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Thiokol impact felt years later

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WOODBINE — History hasn’t looked kindly on the Thiokol plant in Woodbine, where an explosion Feb. 3, 1971 claimed the lives of 29 workers and seriously injured another 50.

Without question, Thiokol played a significant role in Camden County history, but it goes beyond the impact of the explosion.

Jannie Everett, whose mother sustained serious burns in the explosion, has been researching the accident with others who are trying to establish a museum and memorial for those who died and were injured, the emergency providers and everyday citizens who responded to the explosion.

“This is a story of the triumph of the human spirit,” she said. “I want to tell the stories of hope, determination and survival.”

There were few employment opportunities for women outside of working in the fields picking produce in Camden County when the Thiokol plant opened in the mid 1960s.

It began as a rocket testing facility for NASA early in the space race. NASA considered the Camden location ideal because the engines could be transported by barge from the site directly to launch facilities in Florida.

“We had the labor force and the waterway,” Everett said. “It was a natural fit.”

NASA decided to use a different type of engine in its rockets and a new use was found for the facility.

After the transition was made to manufacture flares to support troops in Vietnam, it created job opportunities in the late 1960s that had never existed for women in Camden County.

“These Thiokol workers helped convert the area,” Everett said. “Women could actually go and get a job. Once Thiokol came to town, women worked hand-in-hand with the men at equal pay.”

The job at Thiokol enabled Everett’s mother to buy her first car, she said.

“It was upward mobility,” she said. “It created two-income families and brought hope to the region.”

Some 500 were employed at the plant.

The explosion

Everett was a junior at the newly integrated Camden County High School in St. Marys when the Thiokol explosion rocked her school, even though it was miles away from the blast.

A short time later, an announcement over the school public address system told students an accident had happened at the plant and that classes were dismissed for the day. Everett said many of the boys immediately ran from the school to the old Gilman Hospital in St. Marys, several miles away, to see if family members were among the casualties.

Everett’s mother worked at the plant and explained what to do if something ever happened to her.

“Immediately, I was concerned about the location of my brothers and sisters,” she said. “My mother told me not to worry about her if something happened.”

She was waiting for the school bus to take her home when she saw her mother in the passenger seat of a friend’s car.

Her mother suffered severe burns from the blasts that kept her hospitalized five days, but she insisted on stopping at the school before going to the hospital.

“I went immediately to the car and she said she was OK,” Everett said.

Her mother ran from the building with both feet on fire after the first explosion, Everett said. The force of a following explosion lifted her in the air, with her feet still on fire, and threw her into a nearby marsh.

It took minutes for their hearing to recover and the smoke to clear before survivors from the blast could see well enough to help each other from the marsh, Everett said.

Confusion and misinformation spread throughout the community after the blast.

Everett said her brother came home distraught after he went to the hospital and saw a burned body that hospital officials mistakenly identified as his mother.

“We were in the house and he came in and moaned and cried,” she said. “He was relieved when we told him our mother was alright.”

What happened

The flares manufactured at the plant were a mixture of sodium nitrate and other highly volatile chemicals.

The explosion occurred at a work station where it wasn’t unusual for small fires to flare up.

The day of the explosion, the fire spread to a conveyor belt and ignited illuminant pellets in containers near the line. Fire spread to a storage room which contained more than 56,000 flares.

Workers fled the burning building and stood nearby, unaware of a potential explosion. Two small blasts were followed by a large explosion, which caused the casualties. Debris from the building was found more than three fourths of a mile away.

Lucky decision

Robert Rudolph would have been in the building where the explosion occurred if he hadn’t accepted another position at the Thiokol plant, where he worked as a production manager.

Rudolph was in another building about 100 yards away when the first of a series of explosions occurred. He said he automatically knew what had happened when he heard the first blast.

“The ground shook when the explosion happened,” he said. “You could see stuff flying in the air.”

Rudolph immediately ran to the building to help the injured.

“People were scattered everywhere,” he said. “You do what you have to do under circumstances like that. It was worse than I thought.”

He helped injured coworkers find their way through the rubble and out of the building.

Helicopters flew to the scene to transport the injured as far as Charleston, S.C., after the only hospital in Camden County was filled to capacity.

Rudolph remained at the scene helping the injured until midnight.

“If I wouldn’t have transferred, I would have been there with the rest of them,” Rudolph said.

Memories preserved

It’s those stories and others that have compelled Everett and others to contact as many former employees, emergency responders and those impacted by the explosion as possible. The goal is to gather as many eyewitness accounts of the accident as possible in coming years.

The question asked by many at the time was who would take care of the children of the 21 women killed in the accident?

Everett said she had a neighbor check on her after the accident to see if she needed help. The neighbor returned later with a box of food, even though Everett said her family was OK.

Her family wasn’t the only one to receive unsolicited help from people throughout the region.

“People were boxing up clothes for the children,” she said. “They were really concerned about the children.”

Janet Heath didn’t live in the county when the explosion happened, but she has volunteered to help establish a museum and memorial after seeing a presentation about the accident. Heath said it gives her a better understanding of the community who lost so much in one day.

“It was powerful,” Heath said of the presentation. “It gave me a better feel of the people of Woodbine. It was a life-changing experience.”

Reporter Gordon Jackson writes about Camden County and other local topics. Contact him at gjackson@thebrunswicknews.com, on Facebook or at 464-7655.

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