Thursday, May 5, 1988 | 6 a.m.
Four explosions leveled a Henderson-based rocket fuel plant Wednesday, killing at least one person, injuring scores of others, knocking out windows and doors miles away and sending a dark toxic cloud over the southeast end of the Las Vegas Valley.
But what could have been a devastating tragedy was avoided because employees began to evacuate five to 10 minutes before the blasts.
The body of an unidentified male was found near the plant at 8 p.m., several hours after the jarring blasts ripped through the Pacific Engineering Co. One explosion measured as high as 3.5 on the Richter scale on the UNLV seismograph.
“The clothes were blown off the body,” said Clark County Fire Chief Roy Parrish. “It was not a pretty sight.”
“We will still continue searching for bodies, if there are any. There will be crews here all night because there are small fires burning throughout the plant.”
Parrish added most employees appeared to have been safely evacuated.
“It’s a miracle there weren’t more deaths,’ Gov. Richard Bryan told reporters at a news conference in Henderson. “We’ve got a miracle on our hands.”
Officials said as many as 200 persons were injured as a result of the blasts, which were set off by a fire at the plant. They were being treated at all area hospitals, with St. Rose de Lima Hospital in Henderson carrying the brunt of the load.
“I was afraid and I was scared to run outside because of the burning stuff falling down,” said Dave Scroggins, 38, a Pacific Engineering lab technician, who was in a laboratory when the explosions occurred.
“Finally, I grabbed my hard hat and coat and started running,” said Scroggins, who was spattered with blood. “It was every man for himself.”
Three fire engine companies poured water on the wall of flames at the rocket fuel plant in the late afternoon, after a black mushroom cloud rose up to 1,000 feet into the air after the first explosion. Flames rose up upward of 300 feet.
Authorities said six Clark County tankers carrying more than 40,000 gallons of water sped to the scene late Wednesday to help put out the blaze. More than 300 firefighters were mobilized in the effort.
Though the explosions ripped apart the Pacific Engineering plant at noon, firefighters were unable to enter the burning facility until 3:30 p.m. because of the intense heat and toxic fumes.
Immediately after the explosions, authorities evacuated homes and businesses within a two-mile radius, including parts of Green Valley, where extensive property damage occurred, as the crippled plant burned.
Henderson police reported there was “looting all over the city.” Windows at many businesses were blown apart, leaving merchants unprotected from potential looters.
Police imposed an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for Henderson and Green Valley.
Late Wednesday, Clark County commissioners and Gov. Bryan, who flew to Las Vegas to tour the devastation, declared Henderson a disaster area, as local authorities mobilized emergency medical services throughout the county.
The U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency dispatched emergency response teams to Henderson to monitor the toxic fumes.
Victor Neumiller, Pacific Engineering’s plant superintendent, said the fire started in the batch house, where the rocket fuel was mixed. The wind pushed the fire around the plant and caused the explosions, he added.
“The explosion knocked me right on my ass,” Neumiller said.
The Kidd marshmallow factory next door also was leveled in the blasts. There were no reports on how many people were inside both plants when the series of explosions occurred.
But Pacific Engineering President Fred Gibson, with a bandage around his head, told reporters at the scene he believed about 100 people may have been working at the time. He also said most employees had been evacuated.
“My understanding is a piece of equipment malfunctioned,” said Gibson, who added he was flung out of his car as he approached the plant when the blasts occurred.
“Apparently it led to other fires spreading very rapidly.
“There was a fire before the explosions,” he added. “I was trying to get the hell out of there. I elected to stay. I was trying to determine what was happening.”
A fireball from the explosions sent a cloud of toxic gases several hundred feet in the air, said Michael Naylor, director of the county Health District’s Air Pollution Control Division.
Pacific Engineering makes ammonium perchlorate, an oxidizer used to make rocket fuel for the space shuttles. The fuel contains ammonia and hydrochloric acid, the most dangerous parts of the cloud.
Company officials said 750 tons of the fuel will burn in two minutes.
The explosions sent a cloud of gas 60 miles north to Moapa Valley, said Chief Heath Officer Otto Ravenholt.
“Air pollution should not be a problem except in the immediate area,” he said. “High winds helped raise the gases away from ground level.”
Air Pollution Control inspector Pete LaPorta said the first explosion sent flames about 300 feet into the air. He was driving toward Henderson when the explosions started.
Area residents reported feeling shockwaves as far away as North Las Vegas and Rainbow Boulevard to the west. The blast site was 11 miles from Downtown Las Vegas, where it was felt in high-rise buildings.
Pacific Engineering was founded in the late ‘50s by the late Fred Gibson Sr., and in 1982 the company merged with American Pacific Corp. and expanded its operations at a cost of $7 million.
An explosion rocked the plant in 1980, when a welder who admitted he was not certified touched off an explosive gas in the area. There wer no injuries.
In the latest disaster, the nearby marshmallow plant, owned by Kidd and Co., employs about 80 people, many of whom were injured by the second and third blasts as they fled the scene.
County Manager Pat Shalmy closed the Sanitation District treatment plant after the explosion shattered all its windows. Nearly 300 sanitation employees were sent home.
Public Works Division crews closed roads and directed traffic where stop lights blacked out. Natural gas service to some 2,700 Southwest Gas Co. customers in Henderson also was interrupted.
While firefighters battled the blaze, there were concerns it threatened to create more explosions as the chemicals burned, county officials said.
Henderson firefighter Larry Danning, said that while he was en route to the scene, his windshield collapsed upon the impact of the second explosion.
“I never saw anything like that before in my life, and I’ve been in Vietnam,” he said.
Authorities set up a makeshift emergency treatment center nearby at Sunset Park to handle those injured in the explosions.
Most were transported to St. Rose de Lima Hospital, which treated as many as 123 persons for a variety of injuries, officials said.
Humana Sunrise Hospital received 40 victims, including seven police officers, with minor injuries, said spokeswoman Ann Lynch. Many had hand lacerations, concussions and cuts on legs. Four were admitted.
University Medical Center treated 15 persons and released them. One marshmallow factory worker was admitted with burns on face and arms.
At Desert Springs Hospital 30 people were treated and released by 8 p.m. said spokeswoman Patti Allen.
“People told us there was severe damage to their homes in Green Valley and in Henderson,” Allen said. “They said roofs were coming down, windows broke and walls were coming down. They were real horror stories.”
Two second-story windows at Desert Springs broke in the blast, she added.
One Pacific Engineering employee, Clyde Simon, hitchhiked into the hospital after he witnessed the explosion shortly before noon. Allen said he was loading packing mats on the outside deck. “He ran down to Boulder Highway before the second explosion,” she said. Simon was treated and released.
At least 50 residents of a Henderson nursing home were brought to Desert Springs, Allen said.
St. Rose de Lima’s power was supplied by emergency generator, since its Nevada Power Company line was damaged in the blast.
Schools in Henderson and Green Valley sent students home early. The school district’s communications between the transportation center and the buses were broken, causing confusion and concern from parents who went to schools to pick up the children after the explosion at the Pacific Engineering plant.
Not everyone found their kids right away. By 4 p.m., hours after Burkholder Junior High School was evacuated, two distraught parents were at Cannon Junior High — an evacuation center for students from Burkholder, Nate Mack Elementary and Green Valley schools.
When they couldn’t find their son, they angrily denounced conditions, especially the lack of communication. “We live within two miles of the blast site,” said the father, who asked for anonymity. “They told us to evacuate. They told us my son would be brought here. Where is he?”
When one adolescent girl walked into the Galloway school cafeteria and said she lived in Green Valley and needed a ride there, a school official informed her the area had been evacuated. Her face crinkled as she splurted with emotion.
Traffic in and out of the area was made difficult by a tight police clamp.
Also contributing to this story were Bob Shemeligian, Sharon DeLair, Tim Heider, Mike Campbell, Ed Koch and Erik Kirschbaum.