways to die, as you would expect from any body of people that large, working over so great an area, especially when they are concentrated in places that were for much of this period constant construction sites, as were Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford.

Exhibit 14 - Fatalities at Los Alamos

"Exhibit 14: FATAL ACCIDENTS: Since the inception of the Project in the Spring of 1943, until September 1946, twenty-four (24) fatal accidents have occurred. The following history of these incidents was taken from hospital records, reports of investigation boards, and the safety division files."

Some time ago I happened upon a list of all of the fatal accidents that occurred at Los Alamos between its inception in 1943 through September 1946. There were exactly twenty-four, an even two-dozen ways to die while working at an isolated nuclear weapons laboratory. I reprint them here, not only because there is a morbid fascination with this sort of thing, but because I've found that this list gives a really remarkable summary of the people of Los Alamos, the hazards of Los Alamos, and the work that goes into making a bomb, which requires much more than star physicists to pull off successfully. Each death was followed by an inquiry.

My summaries are below; the original document (linked to at the end of this post) contains more details on some of them. The copy of the document I have is very hard to read, so I may have gotten a few of the names wrong.

1943
  1. Estevan Roches, bulldozer operator. Crushed by a rock in his tractor while trying to build an access road to Los Alamos, at night. Died February 11, 1943.
  2. George H. Holtary, diesel motor mechanic. Was working on the power plant at Los Alamos, got crushed between a crankshaft and the housing. Died March 1, 1943.
  3. George J. Edwards, a soldier. Fell into a drainage ditch at night after drinking, injuring his back and puncturing his kidneys. Died July 19, 1943.
  4. Jose Montoya, construction laborer. Was digging an acid sewer ditch between "C" and "D" buildings. The 8-foot ditch was not reinforced and it collapsed on him. Died November 2, 1943. Investigation board recommended reinforcing ditches in the future.
  5. Pfc. Frederick Galbraith, military police. Was accidentally shot by another serviceman while sleeping. Another private was cleaning the gun and did not realize there was a live round in the chamber. It caused a severe wound in Galbraith's thigh. He died of severe shock, November 4, 1943.
  6. Efren Lovato, construction laborer. Lovato was in the back of a dump truck being used to transport laborers to lunch. The truck's accelerator got stuck and it crashed into a car at the pass gate and overturned, killing Lovato and another laborer, on November 20, 1943. Investigation board recommended increasing the size of the motor pool so the vehicles could be inspected more regularly.
  7. Fridon Virgil, construction laborer. Killed in the same accident as previous.
1944
  1. Fred Wolcott, contractor engaged to clear woods near the site. Attached a bulldozer to a tree and tried to pull it out. The tree snapped and fell on him. Witnesses say he appeared to be "frozen" to the seat of his tractor. Died May 9, 1944.
  2. Elmer R. Bowen, Jr., age 10 and a half. With a friend, was using a canoe from the former Los Alamos Ranch School in the main pond. His canoe capsized; neither him nor his friend could swim, and he drowned on July 1, 1944. He was the son of a maintenance mechanic, one who remained at Los Alamos for several decades after the war, until his retirement. Canoeing prohibited after death.
  3. Ernesto Freques, truck driver. He was standing next to a pile of reinforcing steel, unaware that workers on top were trying to move pieces and having difficulty because the steel was bent. The pile of steel collapsed on him; he was pinned against the truck, his heart lacerated. Died on July 6, 1944.
  4. Horace Russell, Jr., a research chemist, age 26. Fell from a horse while riding it in a canyon near the project. Suffered a serious head injury. Died August 5, 1944. The first of only four scientists on this list.
  5. Pfc. Hugo B. Kivsto, a member of the Provisional Engineer Detachment. Was fatally injured while driving an Army vehicle on a poorly graded surface of dirt road near Santa Cruz, New Mexico. Lost control of the vehicle while rounding a hazardous curve. Tried to jump clear of the truck as it went over the embankment and was pinned under it. Died on December 3, 1944.
 1945
  1. Pvt. Grover C. Atwell, member of Special Engineer Detachment. Assigned to hospital ward duty, died of an overdose of barbiturates taken from the hospital pharmacy. He died on July 21, 1945, but his body was not found until August 22, 1945. The report does not elaborate on why there was such a delay in finding his body. The investigation concluded he was "depressed over his assignment," no indication of financial or family difficulties. Declared mentally irresponsible for his death, and thus his "death was in the line of duty and not a result of his own misconduct."
  2. James W. Popplewell, civilian carpenter. Was working inside a building on August 7, 1945, at the same time a caterpillar tractor was pushing dirt over the roof. The roof collapsed and both tractor and dirt crushed Popplewell. Investigation blamed the foreman for not seeing if the building could support the load of the dirt and the tractor; the foreman was recommended for termination. This is a rare case of any liability being found.
  3. Harry Daghlian, physicist, age 24. Criticality accident with the so-called "demon core." Report notes he "was exposed to too great radiation" on August 21, died on September 15, 1945. The report carries no further information on him and says that Health Physics is still investigating the matter. Second of the four scientists.
  4. Asa Houghton, civilian carpenter. Was going down the hill from project towards Santa Fe in his truck, front wheels locked and caused vehicle to run off the left side of the road, turned 5 or 6 times. Died of internal injuries on September 27, 1945.
1946
  1. Manuel Salazar, janitor. With three friends (also janitors), got extremely drunk on muscatel wine mixed with ethylene glycol (antifreeze). Died from ethylene glycol poisoning on January 29, 1945. Because deaths were not result of duty, descendants received no benefits of compensation.
  2. Alberto Roybal, janitor. Same event as above, same death date.
  3. Pedro Baca, janitor. Same event as above, same death date.
  4. Levi W. Cain, civilian blacksmith. Struck by car driven by a military sergeant on site. The sergeant was absolved of blame; the visibility was low, but car was not being driven at an excessive speed. Cain died on February 6, 1946.
  5. Louis Slotin, physicist, age 35. Criticality accident with the same core that killed Daghlian. While making measurements, "was exposed to radiation from radioactive materials" to a fatal degree. Third of the four scientists. Died on May 21, 1946. After Slotin's death, criticality experiments were effectively put on hold until new safety guidelines could be devised.
  6. Livie R. Aguilar, truck driver for Zia Company. For reasons that were unknown (there were no witnesses or obvious evidence), his truck left the road and turned over into a trench, pinning Aguilard beneath it. He died on July 1, 1946.
  7. Joshua I. Schwartz, a scientist, age 21. With two other scientists (Robert A. Huffhines and William E. Bibbs), he was engaged in an experiment to trace air currents in Omega Canyon. They were instructed to use balloons or other non-flammable equipment for this. Instead, they tried to use smudge pots (smoke bombs). One of the smudge pots exploded, fatally injuring Schwartz, and critically injuring his companions (permanent blindness). Schwartz died on 2 August 1946. The investigation faulted their bosses with inadequate supervision. This resulted in at least one lawsuit over compensation. The fourth of four scientists.
  8. Herbert Schwaner, construction laborer. He was driving a bulldozer up a ramp when one of the treads locked, causing it to topple. He was pinned underneath. He was found five minutes later, by his brother, dead. He died on August 7, 1946.

It's quite a list. Here is a copy of the original report, if you want more details on any of the above.1

Los Alamos population estimates, 1943-1946. For a more detailed breakdown of civilian duties, see this payroll census. The big dip in 1943 seems to be something about reshuffling how construction labor was accounted for when the University of California took over.

Los Alamos population estimates, 1943-1946. For a more detailed breakdown of civilian duties, see this payroll census. The big dip in 1943 seems to be something about reshuffling how construction labor was accounted for when the University of California took over.

Construction dominates, but automobiles, recreational mishaps, and scientific experiments make their appearance. As does suicide — one wonders what the report means by "depressed over his assignment" for the soldier at the hospital. The presence of a child reminds us that families lived at this secret laboratory — by the end of the war there were some 1,500 "dependents," many of them children, living at the project site.

The Hispanic and/or Indian names point towards Los Alamos' location. On the list of properties near the site that was seized by the Army (via condemnation), there are many Roybals, Montoyas, and Gomezes. In the list of Los Alamos badges, there are many Bacas, Virgils, Montoyas, and a Salazar.2  These are the people who lived there first, often written out of the more popular narratives of scientific triumph.

Even on the question of scientists, I was surprised to find two names I had not seen before: Russell and Schwartz. Both were young. Russell's death adds a grim pall to all of that footage of scientists riding around in the woods on horses. Schwartz's death is also a reminder of how much responsibility was thrust onto the young scientists — though frankly, it is maybe surprising that more people did not die this way, given the haste at which they worked and the toxicity, flammability, and radioactivity of the substances they were using.

Excerpt from a guide produced by the Oak Ridge Safety program.

Excerpt from a guide produced by the Oak Ridge Safety program.

Both Oak Ridge and Hanford had major industrial and public safety programs during the war. This was not just a matter of responsibility (though there was that), but also because industrial accidents caused lost-time problems. The more accidents, the slower it would be until they had an atomic bomb ready to use. At Oak Ridge and Hanford, they claimed an exceptional occupational safety record — their injury rates were (they claimed) 62% below those of private industry. That still translated into 62 fatalities between 1943 and 1945 at the two sites, and a 3,879 disabling injuries. Given that those sites employed some 500,000 people between them, that means your chance of dying there was about one in ten thousand, while your chance of getting disablingly injured was more around one in a hundred.

Sometimes it takes a raw document like this, something a little off the beaten path to get you out of the well-worn narratives of this history. One knows of the criticality accidents, because they are unusual, and they are famous. But who knew of the child drowning? The janitor's night out gone wrong? The carpenter crushed by a bulldozer? The accidental shooting of a bunkmate? Out of these little details, grim as they are, a whole social ecosystem falls out. It doesn't have to supplant the traditional scientific story, which is still an important one. But it augments it, and makes it more human.

Notes
  1. Exhibit 14, "Fatal Accidents," (ca. late 1946) in Los Alamos Project Y, Book II: Army Organization, Administration, and Operation, copy in Manhattan Project: Official history and documents [microform] (Washington, DC: University Publications of America, 1977), reel 12. []
  2. Interestingly, I have found no badges in the list that obviously correspond to the people who died, with the exception of Elmer Bowen, Sr., the father of the little boy, and a few people who may be wives or relatives. There is a "Joe Montoya" but this seems like a common name. I wonder if this is because part of the procedure upon death would be to destroy their security passes? Obviously not everyone would have a security pass, but it is a little unusual to have exactly zero hits, including Daghlian, Slotin, Schwartz, and Russell, the scientists. []

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12 Responses to “How to die at Los Alamos”

  1. Tom says:

    Did you deliberately wait until a Friday 13th to publish this? 😉

  2. Alex Mead says:

    That was totally fascinating. I would almost refrain from calling it morbid. You are right that these kinds of records personalise a usually sweeping narrnative and interest in these people’s deaths gives meaning to a series of disconnected minutiae of human social experience which is important if you want to connect with history in a deeper way.

    I was also aware of the criticality accidents but I am astonished that there weren’t more incidents as a result of machining bomb components from novel materials – how does one safely machine the pit or the tamper? I have understood from some of your earlier posts that a lot of work was done studying the properties of the novel materials but it seems improbable that there were no accidents while this was being worked out. Perhaps the health effects of limited toxic exposure were simply slower/more subtle and therefore don’t figure in this list? If there were long term health consequences and we included them as a broader analysis of health and safety effects this might change the weighting of the list a little towards the technical staff.

    Have there been any long term studies of health effects on Project employees that you’re aware of?

    Anyway Great post

    Cheers

    Alex

    • I like to call myself morbid before anyone else can, that’s all.

      As for exposures — there were issues with exposures, to be sure, and probably less acute injuries and fatalities associated with them across the project. To my knowledge there was not a lot of systematic research into this done. The project safety people were very concerned with regards to some of the more toxic and unusual substances, like plutonium and polonium. This list is just those who had died by September 1946 or so, and so leaves out any longer-developing injuries.

      • Emily Strasser says:

        Alex–thanks for this great post, as usual!

        Regarding longer-term more subtle health effects due to exposure, I recently dug up some documents in which Project officials are wrestling with the question of how much they should reveal to workers about exposure hazards without endangering project secrecy. For example, from a memo entitled –“Determination of Policy on Cases of Exposure to Occupational Disease” (July 26, 1945)

        –Rotation is vital to the physical welfare of the workers but will undoubtedly invite suspicion and doubt in the minds of others about continuing their work. What policy or plan of rotation may be adopted so that it may be accomplished as diplomatically as possible without disturbing relations between employer and employee?…Ancillary to the labor relations problem is that of the morale of the workers. A knowledge on their part that their health is being or may be permanently impaired will have a drastic effect upon the spirit and willingness of the workers. What program or policy may be adopted so that morale may be maintained to the maximum efficiency possible?”

        I find it rather chilling that this conversation is happening in late July of 1945, at which point workers have already been exposed for months or years, depending on their specific role.

        Emily

  3. Ralph Benton says:

    The responses to the accidents are also interesting. At first blush they point to an age in which common sense prevailed over knee-jerk reactions. I like the recommendation to increase the size of the motor pool, so as to allow more frequent inspections, when a worker was killed when riding in the back of a dump truck. But then the response to a boating accident was not to mandate swimming lessons or life jackets, but to ban canoeing!

    • gwern says:

      Another interesting part is the financial aspect of how deaths were classified. Compare the white soldier:

      died of an overdose of barbiturates taken from the hospital pharmacy….The investigation concluded he was “depressed over his assignment,” no indication of financial or family difficulties. Declared mentally irresponsible for his death, and thus his “death was in the line of duty and not a result of his own misconduct.”

      with the Hispanic janitor:

      Died from ethylene glycol poisoning on January 29, 1945. Because deaths were not result of duty, descendants received no benefits of compensation.

      Why does the soldier’s deliberate suicide, for little mentioned good reason (a lot of people would have been happy to be assigned to Los Alamos rather than a combat zone), merit full benefits to his survivors and overlooking the suicide, while the janitor’s accidental death from ethylene glycol poisoning gets full enforcement of ‘result of duty’?

  4. Bradley Laing says:

    —I thought that there was one murder, by a machinist?

  5. Peter says:

    Just a decade before the Manhattan Project 112 people died in the construction of the Hoover (Boulder) Dam, out of a workforce that was never greater than around 5,000 at any given time.
    By those standards the Manhattan Project had an excellent safety record.

  6. Ralph says:

    Do you have similar information for Oak Ridge? My parents both worked there in labs. My dad actually handled the 1st shipment of Uranium sent from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos – he had it put in a rosewood box and handed over to a courier in the middle of the night. He knew what he was handling (but could not discuss that) and once asked that their storage of enriched uranium in a safe be checked by someone who understood the issue. They had stored it in the 4 corners and one in the middle and were told to put no more in that safe.

  7. Michele Atwell says:

    I have been researching my family tree off and on for years and have been searching for information regarding my great uncle’s death (Pvt Grover C. Atwell). Of course there is a family story that you completely debunked. So thank you for that. By chance and on a whim I googled his name, wwii, and New Mexico and stumbled across your blog. I am definitely going to read more to gain a better understanding of what went on out there and the conditions in which my uncle worked. Any other reading material you can recommend will be greatly appreciated. Kind regards.