PEPCON Explosion: One Man's Memory - 8 News NOW

PEPCON Explosion: One Man's Memory

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Frank Quintana will never forget May 4, 1988. Frank Quintana will never forget May 4, 1988.

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Saturday, May 4, marks the 25th anniversary of a violent explosion that shook the entire Las Vegas valley.

The PEPCON disaster was considered one of America's more devastating plant explosions to follow World War II. It happened at a plant located near Gibson Road and American Pacific Drive.

The Pacific Engineering & Production Co. plant in Henderson made rocket fuel for the U.S. Space program. The explosion caused nearly $100 million in damage, injured more than 300 people, but miraculously only killed two.

Longtime southern Nevadans always remember where they were went PEPCON blew up, even a quarter century after the blasts shook the valley. Those who nearly died in the disaster are still coming to grips with what they witnessed.

The ground shook and a toxic mushroom cloud rose above Henderson, when the plant went up in flames on May 4, 1988.

"It just spread. It spread so quick. It was unreal," said Frank Quintana, a former PEPCON maintenance man.

He was working in maintenance on that fateful day.

"It was about five minutes to 12, right before lunch," he said. 

For Quintana, word of a fire in the rocket fuel plant sparked concern.

"I went to where the fire was at. I got a fire hose, tried to fight the fire," he said.

Within minutes, storage drums filled with ammonium perchlorate, an explosive rocket fuel ingredient, caught fire. Flames spread quickly. The plant was on the verge of catastrophe.

A frantic 911 call was made.

Dispatcher: "Fire department."

Roy Westerfield, PEPCON comptroller: "Emergency! We need the fire department. All you can get here immediately."

Dispatcher: "What's the problem?"

Westerfield: "We've got ... everything's on fire."

"I'd say, if we had gotten there two minutes earlier, I wouldn't be here today," said Don Griffie, a retired Henderson fire captain.

Griffe traveled toward the trouble.

"I saw it completely engulfed in flames," he said.

People were running for their lives from PEPCON and the neighboring Kidd & Company Marshmallow plant.

"When the chief ordered me to go in, I just had told him on the radio, I said, 'No, I am going to take a different tactic' and just as I was telling him that, that's when the explosion happened," Griffie said.

Quintana was at ground zero. 

"I was right there where the fire originally started. I was trying to fight the fire," he said.

From the intense inferno suddenly came the biggest blast of all, sending a violent shockwave rumbling through the desert.

"I'm outside the truck and the next thing I know, I'm up inside the bed of the truck," Griffie said.

"I was close. It tore my clothing off, my pants, it ripped my pants, it took me off my shoes. It took my hard hat. It took my safety glasses," Quintana said.

The Las Vegas valley had never seen an explosion of this magnitude. PEPCON and the marshmallow plant were leveled. The blast knocked cars off the road, shattered windows and damaged buildings for miles. When the smoke cleared, the death toll was two.

"We've Got a Miracle on Our Hands," was the main headline in one local newspaper.

Griffie has a collection of newspapers on the PEPCON disaster. He even saved his fire helmet from that day.

"I don't really talk to too many people about it," he said.

He will never forget his luck and surviving the impossible.  


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