SPECIAL REPORT: PepCon disaster remembered 30 years later
LAS VEGAS (KSNV) —
The greatest accidental explosion in Nevada history rocked the Las Vegas valley on May 4, 1988, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
It's one of those days that is seared into the memories of those who were in Southern Nevada at the time: a giant ball of flame and series of explosions that destroyed companies, leveled buildings, twisted solid metal and took two lives.
It happened in an isolated corner of Henderson, but everyone in the valley instantly knew something had happened.
“I was in the newsroom, getting ready to go out on a story,” remembers David Riggleman. “And we heard—we felt—the concussions of the explosions.”
Today he's communications director for the city of Las Vegas. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, David Riggleman was a familiar presence on the evening news as an anchor and reporter for News 3.
On that day 30 years ago, his reaction was the same as people across the valley.
“We went outside, we looked up - we could feel the building shudder - and looked up, and there was a massive cloud that had risen up over the valley,”
The explosion came from one of the only two companies in the nation manufacturing an oxidizer that is a key component in the rocket fuel that was used in the United States space shuttle program. As it happens, both companies had their manufacturing facilities in Henderson, Nevada.
“American Pacific, PepCon, and you had Kerr-McGee, and they both make the Ammonium Perchlorate, and they're both right there in the same facility,” Ken Messner told News 3 in 2013.
Messner, Don Griffie and Tom Connors had worked for the Henderson Fire Department when the disaster struck and shared their memories on the 25th anniversary.
“Frankly, I went through American Pacific beforehand and you'd see product on the ground,” said Connors, shaking his head. “They weren't concerned about it.”
Perchlorate shipments out of Pepcon had been suspended following the Challenger explosion in 1986, leaving stockpiles of the chemical in the Henderson plant. Then on May 4, 1988, at 11:30 a.m., a welder's torch started a small fire that spread quickly.
“We need the fire department. All you can get immediately,” an excited but controlled voice told 911 dispatch after the flames had set off the first blast.
“OK, give me your phone number please,” prompted the operator.
“565-8741,” Pepcon comptroller Roy Westerfeld answered. “We just had a big explosion and everything's on fire.”
“OK, what's the name of the business?” she continued.
“Pacific Engineering, Gibson Road and the Los Angeles Henderson Cutoff,” responded Westerfeld, referring to the stretch of road that serves as today’s I-215 alignment.
Broadcast engineer Dennis Todd, who had been working at the top of nearby Black Mountain, pointed his video camera toward the plant just in time to catch the main blast. The video shows an orange flame suddenly flash into a giant explosion. Shock waves can be seen racing across the desert floor.
First responders were already heading to the scene by this time, including Don Griffie.
“I just told my driver, I said, ‘Jack, duck’. And we stuck our hands up like this,” he says motioning to protect his head. “And grabbed our...put our hands on the windshield. And the windshield came out into our hands, solid. “
“My job that day was to sort through all the conflicting information that was coming from the school district, Henderson, Metro, Country Fire,” says Riggleman in 2018.
“An explosion at Pacific Engineering, where they have been making rocket fuel in their facility there,” said anchor Gwen Castaldi as News 3 broke into regular programming with a special report. “We know there have been people injured. We have no count yet. All of the hospitals are working together on this.”
The more severe injuries were to people who had been working at Pepcon and the adjacent Kidd marshmallow plant, who were running for their lives through the desert.
“After the first couple of explosions, I'm sure everyone was taking off, and evacuation plan was probably out the window along with the rest of the glass,” says Messner.
When first responders arrived, they found the Pepcon plant almost disintegrated, and many went to the building next door.
“They were wading through marshmallows,” says Connors. “Because they would break cases of the charred marshmallows. It was everywhere.”
“This man was in the marshmallow plant at least 200 yards from the plant,” reported News 3’s Dan Burns as a gurney was wheeled into a nearby hospital. “The intense heat and force of the blast put second degree burns on his arms and face.”
Nearby schools were evacuated.
“How are you getting home?” one administrator asked a student.
“My grandma's here,” came the response.
“Okay,” said the adult reassuringly. “Everything's okay. Don't worry about anything.”
In the days before TV stations had their own helicopters, local tour and charter operator Helicopter Services of Nevada was hired to fly dozens of media outlets from around the country, including News 3.
“Metro police have put up a five-mile restriction in the area of the explosion site,” reported Rick Kirkham from the front seat of a Bell 206B JetRanger. “The reason there is that another explosion...the concussion from another explosion could blow a helicopter right out of the air. But as you can see, from even five miles away, the magnitude of the explosion site is awesome.”
For hours turning into days, fear and danger lingered.
“Throughout the day and into the night, rescue crews poured steadily into the explosion site,” reported Laura Stephenson from the scene on May 5. “Keeping clear of the smoke that ended up blowing in a northeasterly direction.”
“Everyone was terrified of what was going to be in this cloud, this cloud of concoction blowing all over the valley,” recalls Riggleman today. “What was going to happen if it rained? What was going to fall from the sky? What did the explosion release into the atmosphere that was going to be potential harm to people in this huge swath?”
“And the EPA says they will probably be out here investigating this site for probably the next few days, possibly a week,” he had reported from just outside the blast site on May 6 of 1988.
Two people died in the blasts. Controller Roy Westerfeld had stayed behind to call 911 and supervise the evacuation. Employee Bruce Haulker was confined to a wheelchair and unable to escape. Hundreds more were injured, and thousands of homes and businesses sustained damage.
In the months and years after the Pepcon explosions, authorities tried to learn from the disaster.
“The storage methods and where it's stored are no longer all in one site,” said Messner. “They moved it to a less populated, safer area.”
“And I will tell you, there's better communications between the departments,” added Griffie. “The county, that changed their inspection procedures a lot down there.”
The Pepcon blast site is just northeast of I-215 and Gibson Road. It's now a business park area, and there are no traces or reminders of what happened there on May 4, 1988.
American Pacific still manufactures ammonium perchlorate. The company relocated to a more remote location in Iron County, Utah, where there was another blast in 1997 that killed one and injured four.