LAS VEGAS (KSNV MyNews3.com) — Ask long-time Las Vegans to name the most terrifying explosion ever in the Las Vegas Valley, and most will probably say Pepcon — the massive industrial blast at Pacific Engineering and Production Company of Nevada in 1988.
That may have been the biggest, but for the deadliest blast, go back a couple more decades to January 1967. Unlike Pepcon — an accident isolated in open desert — this one was deliberate and in the heart of downtown Las Vegas.
"That was a big thing when they blowed that Orbit Inn up, you know," remembers Ralph Lamb. He was sheriff of Clark County from 1961 to 1979 and was familiar with the location.
The Orbit Inn was on the southeast corner of 7th and Fremont — where the new Container Park stands today. Built in 1961, it was a little upscale from its motel neighbors on lower Fremont. The Orbit Inn boasted three stories with a full restaurant and a large, elevated pool. At the time of the explosion, it was popular, and there was also plenty of nearby residential housing in apartments and single-family homes.
"Besides the people that were there, in there, staying there ... all of the other people — which is human nature — come running in to see what happened," says Lamb.
Another witness to the aftermath was former fireman Larry Massing.
"I was at Station Four. And they emptied out Station One," he recalls.
"One" was the main station downtown. Massing was based on Industrial Road, near where Circus Circus would open the following year. His station was called in as back-up.
"But it was cold," Massing says of that January night. "Because I was riding the tailboard then."
Black-and-white photographs from the Las Vegas Sun illustrate the devastation Massing witnessed when he arrived.
"And then we went over there. And all there was, was a big hole" he recalls. "No fire ... we didn't see any fire. It just blew it up. I guess it snuffed itself."
By then, Sheriff Lamb had taken command of the scene.
"It was just mass confusion until we got it settled down," says Lamb. "We cleared everybody out of there by saying 'Listen, this may not be the last explosion. We don't know.' And we didn't know."
"By that time, they were ambulances here taking people that were injured to the hospital," says Massing, shaking his head. "And there was a lot of dead there, too."
Six people were killed in all, including the man behind the blast and his wife. What could have possibly happened here? The FBI was called in.
It turned out to be domestic.
"A guy went AWOL, and he was married and his wife up in the room," says Massing. "She was runnin' around on him."
The investigation showed that Richard Paris — the jealous husband — had acquired 50 sticks of dynamite in Arizona the previous day. While his wife was out, Paris smuggled the explosives in and piled them in the motel room.
"Just waited for her to come back, and then he shot it," says Massing.
The result was tremendous damage and terror. Four innocent lives lost in addition to the perpetrator and his intended victim. Multiple injuries and a city shocked. All from that well-known wild card for law enforcement.
"Husband and wife," sighs Lamb. "Family feuds. That's likely to fire anything up."
The FBI closed the case a month later. News 3 recently applied for the file under the Freedom of Information Act, only to be informed that it had been destroyed in a purge of obsolete documents.
The Orbit Inn rebuilt and operated into the early '90s, and eventually was torn town. Today, the site has a vibrant new life as Container Park.