Longtime KLAS anchor recounts day of PEPCON disaster, widespread impact

Local News

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Today, we remember the deadly PEPCON explosion, which shook the Valley to its core some 32 years ago. Several blasts rocked the chemical plant and ruptured a nearby gas pipeline, resulting in flames and smoke that were seen for miles.

Brian Loftus spoke with longtime KLAS anchor Gary Waddell, who talked about the widespread impact.

“I remember one conversation, the person had a nice house in Green Valley. I think it faced to the east, so it had Sunrise in the back,” recalled Waddell. “Well, it was west of PEPCON, so when the the big explosion went off, it took their two huge front doors off the house, threw them completely through the house, out through the glass in the back and into the swimming pool. That’s the kind of force it had. Luckily, nobody was in front of those doors when it went off.”

Two people died, and more than 300 others were hurt after the series of explosions. For those living in the Valley that day in May 1988, what they saw remains ingrained in their memories.

“The firefighters in Henderson were headed to the scene in the first explosions, and they got close, and all of a sudden, the windows of the fire trucks were shattered, and they were shaken on the road,” Waddell recounted. “I remember St. Rose highway, actually East Lake Mead there to the south of PEPCON, there were cars all over the place with broken windows. Most of the injuries luckily were just flying glass, which is not fun, but it’s certainly not a huge major trauma that rips you apart.”

Waddell also talked to us about concerns related to the aftermath in particular, concerns about any lingering impact of potentially dangerous air quality.

“Initially, there were, there was a big cloud that was coming up. All this smoke and ask and rock and everything was raining down from this explosion over there,” said Waddell. “All of a sudden, we were wondering, ‘is this toxic? Is this something like a chlorine leak that’s going to kill people for miles in all directions? So, that was a major concern in the afternoon following the explosion.”

Clark County Fire Department investigators determined sparks from a welder’s torch ignited nearby chemicals, starting the deadly chain of events.

It was the largest, non-nuclear explosion in recorded history at that time, according to NASA.

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