November 7, 1997 in Nation/World

Toy Workers Killed In Blast ‘Like Sisters’ Latina Immigrants Worked Hard To Make It In New L.A. Home

Hector Tobar And Matea Gold Los Angeles Times
 

The four people killed in an explosion at a downtown toy factory were Spanishspeaking women who shared an enduring friendship and worked together on an assembly line that had been speeded up before the accident, relatives and co-workers said Thursday.

Earning about $185 per week each, the four women worked at a machine that wrapped plastic around the small popping caps used in toy guns and play hand grenades at Imperial Toy Corp. They were at their posts Wednesday when, for reasons that remain unclear, a blast tore apart their work area.

“They were like sisters,” said Jose Martinez, whose wife Juana Martinez Gonzalez, 33, was among those killed. “They even looked alike.”

The cause of the explosion, which injured about two dozen others, remained under investigation. Fire officials were looking into what caused the volatile mixture of chemicals used in the caps to explode.

Investigators from a host of federal, state and local agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, combed through the debris at the factory Thursday.

Los Angeles City Fire Marshal Jim Hill said there appeared to be a “large quantity” of flammable material in the factory.

Employees described conditions at the factory as generally safe and said they had few complaints, despite what they said was an increased workload.

Fred Kort, the septuagenarian founder of the toy factory, arrived at the scene Thursday after flying in from Hong Kong. He said he returned to be with his grieving employees.

Also killed was Maria Valenzuela, 39. Authorities did not release the names of the other women who died, although relatives said one was Valenzuela’s young cousin.

The four victims shared the sort of friendship common in the workshops and factories of downtown Los Angeles, where immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia make up the bulk of the work force. They had lunch together, exchanged news about their families and invited each other to their children’s birthday parties.

After work, they hopped on buses to homes in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Sometimes Jose Martinez, a gardener, drove to the factory to pick them up.

The family of Maria Valenzuela recalled how she would come home from work exhausted, yet would animatedly relate the stories of her friends on the assembly line.

“She loved them all so much,” said Valenzuela’s daughter, Rocio. Among Valenzuela’s closest friends was a young woman who was also killed in the accident.


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