Henderson, NV Fuel Plant Explosion, May 1988

Henderson NEV Pepcon plant blast.jpg Henderson NEV Site of Blast.jpg Henderson NEV Pepcon site.jpg


Henderson, Nev., May 5 -- A series of explosions destroyed a rocket-fuel plant and an adjoining marshmallow factory here today, killing one persons and injuring more than 200.
Given the magnitude of the blasts, which registered on earthquake monitors 200 miles away, city officials said it was amazing that there was only one fatality.
"It's a miracle," said Mike Cool, assistant Clark County manager and coordinator of operations at the Emergency Management Department.
The blasts occurred at the Pacific Engineering and Production Company outside this fast-growing city 16 miles southeast of Las Vegas. The plant makes fuel used in the space shuttle's solid-fuel rockets.
About 200 people were working in the plant when the first explosion occurred just before noon. Twenty-five more people were inside the adjacent Kidd & Company marshmallow factory, said officials of the Clark County Emergency Service Department.
The officials said a fire had broken out in the fuel plant and an evacuation was in progress just before the explosions.
The blasts leveled the 12 buildings of the Pacific Engineering plant and left little of the Kidd factory, the officials said. The explosions also caused damage here in Nevada's third-largest city, which has a population of more than 50,000. Residents reported windows blown out, doors ripped off hinges and cars overturned in the streets.
Most of the city was evacuated this afternoon because of concern that toxic gases from the explosion might drift through Henderson. By this evening, officials were allowing residents to return to their homes, although a curfew was put into effect and the National Guard was called in to help prevent any looting.
Most of those hurt in the blasts were reported to be suffering from minor injuries like burns, bruises and cuts. But at least four people were reported in critical condition at Las Vegas hospitals.
The explosions were felt throughout the area. Employees at McCarran International Airport, 10 miles away, reported being knocked down by the force of several concussions seconds apart. In downtown Las Vegas, 16 miles away, windows were broken and tall buildings swayed, officials said.
Two of the blasts registered on earthquake seismographs 200 miles away at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The first measured about 3.0 on the Richter scale of ground motion and the second registered 3.5, said Bob Finn, an institute spokesman.
Although two plumes of white smoke could be seen rising from the site early this evening, officials said the fire was out at the Pacific plant. The marshmallow factory was still burning, and fire department officials said the fire there would probably not be extinguished until morning.
Emergency service officials said that they found a body this evening 25 yards from the wall of the fuel factory. The two killed were ROY WESTERFIELD, company comptroller and BRUCE HALKER.
The fire started at 11:51 A.M. in a building where the fuel was being mixed. The building was adjacent to a rocket fuel propellant tank. "There's a tank farm there," said Mr. Cool. "The tank structures had to be 50 feet high and 80 feet around. We believe two of them exploded. Two others were empty."
The flashes "could be seen as far as 20 miles away," Mr. Cool said.

New York Times New York 1988-05-05