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Black Hills Ordnance Depot

1950 Igloo Explosion

The Rapid City Journal

Number 20794 Friday March 31, 1950

One Survives Igloo Depot Blast

Four Workers In Magazine During Blast; Hunt Still On

photo of igloo

Hundreds of Igloo magazines like the one pictured above dot the operations area of the Black Hills ordnance depot.

The magazines are used to store ammunition, including 5,000-pound bombs.

Igloo, March 31 - One man, shocked but otherwise uninjured, was rescued from an exploded ammunition magazine at Igloo army ordnance depot this afternoon, where crews are still searching for at least three other men.

The rescued man was Lewis E. Sanford of Edgemont, who was taken to the depot hospital for medical treatment. Others trapped in the debris are Joseph M. Murray, foreman; Douglas D. Armentrout, Jr.; and Harrison P. Bird. All are of Igloo.

A blast about 8:15 a. m. today collapsed the structure located in a restricted area of the depot

The colonel said the magazine is so constructed as to tumble in when an explosion occurs.

A board of officers has been convened to investigate the explosion, the commander said, and details of the blast are being withheld until their survey is completed.

Col. Newhall said, "The explosion was purely a hazard encountered in connection with operating an ammunition depot."

The colonel laughed when questioned further about the cause of the explosion. Asked if there was the possibility of an atom bomb housed in the dump, he jokingly repiled, "I thought you would ask if I suspected sabotage."

Again he reminded, "It was part of the hazard."

Unofficial reports indicated three men are dead, although the commander said it was too early to say.

The commander said additional information would be forthcoming as rapidly as the situation crystalized. He added the area in which the blast occurred is not open to unauthorized personnel, and probably would not be until the investigating board had completed its survey.

Residents of nearby Edgemont are anxiously awaiting word on the fate of the explosion victims, according to Lawrence Kopriva, publisher of the Edgemont Tribune.

He pointed out that many Edgemont persons work at the depot and their families are frantically seeking information about the blast, each hopeful that their relatives were not involved.

Kopriva said he did not hear any blast nor did he know of anyone in Edgemont. He said the depot has had a "remarkable" safety record and stated that the explosion was the first major accident at the depot since Col. Newhall became commanding officer last August.

The army depot is located about 35 miles southwest of Hot Springs. The magazines are large steel and concrete structures partially buried in the earth. Large quantities of ammunition and lethal bombs are known to be stored at Igloo.

All lines of communication to the depot were channeled through the colonel's office from which all news information is being garnered.

The operations area at the ordnance depot is dotted with Igloo magazines which are used store ammunition. Demolition of outmoded bombs and ammunition is also carried out in the operations area.

Matches and lighters are restricted in the operations zone because of the extreme danger.

The entire depot covers 20,875 acres and there are 1,276 buildings there, exclusive of the Igloo magazines.

"Igloo" magazines are large arched storage buildings resembling Eskimo Igloos. Grass grows over the sides and top of the igloos so that they are invisible from the air.

The depot's mission is basically to store, inspect, maintain and issue all classes of ammunition and explosive. Other activities include the renovation of ammunition, the preservation of ordnance general supplies, and the demilitarization of unsafe, obsolete and surplus ammunition.

The Rapid City Journal

Number 20795 Saturday April 1, 1950

Rescue Crews Still Digging In Igloo Ruins

One Body Found

Igloo, April 1 - A tense drama was played under a battery of brilliant spotlights here last night as rescue operations continued in an exploded magazine at the Igloo army ordnance depot.

One man is dead, two remained trapped in the rubble and a fourth man is hospitalized as grim faced workers doggedly probed the ruins of the igloo-type structure this morning.

Dead is Joseph M. Murray, 66, foreman of the four - man crew working in the steel and concrete magazine when it was collapsed by the blast Friday morning.

Col. H. S. Newhall, commanding officer, said today a very slim chance remains for the lives of Douglas D. Armentrout, Jr., 21, and Harrison P. Bird, 39, who have been entombed for more than we hours. Alive and suffering from shock is Lewis E. Sanford, who was rescued several hours after the explosion.

Rescue operations are proceeding as rapidly as possible, the commander said. Hampering progress by the crews are the heavy reinforced concrete and earth which comprise the debris. Also slowing rescue attempts is the ever present danger of setting off more explosives, the colonel explained.

Crews are working with care in fear of jarring the heavy pieces of concrete and further endangering the lives of the two trapped victims. Adding more difficulty is the fact it is not known where Armentrout and Bird were when the explosion occurred, Col. Newhall explained.

Crews are using picks and shovels and some mechanized equipment.

"There is a good chance we will get through to them today," Col. Newhall said.

Murray was apparently killed instantly as a result of the explosion, the commander said.

An investigating board was convened this morning and is probing the cause of the blast. Assisting the Igloo officers are Maj. J. M. Alexander and Civilian Technician A. H. Polk, who flew from Joliet, Ill., fifth army headquarters. An Igloo car took them from the Rapid City air base to assist Col. Newhall and his staff Friday night.

The board has not yet spoken with Sanford, the lone survivor, but was scheduled to see him this morning. Attempts by newsmen to interview Sanford have been delayed.


Sanford, 33, is a checker at the depot. His wife Dorothy and four-month old daughter, Margaret, visited him at the Igloo depot hospital last night where they found he had suffered shock, bruises and flash burns. Several fragments were also imbedded in his body.

The rescued man told his wife he had been working in the magazine checking boxes of rifles and hand grenades. He said he thought he had missed lot numbers on boxes and went back toward the door when the blast ripped the Igloo. The roof tumbled in, and Sanford said he remembered dirt falling around him.

The Edgemont man, who has worked at the depot about one year, told his wife he thought of everything imaginable and said "Don't kid yourself, your life doesn't flash before you."

He never lost consciousness, but couldn't tell how long he was trapped. Sanford told of spotting a light near the center of his tomb and crawled 50 feet shouting to his rescuers. He was then able to partially dig his way out, and two workers, Tiny Mickelson and Jack Ferdig, a guard, brought him from the rubble.

'Done For'

Sanford told his wife he thought for a while that he was "done for."

Reports from several persons at the scene indicated six men could have been in the igloo if one had not failed to come to work Friday morning and a second man had driven to bring him to the igloo.

It was reported men working three igloos away from the exploded magazine did not hear the blast. Unofficial sources said the structure contained defective rifle grenades which were to be destroyed.

An unidentified worker was reported standing near the entrance of the structure and was blown across the road by the concussion of the blast.

The dead man and his companions were married. All are from Igloo.

The Rapid City Journal

Number 20796 Sunday April 2, 1950

Survivor Relives Blast

Sanford Felt End Was Near; Prayed Hard

Igloo, April 2 - "It was an experience that I would not care to undergo again," said Louis Sanford, 33, the only survivor of the ammunition explosion Friday at the Black Hills Ordnance depot.

Sanford was permitted to give an interview of his version of the tragedy at 7 p.m. last night, 35 hours after the explosion. He was interviewed by Lawrence Kopriva, editor and publisher of the Edgemont Tribune, at the request of the Rapid City Daily Journal.

"As I laid in the rubble wondering if I could get out, I prayed plenty hard," Sanford told Kopriva, "I thought the end was near."

Kopriva quoted Sanford as giving him this version of the explosion in which three co-workers were also trapped.

"I was checking the ammunition boxes to keep the records and was completing the last rack when in a split second I saw a flash of flame and it was like looking into a blast furnace.

Black Out

Then everything went coal black and the first thing I can recall is that I thought I was blind. So I reached in my pocket for my watch and the luminous dial showed it was 9 a.m. and I then knew that I could still see.

I was lying on my stomach and looked around to see if there was any opening that I could get out. I turned around and spotted a tiny circle of light. I crawled some distance to reach it, I don't know how far, and started to dig.

I removed my coat but the hole was not big enough and I got stuck. The concrete was cracked, making an opening, and I yelled and waved my arms. The fellows outside heard me and came to my rescue.

I never did hear any explosion, just a bright light. I was buried from the hips down in loose dirt.

It seemed that all the events of my life came before me. However I never lost my sense of direction. My hair was singed and I can still hear a roaring in my right ear.

When the flame flashed by, it seemed that I was floating in the air.

Kopriva said Sanford showed him a piece of shrapnel the size of a large pea which had been removed from his back. "Outside of feeling sore all over." Kopriva said the lone survivor appeared to be in good physical and mental condition.

More than 37 hours of continuous probing has failed to uncover the bodies of the last two remaining known victims of an ammunition magazine explosion Friday at the Black Hills Ordnance depot.

"I do not expect any new developments until sometime Sunday."" reported Col. H. S. Newhall, depot commander, late last night. However, he said workers will continue digging among the debris of the exploded magazine for the two missing workmen.

Missing are Douglas D. Armentrout Jr., and Harrison P. Bird, 39, the latter an Indian.

The Rapid City Journal

Number 20797 Monday April 3, 1950


Igloo, April 3 - The body of the last victim of an ammunition magazine explosion Friday at the Black Hills ordnance depot has been located, but workmen have been unable to reach the dead man.

The body of Harrison P. Bird, 39, an Indian, was located this afternoon, according to Col. H. S. Newhall, depot commander. However, the body was reported under a 20-foot piece of concrete and workmen were unable to get to it.

"I doubt whether we will be able to get to the body for some time yet." Colonel Newhall disclosed.

Location of Bird's body ended all hopes that the fourth victim might still be alive.

A heavy blanket of snow has hampered efforts to reach Bird's body. It was also reported unofficially that live ammunition scattered over the blast area is also delaying digging operations.

Between two and three inches of snow is on the ground at the area, according to Col. H. S. Newhall, depot commander, and it was still snowing there Monday morning.

The body of Douglas D. Armentrout, Jr., 21, was taken from the ruins of the wrecked magazine shortly before 7 p.m., Sunday, according to Colonel Newhall. He said the body was first sighted at 9 a.m. yesterday, but workmen were unable to extricate it until 10 hours later.

Second Death

Armentrout's body was the second to be taken out of the mass of twisted steel and blasted concrete of the exploded magazine. The body of Joseph M. Murray, 66, the foreman of the four-man crew in the magazine at the time of the explosion, was taken out Saturday.

The fourth man, Louis E. Stanford, 33, was taken out alive two hours after the blast. He is reported in good condition at the depot hospital.

It was unofficially reported that the explosion lifted the Igloo-type magazine straight up into the air, and the wreckage came right down on the four workmen. It is believed that hand and rifle grenades were in the magazine, but no bombs were stored there.

Funeral services for Murray were held this morning at the depot chapel.

The Rapid City Journal

Number 20798 Tuesday April 4, 1950


Igloo, April 4 - The body of Harrison P. Bird, Indian employee at the Black Hills Ordnance deport, was removed from the remains of an exploded ammunition magazine at 11:15 a.m. today - 99 hours after the explosion which also claimed the lives of two other workers.

Salvage work in the blast area will cease until instructions are received from the chief of the ordnance department, according to depot officials.

Still in the debris of the U. S. army ammunition depot igloo lie an unknown number of live hand and rifle grenades which could be touched off at any moment, left buried throughout the area following the explosion of last Friday which killed three.

With all the guile at their command, workmen moved heavy power machinery into the blasted dump, then connected cables to an armored car which was anchored some 50 feet away. From behind the protective steel plating of the vehicle one man operated the cables to lift the heavy concrete block laying across the victim's body.

The fear that another explosion might take place at any time during the operation, is keeping crews - working around the clock in shifts - pinned down behind the barricade. Ordnance men are cognizant that one small explosion might set off the rest of the live ammunition.

The tremendous blast which last Friday rocked the ordnance depot area as four civilian workmen checked boxes of munitions, is the first major disaster at Igloo.

Igloo, a History

page 42

"On March 31, 1950, Joseph M. Murray, Douglas Armentrout, Jr., Harrison Bird, and Louis E. Sanford were working in an igloo magazine. at about 8:10 A.M., an explosion blew off the top of the igloo, shattered one wall, and scattered unexploded ammunition throughout the area. The stucture collapsed upon the men inside, trapping them under the concrete and other debris. Immediately, officials and employees organized rescue operations. Due to the presence of the hand and rifle grenades scattered throughout the site, the Commanding Officer refused to order anyone into the area; consequently, all the rescue workers volunteered for the duty. Eighty civilian employees took part in the operation, many of them working non-stop in an attempt to save the workers. Within thirty-six hours, Louis Sanford, the only employee to survive the accident, had been rescued, and the bodies of the other three workers located."

Appendix II

pages 64 and 65.

These awards were presented to Black Hills Ordnance Depot civilian personnel and enlisted men who participated in the rescue mission following the igloos explosion on March 31, 1950.

Exceptional Civilian Service Awards. This is the highest civilian award authorized by the Department of the Army. It was given to those who volunteered for rescue duty and exhibited great courage in the face of extreme danger to their personal safety.

Loren J. Bingham, Hilbert E. Brave, Roland R. Cruden, Donald W. DuBois, Kenneth R. Gibson, Reinhold L. Krein, Jack D. Lee, Joseph D. Marsh, Stewart A. Mickelson, Chester R. Nafziger, Lewis Quam, Selmar A. Skaar, Joseph Sollid, Paul R. Thompson, Ralph E. White, Howard W. Zink, Sr.

Meritorious Civilian Service Awards. This is the second highest civilian award authorized by the Department of the Army. It was given to men who displayed unusual courage or competence in the emergency rescue operations.

Dewey Allgood, Orin R. Armstrong, Leslie W. Dyer, Robert R. Elsasser, Ernest H. Ferdig, Hans P. Henrickson, Harold C. Nicklin, Harold E. Peterson, Melford J. Vigen, Henry W. Weldman, Harold A Worthley.

Letters of Commendation. Clifford Alspaugh, Lester Anderson, Vincent Bad Wound, Stanley Barnett, Edwin Berquist, Edward J. Biever, Matthew Biever, Albert Bingham, Dennis W. Combs, Margaret Bingham, Albert Breen, Raymond P. Eckman, Delbert Conroy, Blaine Cucklor, Robert Fields, Joshua Fire Thunder, Jay A. Firnekas, Herbert Fransen, Lewis Gukeisen, Henry W. Hagan, Daniel Goodman, William T. Holt, Hugh C. Hutchinson, Ernest Heppner, James L. Jones, Homer Johnson, James E. Levin, Reinhold Lorenz, Ernest Kusler, Forest Lee, John Lundstrum, John Marty, Harry J. Miller, Geddis L. Nelson, Charles Massingale, Gerner Olson, Odean L. Olson, William W. Peterson, Alfred O. Russell, Lewis Rickard, Frank Skinner, Glen A. Sealey, Enock Steinecker, Archie Stortoren, Kenneth Stuen, John F. Sweeney, Philip Waukazoo, John F. White Eyes, Traugolt Wiedenmeyer, Edgan Willicent, David H. Yardley, Roy M. Vorce, Wilfred L. LaPlant, Marcus Gabriel, Frank Kalal, Thruman W. McBride, Raymond J. Gayhart.

Several military awards, Ordnance Certificates of Appreciation, were issued to: 1st Lt. John P. Mackin, 1st Lt. Fred E. Wilson, Capt. Robert M. Reid, Major Charles D. Byram, Major Albert C. Bornemann.

A commendation ribbon with pendant was given to Capt. Robert M. Reid.

fire log

General Alarm

31 March 1950

8:15 A.M. Blaine Cuckler used Administrative phone via. trunk line reporting, "Igloo F-1304 has blown up and a crew is inside".

Trucks #5, #7, #6, #8 and P. 24 with six men on duty responded immediately. Off Duty men were called and the following responded to Fire Station No. 1, DuBois, McBride Gibson, Holt, Gukeisen, Stienecker, Hutchison and Gayhart. Off Duty men upon arrival at fire station immediately proceeded to put pre-arranged disaster plan into operation moving truck #4, class 750 Pumper and #3 Class 500 Pumper from Station no. 2 to Station #1, and assigning crews to each truck.

Upon arrival of Fire Department at the scene of the reported explosion it was found that Igloo F-1304 had exploded trapping four men in or under the debris. Upon careful investigation by Chief Bingham no fire was found and considering the violence of the explosion and from the looks of the ruins all personnel within the Igloo at the time of the explosion were considered casualties. It was quickly established that the men trapped in the debris were: Joseph M. Murray, Harrison P. Bird, Douglas Armentrout and Lewis E. Sanford.

Rescue operations were put into operation immediately. The scene of the explosion was isolated and placed under guard until heavy machinery could be dispatched to the scene. At 10:00 A. M. Guard Bernert H. Ferdig radioed, "A man is alive, send tools". Truck #7 with four men, Chief Bingham with P-24 and Asst. Chief Dubois with P-22 were dispatched with Bars, Pike Poles, Ropes and shovels. Upon arrival it was found that Lewis E. Sanford had been extricated from the ruins and was being taken to the Hospital. Truck No. 7 stood by at the scene of the explosion until 1:45 when it reported back to fire station. At 1:55 P.M. ambulance was dispatched to scene of accident with R. J. Gayhart driving. At 3:35 P.M. the Sherman tank was dispatched to Igloo F-1304 with R. L. Krein driving. The Sherman tank was used to push rubble, ammunition and dirt away from the side of the igloo so as to give workmen an opportunity to work with greater safety. The Sherman tank was also used throughout the operation as a barricade to protect men while removing boxes of ammunition. At 3:55 P.M. truck #7 was dispatched to the scene of the explosion to stand by with driver and one man. At 10:21 P.M. the body of Joe Murray was removed and taken to Station Hospital. His was the first of the three men to be found.

1 April 1950

Truck #7 was returned to fire station at 1:45 A.M. as the valves were starting to freeze. Truck #9 was dispatched in its place with Louis Rickard driving. Temperature was 29 at this time. Rescue operations were continued under extremely hazardous conditions as approximately one third of the ammunition in the rear of the igloo was still piled up and ammunition was scattered throughout the debris in the remainder of the igloo. At 12:19 Gibson, Krein, DuBois and Marty reported back to fire station and Rickard and McBride went out to assist the Chief. At 8:00 A.M. Hutchison, A. W. Bingham, Krein and Chief Bingham reported back to the scene of the accident. At 12 noon Stienecker, Skinner, Gibson and L. J. Bingham reported back to the scene of the accident. Work continued until 6:00 P.M. when Col. Newhall decided that the crews were getting to tired to continue working safely so ordered them all home for a nights rest.

2 April 1950

All crews were assembled at 8:00 A.M. and rescue work was resumed. At 10:30 A.M. the body of Douglas Armentrout was located but could not be removed as it was pinned down by ammunition boxes and a large slab of concrete on top so that it was impossible to move him. The rest of the day the operation of clearing the body was continued becoming more and more dangerous as ammunition boxes had to be moved carefully one at a time through a small opening. The large slab of concrete had to removed before the body could be brought out which was finally accomplished at 6:15 P.M. and taken to the station hospital. Work was then discontinued for the night and fire department crews returned to fire station at 7:00 P.M.

3 April 1950

Heavy wet snow was falling and blanketed the ground Monday morning so that rescue operations were delayed until 12:00 noon when it stopped. Crews were then ordered out to uncover the body of Harrison P. Bird. Work became extremely hazardous due to wet slippery condition of the ground. At 7:30 P.M. the body of Harrison P. Bird was uncovered but found pinned down by a huge slab of concrete laying across his face and shoulder. It was impossible to free it that night so work was discontinued until 8:00 A.M. 4 April 1950.

4 April 1950

Fire department personnel reported to the scene of the accident at 8:00 A.M. L. J. Bingham, Chief, Asst. Chief DuBois, tank driver, and R. J. Gayhart and Frank Skinner reported back to the scene of the explosion. Work was carried on and the slab of concrete was lifted until the body of Harrison P. Bird could be removed. At 11:18 A.M. Col. Newhall radioed "Mission accomplished and ambulance is on road in." Fire department equipment and men returned to quarters at 11:55 A.M.

All bodies were pretty well riddled with shrapnel.

The igloo contained M9A1 rifle grenades which are assumed expleted completely wrecking the igloo at an estimated loss of $10,000.00 to the igloo and 96,455.64 to the ammunition making a total estimated loss of $106,455.64. This ammunition had all been scheduled for demilitarization. Igloo is fenced and roads to it are barricaded pending final orders of its disposal.

Wind direction at time of explosion was North West Velocity 5 M.P.H. Temperature 50.

For the location of igloo F-1304, click here, if link does not work the GPS coordinates are 43.171596, -103.917306. The igloo magazines were separated by open air pads. After the explosion the magazine was converted to one of these pads. The igloo was only .46 miles from the field office (.88 by road) so help was probobly there immediately.


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