On May 4, 1988, the U.S. National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Colorado detected a seismic event of magnitude 3.5 on the Richter scale, situated in or around Henderson, Nevada. At first blush, it appeared to be an earthquake barely strong enough to be felt by locals, but still notable to the NEIC’s sensitive instruments. Turns out, however, that the NEIC didn’t detect an earthquake, but a man-made event.
On the outskirts of Henderson, onlookers got an all too up-close-and-personal glimpse at what it’s like to detonate eight million pounds of rocket fuel, almost all at once.
The Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON) was a primary government contractor for the manufacture of ammonium perchlorate, which is an active oxidizer for solid rocket fuel. (It was essential to every U.S. Titan IV missile.) Note the past tense of that statement. At the end of the day on May 4, 1988, where the PEPCON facility used to sit was instead a crater 15 feet deep, 200 feet wide, filled with a smoldering fireball of shrapnel and smoke.
A series of explosions roughly equivalent to a small nuclear weapon literally wiped PEPCON off the map. The PEPCON blasts, rated as one of the most powerful non-nuclear detonations in history, injured hundreds and literally changed the landscape of the surrounding area.
Surprisingly, the PEPCON blast only claimed two lives. Both were employees that failed to evacuate the plant when the initial fire started. One was Roy Westerfield, who bravely stayed behind to make the 911 call that alerted nearby firefighters as to the impending blast.
Those same firefighters stopped miles short of the PEPCON facility when the first preliminary detonation occurred, effectively disabling the local fire chief’s car (and shattering all its windows) before he ever got to the plant proper. Realizing that the bulk of the fuel had not caught fire yet, and they couldn’t contain the fire before a much larger blast occurred, rescue workers turned their attention to evacuation. These actions mitigated the loss of life attributed to the PEPCON disaster. Still, to say only two lives were lost in the PEPCON disaster is somewhat a matter of selective bookkeeping.
The PEPCON blast, you see, was in many ways just the last aftershock of a much more famous tragedy, one that claimed seven additional lives years earlier, but that led directly to the PEPCON explosion.
WHAT FAMOUS DISASTER LED DIRECTLY TO THE PEPCON EXPLOSION YEARS AFTER THE FACT?
The loss of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986 was the catalyzing event that — with the help of some government inaction — led directly to the detonation of 4,000 tons of rocket fuel components at the PEPCON plant two years later.
The paired solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that help launch every space shuttle into orbit depend on ammonium perchlorate. For those too young to remember, the early days of the shuttle program saw a much more aggressive and frequent launch schedule than NASA presently embraces. When Challenger was lost, NASA suspended shuttle launches for more than two and a half years. Unfortunately, NASA did not suspend its standing contractual orders for ammonium perchlorate to make solid rocket fuel during that period.
PEPCON continued its full-scale production of ammonium perchlorate with no shuttle program to use it, no NASA instructions on where or how to store it, and no idea when the situation would change. Thus, PEPCON kept the oxidizer in 55-gallon drums outside its factory, eventually amassing eight million pounds of the stuff. Scrap perchlorate permeated the facility, to say nothing of the additional chemicals and fuel sources that powered the factory itself. When a stray spark started a fire on the grounds, the entire facility became a time bomb.
When the bulk of the fuel detonated, it created a visible shockwave that, thanks to the aforementioned evacuation efforts, several bystanders were near enough to observe (and film) but far enough to withstand. The blast broke windows and rattled open doors as far away as McCarran Airport seven miles distant. Closer at hand, the nearby Kidd Marshmallow factory was irreparably destroyed.
To say that PEPCON was unprepared for the disaster is an understatement. The company had only $1 million in liability insurance, while the blast caused an estimated $100 million in damages. It required years of litigation to settle the legal fallout, and when the dust settled, PEPCON was forced to reorganize as Western Electrochemical Company, now located in Utah. The PEPCON blast literally blew the company into the next state — all because of a lost space shuttle two years earlier, and the unforeseen fallout of that horrific tragedy.
That’s not just a long-delayed aftershock — it’s a painfully lingering dose of tragic Geek Trivia.
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