PEPCON Explosion: 20 Years Gone



"We've had an explosion and everything's on fire" Company Comptroller Roy Westerfield  told a dispatcher.  A few seconds later he said "Get 'em all out of here". 

These were quite possibly his last words.


On May 4th, 1988, a loud explosion rocked the entire Southern Nevada Valley.  The ground rumbled, windows shook and, in many places, shattered completely.  Residents at first thought it was an earthquake.  Others who saw a mushroom cloud rising over Henderson thought a nuclear nightmare might be unfolding in the industrial city.

In reality, it was an industrial disaster that occurred  at the Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada which was commonly referred to as PEPCON.  The plant, located in Henderson, was one of two American producers of ammonium perchlorate which is an oxidizer in solid rocket fuel boosters for the Space Shuttle and the military's Titan Missile program.

The other American manufacturer, Kerr-McGee, was located less than five miles away from the PEPCON plant and well with-in the area that suffered blast damage.

A little background information:  After the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in January, 1986, the United States government continued their contract with PEPCON for ammonium perchlorate.  Despite the freeze on the Space Program, the company continued to manufacture the product at the same rate as before the Shuttle disaster.  Since there was no delivery of the product going on due to the freeze and no guidance from the government as to where to ship it to, the company stored the compound on site in plastic drums. These drums were housed on the parking lots around the plant.  The Las Vegas Review Journal reported in the aftermath that "nearly 9 million (yeah, you read that right) pounds of the chemical was consumed by the flames or explosions."

According to Wikipedia, a fire started by "a cigarette that had been discarded into a barrel of scrap ammonium perchlorate."  Nearby, workers were repairing a steel frame with fiberglass walls that had suffered damage in a recent windstorm.  They were using a welding torch.  The fire spread quickly once it reached the fiberglass material.  This led, according to the Las Vegas Mercury account by Gregory Crosby, to the first small explosion:

This small explosion raised the alarm "that enabled most workers to escape before a second larger explosion occurred on the heels of the first." 

Company comptroller Roy Westerfield "was on the phone reporting the emergency, explaining the urgency of the situation, "We've had an explosion and everything's on fire" he told a dispatcher.  (Las Vegas Review Journal)

The Henderson Fire Department responded to the fire.  When the Fire Chief arrived he saw a massive white and orange fireball and dozens of people running across the desert towards him.  The second explosion happened at 11:54 and the shock wave shattered the windows in the Chief's car.  A heavily damaged vehicle approached and its driver advised the chief that the danger was growing.  The Chief turned around and headed towards safety.

Inside the plant, Roy Westerfield was still trying to herd people to safety.  He was talking by phone to a dispatcher when  few seconds later he said "Get 'em all out of here".  These were quite possibly his last words. 

It was the third massive explosion that sent Henderson and Las Vegas residents running for their windows, radios and television news.   Local Channel 3 anchor Gwen Castaldi went on the air and began letting Valley residents know what was happening.  "It was a real moment of urgency and tragedy in the community." (Personal interview with Castaldi, 2005).

It was the third blast, according to Gregory Crosby, "that sealed the plant's fate when that 9 million pounds of chemical literally went up in smoke."  

The blast was so forceful that it knocked an arriving fire engine over two lanes.  Another arriving fire truck had its windows shattered.  Cars were overturned.  The explosion created a visible shock wave.  This explosion almost destroyed the Fire Chief's car but he was able to drive to a nearby hospital to seek treatment for his passenger and himself.

Inside the plant, Roy Westerfield and Bruce Halker, two employees who were shepherding people out of danger were killed.   More than 300 people were injured.

The marshmallow factory next door, Kidd and Co., suffered the brunt of the explosion.  Due to faulty equipment there were fewer employees working that day.  Those employees who were there evacuated at the first sign of trouble.  The marshmallow factory was destroyed. 

"The final explosion went off and PEPCON basically disappeared.  Boulder Highway looked like a war zone.  There was glass everywhere.." Eyewitness  and PEPCON employee Joe Hedrick.

The last explosion registered 3.5 on the Richter scale by the National Earthquake Information Center 600 miles away in Colorado.  A crater estimated at 15 feet deep and 200 feet wide was left in the storage area. 

A 747 on approach to McCarran Airport was reportedly buffeted by the shock wave.  The Airport, 11 miles away from the blast, suffered cracked windows.  An analysis later estimated the blast damage the equivalent of 250 tons of TNT. 

Nearby Basic High School suffered serious damage and damage was reported at McDoniel Elementary, Burkholder Middle School and Southern Nevada Vocational-Technical Center.  The last blast blew out the windows at Basic High School.

"We thought someone was out there with a shotgun" remembered teacher Michael Neighbors, "Like fools, we went right for the windows.  We literally pushed the kids out of the building.  It was like an air pocket.  The back of my hair parted." (Las Vegas Review Journal). 

The large plume of smoke could be seen around the valley and residents throughout the valley worried about chemical fall-out.   Luckily, the wind that day was only 20 to 25 mph and kept much of the chemical from settling in the valley.  Local health officials predicted that lives were saved because of the winds.

Damage was estimated at $74 million dollars.  The nearby Fire Station was heavily damaged and there was structural damage to a nearby warehouse.

PEPCON, renamed Western Electrochemical Company, relocated to Iron County, Utah.  Now some 14 miles northwest of St. George, they began the relocation a mere three months after the devastating explosion at the Henderson plant.  Kerr-McGee moved their plant 17 miles northeast of Las Vegas to Apex.   For awhile Kerr-McGee continued to manufacture the more stable liquid form of the chemical on site.  But in 1998, ten years after the disaster, the parent company of PEPCON/Western Electrochemical Company bought out the remaining ammonium perchlorate contracts and moved all production to Utah.

Senior Company official, Fred Gibson, Jr tried to shift blame from PEPCON to Southwest Gas by saying that a ruptured gas line caused the fire.  However, this conflicted with eyewitness testimony by employees.  PEPCON attorney told the Las Vegas Review Journal, three days after the disaster, "Nothing ignites ammonium perchlorate.  It does not burn.  It is not flammable."  Chemists from around the world immediately disputed the attorney and called the product "unstable and highly flammable." 

After the explosion it came out that the facility had been cited numerous times since 1974 for safety violations.  There had been a small explosion in 1980 that had injured a worker. 

More than 50 law firms represented dozens of insurance companies and corporations in lawsuits.  The case ran up tens of millions of dollars in attorneys fees and produced 1 million pages of depositions.

The case wound its way through the judicial system from 1989 to 1992 when a $171 million settlement was reached before going to a jury trial.  Insurance companies that had reimbursed some 17,000 claimants received almost 100 cents on the dollar.

Clark County agreed to pay $3.8 million to insurance companies as a result of shoddy inspections that had taken place at the plant over the years. 

Southwest Gas also agreed to settle because according to their attorney "it was a practical decision made because of the uncertainty of what a jury might do at trial." (Las Vegas Review Journal).

Southwest Gas later found out what a jury would do.  In a trial that lasted a little over a month, PEPCON's insurance company argued that gas, which is lighter than air, had leaked from a pipe then moved horizontally underground toward the plant 670 feet away.  The gas was then to make a 90-degree turn upward and ignited with an unknown source. (Emphasis added)

Following final arguments, the attorneys hadn't even gotten back to their offices before the call came from the court house that a jury had reached a verdict.  It took less than a half hour for the jury to laugh that idea out of court.

The disaster was a turning point for the development of Henderson.  The city began to shift from being the "City of Industry" (its slogan) to a bedroom community of Las Vegas.  A few years after the disaster, Green Valley subdivision, a master planned community, took off with home buyers and changed the dynamics of Henderson forever.

Though many industries remain in Henderson, the city is now a growing hub of suburban dwellers looking to escape Las Vegas.


Video of the explosion can be seen here: 



The Pepcon Site with the Kidd Marshmallow Factory on the right

(Courtesy of the Las Vegas Review Journal)




Map of Pepcon location



The explosion as seen from Lake Mead Blvd.

(courtesy of the Las Vegas Review Journal) 



The Aftermath

(courtesy of RoadsidePictures



The Aftermath

(courtesy of RoadsidePictures







Living in the Shadow of the Bomb



Growing up in Las Vegas, it was always there.  As kids we didn't give it much thought. By 1964, the testing was all done underground.  Pres. Kennedy had signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty before his death that banned above-ground atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.  The Test Site would issue a warning that it was going to be doing underground nuclear testing and we might feel the jolt.  It was alot like experiencing a medium sized earthquake.  The ground would shake and after a few minutes, it would pass. 

When I moved to Los Angeles until the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, earthquakes didn't get my attention much because they were so similar to the Underground Testing I had grown up with. 

The United States Government decided in the late 1940s that it needed a new Test Site.  The Bikini Atoll where they had been testing was too far away and the wind and weather changes made planning difficult.  The Atomic Energy Commission decided to bring the above-ground testing of Atomic Bombs stateside.  It was the Cold War and discussions about the hazards involved with the Testing were whisked aside.

Nevada, specifically Southern Nevada, fit the bill.  Sparsely populated with Nellis Air Force base nearby in Northtown, Frenchman's Flat, located about 60 miles north of Las Vegas was chosen. 

Scientists from around the country were recruited to come to Las VegasAtomic Scientist Al O'Donnell remembered "The Atomic Age is here and you'd be on the ground floor of testing of atomic weapons."  The engineering and scientific companies like E.G.&G came to Las Vegas and brought their staffs with them.  "Millions of dollars came into Las Vegas because these companies wanted a piece of the action. " Al O'Donnell told me in a 2005 interview.

Camp Mecury was set up and soldiers were deployed to the remote base to supply support for the scientists.  The soldiers would be on the front line, digging trenches and then watching the bomb blast from those trenches before being sent out to explore the bomb site after the explosion.  The soldiers were assured that every precaution was taken and that there was no harm in being that close to ground zero.


Atomic Soldiers at the Royal Nevada

(courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau) 

In Las Vegas, residents were assured that the Atomic Testing was not harmful.  The government encouraged school children to get up in the early morning hours and watch the bomb go off from their front yards.  Young adults like Bud Kennedy and John Ullom would drive out the old Tonopah Highway, pull over on the side of the road and watch the explosions from there.

Las Vegas News Bureau photographers such as the late Don English, would go out to News Nob, located 7 miles from the blast site, where the press from all over the world would be lined up with their cameras and their movie cameras to photograph the explosions.  One time Don overslept.  He knew he wouldn't have time to get out to News Nob before the detonation.  He hurried down to Fremont Street and climbed up on the roof of the Golden Nugget and waited.  There were workmen there installing a glass skylight and they asked him what he was doing.  He told them they would know shortly.  The bomb went off.  As the mushroom cloud rose in the sky, the ground began to shake and the panes of glass broke.  Don didn't lose his concentration and snapped a photo of the mushroom cloud rising with downtown Las Vegas in the foreground.  The photo went out on the wire and became Life Magazine's photo of the week.



Don English's famous photo of a nuclear cloud over an American City. 

Donna Andress remembers that "we weren't fearful of it.  We were assured over and over again that there was never going to be a problem."

Don English remembered that "we believed everything the A.E.C. (Atomic Energy Commission) said and we figured we were quite safe.  They did give us precautions, you know,  not to look at it during the blast.  They gave us dark glasses and we would turn away at that close distant.  As soon as you saw the flash, then you could turn around and start shooting."

Emmett Sullivan, who had been born in Las Vegas in the mid-1920s, remembers "It was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw in my life.  As it died down you saw all the colors of the rainbow."

Most remember being jostled out of bed in the wee hours of the morning while it was still dark out.  "It was always early, like 4 or 5:00 in the morning. You could be in your bed and it was like somebody had turned on a light on right in your face.  And then you'd hear the noise and run outside so you could see the mushroom cloud forming." Ken Gragson told me in a 2003 interview.

If the wind was blowing towards Las Vegas, the test would be called off and rescheduled.  It was one of the concessions the A.E.C. had made when it came to Southern Nevada.

With the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the testing went underground.  While we didn't get jostled out of bed, some of the tests were so explosive that they did get our attention.  One bomb was so big that it knocked out the floor to ceiling display windows at the Woolco in our Charleston Heights neighborhood. 

There were rumors of the bombs being vented afterwards but again the A.E.C. and local officials assured us everything was safe.

Looking back now, it's easy to say that we were naive but back then there was more trust in the government, especially in the 1950s.   

By the 1970s, there were stories coming out of Southern Utah from the small towns downwind of Las Vegas.  People were dying of cancer at a rate higher than normal.  John Fuller wrote a book "The Day We Bombed Utah" which recounted how the story of how the above ground testing had devasted a family of sheep farmers in St. George and the effects of not only cancer but thyroid disease on the small farming communities of Southern Utah.  Fuller also raised the question that perhaps it was filming on location in Moab and other areas for the movie, The Conqueror  (during a particulaly busy summer in 1954 when the Test Site was in full-swing) that led to the deaths of the stars of the movie John Wayne and Susan Hayward along with many of the cast and crew.

My family used to drive to Southern Utah to get fresh fruit and vegetables.  A day trip to St. George or Cedar City was fun.   It gave us a break from the desert climate and landscape.

I think of these things each morning when I take my thyroid medication.  And I wonder how many more who grew up in Las Vegas during those times are taking their thyroid meds as well.



Don English at News Nob



Imagine having to get out of your trench and head towards that




Special thanks to the Family of Don English, Bo Boisvert and the Las Vegas News Bureau for letting use this images.

For more information on the Test Site we encourage everyone to visit the Atomic Testing Museum on E. Flamingo. 

For more personal stories of Las Vegas at that time and growing up with the bomb, we encourage you to buy the DVD: The Story of Classic Las Vegas: An Overview