Geek Trivia: Fuel for disaster

What famous disaster led directly to the PEPCON explosion years after the fact?

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.


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