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Explosion's aftermath: Confusion, blame and lessons learned

Reported by: Tom Hawley
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Updated: 5/03/2013 6:15 pm
HENDERSON (KSNV MyNews3) -- Today, you really can't even tell this used to be the site of an eight-acre rocket fuel component production site and, next door, a marshmallow plant.

But 25 years ago Saturday, the largest accidental explosion Nevada has ever seen took place at Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada, better known as Pepcon.

No one was quite prepared when 4,500 tons of the oxidizer ammonium perchlorate combined with fuel materials and fire to produce a massive explosion.

In the immediate aftermath, there was a lot of fear and confusion.

“Different news stories started coming in People were saying things, ‘Oh, we heard a hundred people killed.’ ‘We heard, you know, all the firemen who went out there got killed in the second explosion,’ “said Ken Messner, who was out there as a member of the Henderson Fire Department.

The accident occurred before Interstate 515 to Henderson was complete. Pepcon and Kidd Marshmallow were isolated and took time to reach.

“Basically because of that, that's probably what saved my crew's life,” Griffie said.

“The information really wasn't out there, what they were supposed to do. Were they supposed to shelter in place? Were they supposed to let the kids out so they can go home?” said Richard Brenner of Clark County Hazmat, who was with Las Vegas Fire Department at the time.

“Getting information out to the public and the media, we were not well prepared for that. We do a much better job now.”

There were two fatalities, some burn victims and a lot of shock. And then the finger-pointing and blaming began.

Today at Ground Zero, the area is packed with commercial and industrial. Such an incident now would doubtless have a much higher casualty rate. Then again, it wouldn't happen Because the county has taken measures to ensure those conditions don't exist.

“The storage methods and where it's stored are no longer all in one site,” Messner said. “They moved it to a less populated, safer area.”

“And I will tell you, there's better communications between the departments,” Griffie said. “The county; that changed their inspection procedures a lot down there.”

“What happens now is we've really gone in and looked at the codes, so that if you have chemical processes, we want to go in there and actually see what are your procedures,” Brenner said.

It was a terrible incident 25 years ago for southern Nevada. But it also was a wake-up call, according to the Henderson Historical Society's Rick Watson.

“Sometimes, I hate to say it, but maybe sometimes that kind of harsh treatment teaches you a lesson,” Watson said. “Teaches government and teaches citizenry to be really observant, to be cautious.”

Pepcon relocated to Cedar City and purchased Kerr-McGee's ammonium perchlorate division. A much smaller a-p explosion took one life there in 1997.

No official cause of the 1988 explosion was ever determined. In 1992, a $71 million settlement was reached involving five corporations, including Pepcon and Southwest Gas.

They are still producing ammonium perchlorate there under the banner of Western-Electrochemical Corporation.
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