Las Vegas Sun

January 24, 2018

Currently: 43° — Complete forecast

In 1988, disaster struck as explosions rocked PEPCON

The explosions rocked the city of Henderson before noon on May 4, 1988.

Thick, black, toxic fumes followed four explosions that thundered across the Las Vegas Valley. The blasts killed two people, injured more than 350 and caused tens of millions of dollars of property damage.

Pacific Engineering & Production Co. of Nevada's comptroller, Leroy Westerfield, dialed 911 and asked for assistance. "Everything's on fire," he said. Those were his last words.

Westerfield, 62, was one of two dead after he tried to evacuate the rocket fuel booster manufacturing plant. His body was never recovered.

Bruce Halker, 56, vice president of operations, was found later that day as the leveled factory continued to smolder. His clothes had been blown off.

The disaster started as a fire.

Five workers tried to douse the flames. But most had gone to lunch, and areas had shut down. Then the wind turned an accident into a tragedy.

Later -- once the choking smoke had cleared -- angry citizens started asking questions. How could this happen in an urban area? Answer: The plant was there first.

How can industry remain in the center of a community?

Petition drives to shut down the ammonium perchlorate plant, at least move it out of the urban core, eventually worked.

A year later, a cluster of large white buildings -- the new PEPCON plant -- anchored the bottom of a barren desert valley 15 miles northwest of Cedar City, Utah.

Residents of economically depressed Iron County, Utah, were elated. No one protested the company's move to Cedar City in meetings before the Iron County Commission.

The plant had several advantages in its new location:

* Three 7,500-foot mountain peaks shield Cedar City from the plant.

* Zoning around the 4,800-acre site is restricted to mining, preventing incompatible development.

* New safety measures put a trained firefighting force on site.

The plant brought 150 jobs to Iron County, and those jobs paid more than most others in the area.

For Southern Nevada, the emphasis switched to attracting safe, environmentally clean businesses.

Gibson Business Park, owned and managed by American Pacific Corp., PEPCON's parent company, sold 10 acres to Kidd & Co., the marshmallow factory also destroyed in the blast.

Then another 40 acres was sold within the park to Ocean Spray Cranberries, which built a food processing plant employing 350 people.

Almost half of Southern Nevada residents didn't live here when PEPCON exploded nine years ago.

That destruction changed the lives of many.

Nevada officials were stunned to learn that U.S. military operations relied on two producers of rocket fuel oxidizers in the nation in the same community and the same neighborhood.

PEPCON and Kerr-McGee Crop. supplied the necessary ammonium perchlorate. With PEPCON out of business, the nation's supply was cut in half.

After the disaster, Kerr-McGee agreed to store its rocket fuel propellant at Apex, 15 miles northeast of Las Vegas and out of the air flows crossing the valley.

Then-Gov. Richard Bryan flew to Las Vegas to tour the devastation. As he declared Henderson a disaster area, Bryan spoke words of comfort:

"It's a miracle there weren't more deaths," he said. "We've got a miracle on our hands."