There are two well-known deaths that are associated with Los Alamos from the time of the Manhattan Project, Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin. Both of these deaths were caused by criticality accidents while handling the “demon core”. What many people do not know is that there were 22 more deaths that occurred in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.
These 24 deaths were accidents relating to construction, motor vehicle crashes, persons hit by cars, accidental firing of a weapon, a drowning, a fall from a horse, an overdose, the radiation incidents, alcohol poisoning, and missupervision leading to a smoke bomb explosion.
A blog post was made about these accidents on the Nuclear Secrecy blog, and it led to our researcher looking in the archives to see if we had reports of these accidents. They found little articles in the local newspaper reporting Slotin’s condition and death, and maybe a notice or two for the other deaths that happened after the war was over.
It is difficult to verify the presence of these people during the Manhattan Project because we have the images of the security passes for the civilians (in which there are several errors), but barely any record for the military personnel. Our researcher then used a national digital repository of newspapers, and digital military databases to find out more. Here is what they found:
February 11th, 1943 - Estevan Roches was working a bulldozer at night to clear rock and dirt to help widen the road to the project. The hillside was ‘blasted’ 30 minutes prior, and a safety team had given the all clear after searching for loose boulders that may fall. It is guessed that the vibrations from the machines caused the boulder to fall onto Estevan and his bulldozer. An investigation absolved the supervising company of blame because the safety precautions had been taken, but future blasting and clearing operations were to be done during daylight hours (even though the site was well lit at the time).
Roches was 28 at the time of death, draft card stated that he resided in Santa Fe, NM death index states that he died in Espanola, Sandoval County, NM.
March 1st, 1943 - George Herman Holtary was caught against a crankshaft and its housing. It took about 10 minutes to rescue him from the 13,000 pound pressure of the crankshaft. An ambulance took him to Santa Fe but he died enroute. The supervising company was absolved of blame because Holtary went against protocol and went to replace a piston by going inside the crankcase when it was normally replaced from the outside.
The NM death index lists his death as being in Espanola, Sandoval County, NM.
July 19th, 1943 - George J. Edwards fell into a drainage ditch while walking in town on July 5th. The fall injured his back and he wasn’t found until the next morning. He was sent to Bruns Hospital in Santa Fe and it was found that he had a punctured kidney. He died two weeks later.
Edward’s National Cemetery Interment Control Form lists his death as happening in Los Alamos, NM. The internment card and the NM death index both list his death as being July 15th, which contradicts the Manhattan Project report. This is unusual because secrecy was being enforced up on The Hill, and Los Alamos was no longer being listed on maps.
November 2nd, 1943 - Jose Montoya was digging an acid sewer ditch, which was 8 feet deep, and either didn’t hear or disregarded his foreman’s order to get out of the ditch. The ditch was not reinforced so it caved in and buried Montoya in 6 feet of dirt. Efforts to unbury him were immediate but he was dead when removed.
More research would be needed. There were multiple 39 year old Jose Montoyas from NM that were in World War Two, and no clear death records were found.
November 4th, 1943 - Pfc Frederick W. Galbraith Jr. was accidentally shot by a rifle. His colleague did not know that there was a cartridge in the chamber and was cleaning his rifle. Galbraith was asleep in a bed near the colleague and was shot in the thigh. The injury was severe due to the angle of entry, so immediate medical aid was administered and he was transported to Bruns Hospital in Santa Fe. “Galbraith died from severe shock as a result of the wound”. He was 31 years old.
A published obituary and the NM death index state that he died in Santa Fe, NM. Galbraith is buried in Queens, NY.
November 20th, 1943 - Efren Lovato was riding in/on a Chevrolet dump truck that was being used as a transport vehicle for 28 laborers. The truck was approaching a gate entrance when the accelerator pedal got stuck, and the foot and hand brakes couldn’t stop the vehicle. The driver attempted to drive between the gate and a parked vehicle, which caused the truck to overturn. Lovato was injured when the vehicle overturned, and later died at the post hospital due to a laceration of the lung.
The NM death index listed his whole name as Jose Efren Lovato, and that he died in Los Alamos, NM.
November 20th, 1943 - Fridon Vigil was in the same incident as described above, however he died due to laceration of the brain. His name in the document is difficult to read, so this is likely a misspelling of his name. This also means that we were unable to find more information about him in our research.
May 9th, 1944 - Fred K. Wolcott was killed in a tree felling incident. He did not try to get out of the way and as a result was killed instantly upon contact with the upper branches of the tree as it fell onto him and his bulldozer. The official cause of death was labeled as brain and internal chest injuries.
The NM death index states that he passed away in Sandoval County, NM.
July 1st, 1944 - Elmer R. Bowen Jr. was 10 and a half years old and a son of a civilian employee. He went canoeing on Ashley Pond and the vessel capsized. Bowen did not know how to swim and did not grab the life preserver that was in the canoe. Life saving efforts were attempted for 2 hours but were unsuccessful. Several residents remember this as being the reason for a ban on swimming or canoeing on Ashley Pond for many, many years.
The NM death index records his death as being in Sandoval, NM.
July 6th, 1944 - Ernesto Freques was a truck driver employed by a local construction contractor. His truck was being loaded with steel reinforcing mesh, but there were difficulties. Fresques was standing between the loading area of the steel and his truck when a section of the pile toppled over and pinned him against the truck. He died instantly due to a laceration of the heart and lungs.
He was 25 years old, and the NM death index has him recorded as having died in Sandoval County.
August 5th, 1944 - Horace Russell Jr., age 26, was thrown off his horse while riding in a canyon off site. The head injury he suffered was later identified as a laceration of the brain. The NM death index lists his death as being in Santa Fe, NM.
December 3rd, 1944 - Pfc Hugo B. Kivisto was a PED and died as a result of being pinned beneath his vehicle after trying to escape it as it drove over the edge of an embankment. This is likely the same area where previous automobile accidents happened. He died from multiple hemorrhages of the brain, multiple injuries of the head, and possible suffocation.
July 21st, 1945 - Pvt Grover C. Atwell was an SED and was assigned to the hospital as a ward attendant. He died from an overdose of barbiturates that were taken from the hospital pharmacy. The report states that his body was discovered a month later on August 22nd, but this may be an error. His body was taken to Bruns Hospital for an autopsy. He was 20 years old when he died.
August 7th, 1945 - James M. Popplewell was a civilian carpenter working inside a building when a caterpillar pushed dirt over the roof. The combined weight of the caterpillar and the dirt caused the roof to cave in. The machine pinned Popplewell and caused his instant death by breaking his neck and strangulation. The sub-foreman was held responsible for not ascertaining if the roof would be strong enough to hold the “cat” and for leaving the site while the work was being done.
Popplewell was sent to Texas and services were held in Dallas. His obituary stated that he worked at “Camp Los Alamos, near Santa Fe, NM”. This publication was 3 days after the Little Boy bomb was dropped, and on the same day the Fat Man was dropped. Los Alamos had been written about on August 6th so it was no longer a secret city.
September 15th, 1945 - Harry K. Daghlian and his incident are written about by the Atomic Heritage Foundation here:
October 6th, 1945 - Asa S. Houghton was driving down from the Hill when his brakes locked and his car ran off the road, off a 250 foot embankment, and rolled 5 or 6 times. He was taken to the post hospital and was found to have a broken collar bone, broken ribs, and internal injuries. He lived for 6 days before succumbing to his injuries. Further research did not produce any official documents.
January 29th, 1946 - Manuel Salazar was a janitor employed on the project and was on duty. He was visited by Asa Houghton and Manuel Salazar (also janitors but not on duty) and the three of them drank Ethylene glycol(anti-freeze) mixed with muscatel wine. The three of them became violently ill, and were taken to the Project’s hospital for treatment. The treatment failed and they died due to “injury to internal organs caused by poison contained in ethylene glycol”. Salazar died at 1235 hours. He had been discharged 3 months prior after having served during the war.
January 29th, 1946 - Alberto Roybal was involved in the incident described above. He died at 1445 hours. He was 46 years old and is buried in Pojoaque Cemetery.
January 29th, 1945 - Pedro Baca was involved in the incident described above. He died at 1500 hours.
February 6th, 1946 - Levi W. Cain was hit by a car while crossing Main Street at a location with poor visibility. He was sent to the local hospital and complained of a severe backache. He died from a fracture dislocation of the spine and severance of the spinal cord.
His obituary that was printed in Kansas stated that he had an injury 26 years prior that left him a “cripple”, and that he was hit in Santa Fe, NM. He was 52 years old.
May 21st, 1946 - Louis Slotin and his death are written about here: https://www.losalamoshistory.org/history-blog/the-slotin-accident-inside-the-archives
July 1st, 1946 - Livio R. Aguilar was driving a 2 and a half ton government vehicle when it left the road and turned over into a pipeline trench. Aguilar likely died almost immediately due to “multiple fractures of the facial bones and complete flattening of the right side of skull”. He was 25 years old and was buried in Albuquerque.
August 2nd, 1946 - Joshua Isaac Schwartz was assigned to trace air currents in Omega Canyon. He went against instructions to use balloons or other non-flammable equipment by using a smudge-pot (made up of potassium chlorate, sugar, red phosphorus and magnesium turnings) which exploded. It fatally injured Schwartz and critically injured his colleagues.
The obituary said that he died on the 3rd, and died as a result from a premature explosion of pyrotechnic chemicals. He was 21 years old and is buried in Brooklyn, NY.
August 7th, 1946 - Herbert G. Schwaner was pinned under a bulldozer after trying to drive it up a ramp onto a trailer. He was found by his brother 5 minutes later and was pronounced dead when the doctors arrived.
For more detailed descriptions of each of these incidents, you can read them here:
Thank you Nuclear Secrecy Blog for uploading this in 2015.
Almost all of these deaths were not reported in the Daily Bulletin that was distributed on the Hill during the war.
These articles are written by the Los Alamos Historical Society Staff. Many of these articles were originally published by the
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