Facebook Twitter

Utah explosion stirs memories of huge Nevada blast in 1988

SHARE Utah explosion stirs memories of huge Nevada blast in 1988

The blast that rocked a Utah plant Wednesday was a chilling reminder for Las Vegans who were stunned by an explosion involving the same company nine years ago.

On May 4, 1988, a welder's torch set fire to a building in neighboring Henderson, Nev., where the volatile rocket fuel oxidizer ammonium perchlorate was produced. Workers ran for their lives as the fire spread to a nearby stockpile containing 11 million pounds of the oxidizer.Seven explosions ripped the Las Vegas Valley in the minutes that followed, killing two workers and injuring 326 people. One blast registered 3.5, another 3.0 on California seismographs.

The facilities of Pacific Engineering and Production Co. (Pepcon) were nearly vaporized. Only a few twisted steel beams remained. Nearby railroad tracks were twisted by the force of the blast. Ceiling tiles fell in the county courthouse, a dozen miles away. Thousands of homeowners and businesses reported damage.

"The force was what we would expect in a bomb," Capt. Robert James of the Clark County Fire Department recalled Wednesday. James was the primary investigator for the department.

It would take more than four years to settle all the lawsuits. The final dollar amount was sealed and is confidential, Neil Galatz, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Wednesday.

The political fallout was expectable.

Politicians were chastised for allowing residential enclaves so close to the plant. Residents wanted to know why a volatile oxidizer, used in the nation's space shuttles and military rockets, could be produced so close to homes and businesses.

Pepcon's parent company, American Pacific Corporation, announced a year after the blast that it was moving to a site 10 miles west of Cedar City.

Kerr-McGee, the only other company making the critical oxidizer, later moved their production facilities from a site a mile from the Pepcon blast to a rural area northeast of Las Vegas.

Western Electrochemical Company, the Utah company formed by American Pacific, also produces sodium azide, a volatile chemical used to explode air bags in vehicles, according to James.

When American Pacific announced the move to Utah in March 1989, it said NASA and the Defense Department had agreed to purchase 20 million pounds of ammonium perchlorate annually from Western Electrochemical.