A Look Back: PEPCON Disaster - 2 killed, 372 people injured

On May 4, 1988, Henderson, Nevada experienced an explosion that shook the city. The Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON) plant exploded, causing $100 million in damage, affecting 10 miles of the Las Vegas Valley, injuring 372 people, and killing 2. Looking back at fires and explosions allows us the opportunity to learn from history.

The Scene

The PEPCON plant produced ammonium perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket booster fuel for Space Shuttles and military weapons. Beneath the plant was a natural gas line. PEPCON was one of two American producers, the other, Kerr-McGee, was located only 1.5 miles away from the PEPCON facility.

The 1986 Challenger disaster froze the space shuttle program, forcing the PEPCON plant to keep the ammonium perchlorate on site. There was such a large quantity of the oxidizer that the plant ran out of aluminum storage bins and began using plastic drums placed in the parking lot. Approximately, 4500 tons of the product was on-site during the explosion.

The Fire Event

Between 11:30am and 11:40am, the fire sparked in a damaged drying process structure. Wind damaged the fiberglass and steel framed structure and employees were using a torch to repair it. The torch ignited the fiberglass material and quickly spread to the ammonium perchlorate residue. The fire spread to the 55-gallon plastic drums storing the product as employees attempted to extinguish the fire. This drum was the first to explode.

The fire spread through the drums creating a large fireball and leading to four more explosions. The fire then found its way to the aluminum storage containers, causing two small and one massive explosion. The explosions used most of the fuel; however, the fire found the natural gas line and developed into a fireball.

There were seven explosions during this event. The largest measured at 3.5 on the Richter Scale. The explosions caused a 15-feet deep and 200-feet long crater in the storage area.

The Aftermath

The first explosion killed two men, Roy Westerfield, Controller, who stayed behind to call the fire department and Bruce Halker, who was wheelchair bound and unable to leave the plant. 372 additional employees were injured.

Mr. Westerfield was never able to contact the fire department. They were not notified until the fire chief saw the explosion while driving. He ordered his units to the scene. Another explosion shattered the chief's windows and a second explosion sent debris into the car, damaging it and injuring him and his passenger. A survivor was driving a heavily damaged car away from the plant and told the chief about the danger of subsequent explosions. The chief ordered the firefighters to turn around and head back to the station. No firefighting attempt was made due to the danger involved.

The police department evacuated a five-mile radius around the plant. The roads were jammed with residents fleeing and gawkers heading toward the scene. It took two hours to clear.

The explosions demolished the PEPCON plant and the neighboring Kidd & Co marshmallow manufacturing facility. Within a ten-mile radius, windows were shattered and doors were blown off their hinges.

After the incident, PEPCON changed their name to Western Electrochemical and rebuilt in Cedar City, UT. They had a 14-mile no-build buffer. On July 30, 1997, they experienced another explosion that killed one and injured four.

Tags: chemical processing plant fire protection, chemical fire protection, fire sprinklers