Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 4, 2012


May 4, 1988: A large explosion outside Las Vegas, Nevada leaves hundreds wounded. Henderson  is about ten miles outside Las Vegas and was the home of Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON). They were one of the two American companies producing ammonium perchlorate, an oxidizer used in solid fuel rocket boosters. Solid fuels are used by both the Space Shuttle and some military weapons. Kerr-McGee was the second producer and was less than 1.5 miles from the PEPCON plant, which also had a 16-inch high-pressure natural gas line running underneath it.

The Space Shuttle program was frozen as the investigation of the 1986 Challenger disaster continued. The storage of the ammonium perchlorate was not regulated and no proper facilities were built to accommodate the large surplus. PEPCON stored nearly all of their product on site. The normal bins were filled and the remaining product was placed into HDPE plastic drums and stored in parking lots. The plastic acted as a fuel with the ammonium percholorate as an oxidizer. There were ≈ 4,000 tons of product stored at PEPCON at the time of the explosion.

Between 11:30 and 11:40 AM, the first explosion occurred near a structure which had been damaged in a windstorm. Repairmen were welding the fiberglass and steel structure when it caught fire and spread quickly reaching the plastic 55 gallon drums stored next to the building. A series of explosions took place about 10-20 minutes after the fire started. Employees began to flee on foot, or if possible, by car. Around 75 people escaped but two men were killed. Roy Westerfield stayed behind to call the fire department and Bruce Halker, confined to a wheelchair, was unable to escape as a second, larger explosion erupted.

As the fire spread and more drums were involved, a huge fireball ignited and began a series of four large explosions. The larger storage area was involved in the fire with two more small explosions and then two larger ones echoing across the landscape. The plant was devasted by the seven explosions and rescue efforts were hampered by the fireballs and exploding shrapnel. The National Guard was called in to help with evacuations. There were 372 people injured in the blaze which caused ≈ $100 million in damages ($190 million in 2009 USD).

Disaster is a natural part of my evolution. Toward tragedy and dissolution. – Chuck Palahniuk

Alas, I emerge from one disaster to fall into a worse. – Pierre Corneille

Failure is simply the non-presence of success. But a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. – Orlando Bloom

I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity. – John D. Rockefeller

Also on this day:

The Little General – In 1814 Napoleon I is exiled to Elba.
Nicaragua – In 1855, William Walker left to conquer Nicaragua.
First and Only – In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected.

One Response

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  1. Bobby Dias said, on May 4, 2012 at 10:41 am

    The storage of the ammonium perchlorate was not regulated because of bribes to many county officials who kept county inspectors finding what was being stored. Two county supervisors resigned, with the possibility of criminal charges against them at one point. I personally think that excessive negative news reporting on the space shuttle disaster played a part in NASA slowing down the schedule of future flights unnecessarily because they knew what had happened and had found a solution before this Nevada disaster.

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