Families Still Mourn the Deaths of Hispano LANL Workers
Families Still Mourn the Deaths of Hispano LANL Workers
By Myrriah Gómez
On June 26, 1956, Candelario Esquibel was killed as he scraped dried explosives powder into glass bottles. Esquibel, 29, had finished scraping the explosives powder out of four of seven trays when 50 pounds of explosives powder detonated. Images of the worksite after the blast reveal blackened streaks on nearby walls where rubber stoppers exploded under great force. On February 24, 1959, Leo Guerin and Ray Means were killed as Guerin drilled a small hole through plastic explosives using a drill fashioned with a hypodermic needle. Whether the drill overheated or something else caused the blast is unknown. Guerin was 35 and Means was 31. On October 14, 1959, Leopoldo Pacheco, 50; José Cordova, 37; Sevedeo Lujan, 53; and Escolastico Martinez, 47, were killed as they prepared a burn site to eliminate scraps of explosives material. Two of the men were unloading metal barrels of explosives pieces. One man stood atop the flatbed of the truck that contained the barrels. The third man prepared the burn site when the explosion occurred. The blast was so intense that only two of the bodies were recovered.
On February 13, as most of the country sat around their televisions listening to President Obama discuss the future of the country in his State of the Union address, a crowd of people sat around Cary Skidmore, a group leader in the Explosives Division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, trying to learn about the past. Skidmore´s talk discussed the “Seven LANL Explosives Fatalities” from the 1950s. The audience filled the Pajarito Room of Fuller Lodge to capacity. Probably half of the audience was comprised of family members of the deceased, who were there looking for answers about the deaths of their loved ones. Now that the information regarding the three explosions has been declassified, the Lab and its representatives can talk openly about the explosions, using what information they have from the accident reports. Skidmore has dedicated a portion of his work at LANL to better understand these explosions and ensure that plaques memorialize the men and their sacrifice in the name of explosives research. Although Skidmore coordinated family visits to the memorial sites for the dedication of each memorial, these memorials exist behind gates and fences, and the families, most of whom still live in the Española Valley and across northern New Mexico, are unable to visit these sites at will. For whose benefit do these memorials now exist? For the families, who in the 1950s were told simply that their husband or father had died and nothing more? Or for current explosives workers, to remind them of the importance of taking safety precautions and following safety handbooks? Skidmore suggested the latter, but said that he is currently serving on a LANL committee that is investigating the possibility of a memorial to honor all Lab workers who have been killed on the jobsite.
As Skidmore fielded questions, all from members of the deceased men’s families, throughout his presentation, the atmosphere quickly shifted from an air of interest to feelings of tension, anger, and sadness. Sevedeo Lujan’s granddaughter asked if the Lab ever compensated the families or if it had plans to do so today. Not unless they did it “out of the goodness of their hearts,” Skidmore responded, because the statute of limitations on these accidents has already expired. José Cordova’s son-in-law asked what kind of training these men received before working in these positions. All seven men were Spanish-speaking men from the valley. According to the accident reports, some of them spoke “little English.” Cordova’s son-in-law beat me to my own question: if these men could barely speak English, let alone read it, how could they be properly trained by primarily English-speaking scientists directing this work in the 1950s? Of course, this is a rhetorical question. Leopoldo Pacheco’s son-in-law spoke about the job description for his father-in-law (he has managed to procure a copy), which indicated that these men had no training. The job description was written in English.
This talk was the first time that the Laboratory has spoken publically regarding these accidents. The men’s widows and young children at the time of the accidents are now parents and grandparents of their own, and they continue to search for answers so that they may find closure. Because only two bodies were recovered after the October 1959 explosion, at least two families could not even claim the remains of their loved ones. The other bodies, along with recovered body parts, were supposedly taken to the Los Alamos hospital. The bodies and body parts have never been returned.
While the general public had never before heard these stories, the families have lived with these tragedies for over 60 years. These men were Spanish-speaking workers from the valley, who were not properly trained by their employers, and who died on the job. These facts raise questions about what other fatalities occurred during the early years of the Laboratory. We know that these deaths were accidental, but were they really “accidents”? In other words, as families talk amongst themselves, outside of Laboratory fences, we know that these seven deaths are not an anomaly. There have been multiple fatalities of Spanish-speaking valley residents at the behest of the Lab, especially during the early years. Other families want information, and we cannot wait until the Lab decides to declassify this information in timeliness consistent with the expiration of the statute of limitations.
Gómez is currently working on a Ph.D. dissertation entitled Beyond the Fence, in which she examines the long-term effects of the Manhattan Project on the greater Pojoaque Valley. She currently teaches classes on Northern New Mexico History and Culture at Northern New Mexico College. She is interested in talking with anyone who worked at the Lab during the early years or who has been significantly impacted by the Lab.