I moved to Las Vegas in 1988, shortly after the Pepcon explosion. The explosion was at Pacific Engineering and Production Company on May 4, 1988. It’s a memory of the Las Vegas Valley that many residents are now able to ignore since Henderson and Las Vegas have changed how and where these industry giants can do business.
The first explosion was small compared to the resulting explosion when the natural gas line blew. In total, there were 3 large explosions and several smaller ones. The shock wave blew out almost every piece of glass within a 3-mile radius, and many homes had structural damage. Thankfully, only 2 people were killed and 350 injured.
This disaster was determined to have been caused by welding equipment exploding, sending shrapnel into storage tanks of ammonium perchlorate produced for NASA’s rocket fuel. Pepcon had to stockpile the ammonium perchlorate after the Challenger explosion happened in 1986.
My first project as an engineering manager was to design fixes to repair homes damaged in the blast. These homes’ structural issue wasn’t with the 8-foot or 16-foot walls around the homes but the triangular part between the walls and the roof. This part had imploded due to a lack of wood bracing the stucco or siding. The new way trusses are designed to this day is a direct result of lessons learned from the blast.
Terri moved to Las Vegas in February 1993, just 5 years after the Pepcon Explosion rocked Henderson. In 1993, many people still didn’t want to live anywhere near the Pepcon explosion site. It took her almost a year to sell a home in Henderson.
Henderson’s growth was much slower than Las Vegas’ until zoning and safety changes were made. Other industrial companies eventually were relocated to North Las Vegas’ industrial center, Apex, near the Las Vegas Speedway, helping to make Henderson the safer area today.
The Investigation Results
“Both resulted from the unsafe storage of dangerous chemicals, the lack of effective safety systems, poor maintenance and housekeeping, inadequate training, the failure to learn from previous accidents,” Lynn R. William, international president of the steelworkers’ group, wrote.
“More vigorous government inspection and enforcement could have prevented either accident.”
The Henderson Commission was also assembled by then-Gov. Richard Bryan in the days following the explosion. The committee accepted public comment about concerns regarding fire, health, safety, insurance, and zoning.
The committee recommended that facilities be inspected regularly throughout the state, and new plants should be built a safe distance from residential areas.
In 1991, the Chemical Catastrophe Prevention Act was adopted, which established a list of hazardous materials and set limits on the amount facilities are permitted to store in the plant.
(Exert from the Review-Journal 1998)
See News 3 YouTube video. The blast occurred at the Northwest corner of Gibson road and what is now St. Rose Parkway. Besides additional explosions, the fears at the time revolved around what chemicals and gases were released into the air. The site was cleaned and is now under the freeway exchange at that intersection.
11 interesting facts about the explosion:
- The Pepcon Explosion was the largest domestic, non-nuclear explosion in recorded history at that time, according to NASA.
- The explosions could be felt 10 miles away, with the two biggest blasts measuring 3.0 and 3.5 on the Richter scale at observatories in California and Colorado.
- After the first explosion, a nearby natural gas pipeline exploded. Flames from the pipeline were visible all over the valley.
- Experts compared the explosion to a 1-kiloton air-blast nuclear detonation.
- Buildings were destroyed, windows of nearby homes were blown inward, doors were torn off their hinges, and Boulder Highway looked like a war zone.
- Basic High School suffered serious damage, and other schools — McDoniel Elementary, Burkholder Middle School, and Southern Nevada Vocational-Technical Center — were also damaged.
- Kidd & Co. Marshmallow Plant, later bought by Kraft, was next door. After the glass blew out of holding tanks, melted marshmallows burned employees. Many people said at the time that all they could smell was marshmallows after the explosions.
- The National Guard was brought in to help evacuate everyone within a 5-mile radius.
- PEPCON left Henderson after the incident moving to Cedar City, Utah.
- The Nevada legislature passed the Chemical Catastrophe Prevention Act in 1991 as a result of the explosions. This act established a list of hazardous materials and set limits on the amount facilities can store at one plant.
- Nevada Division of Environmental Protection was established to prevent future disasters. All plants must identify chemicals, have stringent emergency plans and maintenance procedures, and every storage tank must have pressure sensors and alarms.