The video attached to this story is from previous reporting done on May 4, 2018.
LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The eyes of the nation were on the Las Vegas valley, specifically Henderson, 35 years ago when a series of explosions at an industrial plant rocked the valley killing two people, leaving hundreds injured, causing more than $100 million in damage and impacting the NASA space shuttle program.
In a 2018 interview with 8 News Now, retired Henderson Fire Captain Don Griffie was in one of the first engines heading to the reported fire at Pacific Engineering and Production Company of Nevada, referred to as PEPCON, when the first explosion happened.
“It blew, and we just reached our hands up and caught the windshield on the truck as it blew out,” Griffie said. “He stopped immediately, and we took it from the side, and I just turned around, and I said ‘You know what, there ain’t nothing there anymore, we’re turning around and getting out of here.’”
It was May 4, 1988, around lunchtime on a breezy, overcast Wednesday when the first of a series of explosions rocked the entire valley. Sparks from a welding torch caused a fire that spread to a storage area where thousands of pounds of ammonium perchlorate were stored. The powerful oxidizer is a highly-combustible component used in rocket fuel and was made specifically to launch NASA’s space shuttles.
“The flames, which grew out of control, soon engulfed PEPCON’s massive stock of oxidizer, creating the largest domestic, non-nuclear explosion in recorded history. The explosion affected structures in a 10-mile radius,” according to a case study done by NASA Safety Center.
The worst of the explosions measured as high as 3.5 on the Richter scale and had the same impact as a 1-kiloton nuclear explosion in the air, NASA reported.
Of the 77 PEPCON employees, 75 were able to escape the building and leave the site before the explosions. The two that were killed were handicapped. One had stayed behind to call 911.
More than 370 people were injured from flying debris, including a baby, only hours old, at St. Rose De Lima Hospital.
“We thought an airplane had crashed next to the building,” said the child’s mother, Loretta Wittig. “It was like a motion picture in slow motion. All the windows just went flying, and the curtains went flying in. And it was just crazy.”
The explosions caused damage to thousands of homes. Former 8 News Now reporter Carla Alston recounted the images during an interview in 2020.
“There were garage doors blown off their hinges lying in people’s driveways. Their front doors were on the ground. Glass was shattered — windows from cars and from homes. It was the weirdest thing to see and there weren’t any people around because most people were at work during that time,” Alston said.
The death toll was surprisingly low considering the tremendous power of the explosions. But in 1988, Henderson was a small community of around 50,000 residents. Now, 35 years later, it is around 328,000 people. The entire Las Vegas valley only had a population of around 700,000 and has grown more than three times that size in the past three decades.
PEPCON was completely obliterated as was a neighboring marshmallow plant and a gas pipeline was ruptured.
According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information, several factors played into the disaster such as no automatic fire suppression systems, a poor fire safety watch to oversee welding, and very little separation between storage units full of ammonium perchlorate.
PEPCON ended up moving to Utah and reopened a new plant with a new name.