HENDERSON (KSNV MyNews3) –
Twenty-five years ago this week, there had been a couple of explosions from Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada in Henderson when a call came in to 911.
Roy: “We just had a big explosion, and everything's on fire.”
Dispatch: OK, what's the name of the business?
| Coming Friday: Pepcon Anniversary, Part 3: The scope of the damage, recovery and how the valley changed. On News 3 at 5.|
Roy: Pacific Engineering. Gibson Road and the Los Angeles Henderson Cutoff.
Dispatch: OK, I've got that. We'll send somebody right over.
Roy: Get 'em all out here.
Those were the last words heard from Pepcon comptroller Roy Westerfield.
He and a wheelchair-bound employee, Bruce Halker, were still in the plant when fire from a welder's torch spread, reaching thousands of tons of ammonium perchlorate, a compound used in rocket fuel. It was at Pepcon and nearby Kerr McGee after shipments of the oxidizer for the shuttle program had been put on hold since a failed O-ring resulted in the Challenger disaster.
What happened next ignited the greatest explosion ever seen in Nevada.
News 3 had contracted with an engineer to work on the transmitter here on Black Mountain that day. He happened to have a video camera with him. After the first blast, he put it on a tripod and pointed it at the smoke plume.
Pepcon and the adjacent Kidd Marshmallow Plant were destroyed. Then-Henderson firefighters Tom Connors, Ken Messner and Don Griffie all headed that way, with Griffie initially toward the explosion epicenter.
“My observation of the facility at Pepcon. I said, no, we're gonna go protect...I'm setting a ladder up, and we're gonna protect the marshmallow plant,” Griffie said. “Because I know there's a lot of young people that worked at that place.”
He was on the way when the big one hit.
“I just told my driver, I said, ‘Jack, duck,’ “ Griffie said. “And we stuck our hands up like this and grabbed our ... put our hands on the windshield. And the windshield came out into our hands, solid.”
“And after the windshield came in, that's when we started backing up,” said driver Jack Coons in 1988.
Most of the injuries were to people running through the desert for their lives from Pepcon and adjacent Kidd.
“After the first couple of explosions, I'm sure everyone was taking off and evacuation plan was probably out the window along with the rest of the glass,” Messner said.
Pepcon was virtually disintegrated, so arriving firefighters went next door.
“They were wading through marshmallows because they would break cases of the charred marshmallows,” Connors said. “It was everywhere.”
Nearby schools were evacuated, and news crews tried to sift through the fear and uncertainty.
Toward evening, flames were extinguished, and a clear picture began to emerge.