Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2017

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Remembering the PEPCON explosion


Craig Wallace / Las Vegas Sun / Sun File Photo

Fred Gibson Jr., president of Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON), explains the circumstances leading to the two explosions that destroyed the Henderson-based rocket fuel plant on May 4, 1988.

PEPCON Explosion

Ask just anyone where they were on May 4, 1988 and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Ask anyone from Henderson and you’ll get vivid recollections of “the blast”-- one of the biggest explosions in U.S. history.

But now, 21 years later, many people have seen the PEPCON explosion on television shows like “Maximum Exposure” or “Destroyed in Seconds.” Clips are also prevalent on YouTube. However, watching it was nothing like feeling it, hearing it, and living the aftermath. And, while it’s something that turned me into a bit of an anxious person, I still love to ask others where they were on that day and hear the stories. It’s a memory that unites the 50,000 people who lived in Henderson that fateful day in May.

Just before noon, on May 4, 1988, a chemical plant called PEPCON (located at what is now Wigwam Parkway and Gibson Road) caught fire. The combination of fire, a natural gas pipeline, and 6 million pounds of rocket fuel caused huge explosions. Six hundred miles away, a Richter scale measured 3.5 during the fourth and largest explosion. The fire burned all day, and the gas line burned for a week afterwards.

I was at Gordon McCaw Elementary School. It was lunchtime, and as we stood in line to get into the cafeteria, I could see a huge mushroom cloud of black and orange smoke. Everyone was rushed back into the classrooms by school staff.

I don’t remember feeling the first couple of explosions, but I do remember hearing the echoes from the blasts. There was an aura of anticipation and mayhem in the air. Janitors and school staff ran up and down the hallways to secure doors and yelled at us to stay inside. The sound of their keys jingling against their hips as they ran is a bone-chilling memory. Just as my teacher began praying, an extremely loud blast occurred and the ground rocked and shook up and down a few times, violently.

“I saw the shock waves coming toward us, and I said ‘roll the windows down’,” recalls my mother, who was sitting in her car on Lake Mead at its intersection with Basic Road, watching the fire just a mile and a half away.

“I could see building parts and cars up in the mushroom cloud when it blew,” says my dad, who watched it from our front yard, also about two miles from the scene.

I have heard many stories of those who were in surrounding areas at the time, who watched it out of office windows. Others were eating lunch in restaurants and ran outside after the blast thinking that we had been bombed. Even those who lived out-of-state were getting conflicting reports of what had happened.

“I was working in the area of Charleston and Alta and felt the ground move,” remembers former resident Tammy Spath.

“My mom thought a truck ran into our house,” recalls Tiffany Reardon, who had relatives working in the plant that day. “It took hours and hours for us to finally find out they were OK.”

“I was out-of-state at college and saw a map on the news that said ‘Henderson, Nevada has just blown up,” says Liz Jannotti. “The phone lines were dead and I couldn’t get through to my parents for hours.”

Brenda Olliges, a police and fire dispatcher for the city, says that she came in to work “13 hours of non-stop phone calls after the blast. People were looking for loved ones, wondering when the power was going to be back on, and had questions about the curfew.”

A curfew had been put in place to prevent looting since windows had been shattered in businesses and homes throughout the city. The National Guard and other volunteers patrolled the streets.

My home as well as thousands of others throughout the city had damage. Cracks formed in walls and garage doors were sucked inside and then buckled from the force of the shockwave.

Sadly, two people died in the incident. Both were workers at the plant. It’s amazing that scores of people weren’t killed, by the explosion itself or by falling debris. The event was definitely historical for the once small, sleepy town of Henderson, but residents who experienced the disaster will never forget it.

I think about the blast every time I see a plume of smoke. It’s a memory that just won’t go away.

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