Just about anyone who lived in the Las Vegas Valley in the late 1980s can tell you exactly where they were on May 4, 1988, when the Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON) chemical plant in Henderson was destroyed in a series of explosions that killed two, injured 372, did an estimated $100 million in damage and generated shockwaves registering 3.5 on the Richter scale.
I was in my sixth-grade classroom at Rex Bell Elementary School, about 14 miles away in Las Vegas. Weaned on a diet of post-apocalyptic pop culture, I was certain the ominous black mushroom cloud signaled imminent global thermonuclear destruction.
For the residents of downtown Henderson, the incendiary disaster at the solid-rocket-fuel plant hit much closer to home. Located at what is now the intersection of Gibson Road and Wigwam Parkway, the PEPCON facility was less than two miles from downtown and even closer residential areas such as Hillcrest Manor, where Gold Casters Jewelry owner Michael Holland still lives.
“It blew all the windows out of my house,” Holland says. “There were shards of glass in every interior wall. It looked like those Chinese throwing stars.”
Holland was in his shop on Army Street (it has since moved to Water Street) when it was rocked by the blasts. He says that by a “fluke” it suffered little damage, because both of his doors were open. His neighbors weren’t so lucky. “Almost everybody on Army Street,” he says, lost their windows. Across the street at Judy’s Tavern, the ceiling caved in.
While Holland’s business didn’t suffer much beyond a slow couple of days following the explosions (and his home repairs were quickly paid for by insurance), others experienced more long-term setbacks. Debbie Montoya, who opened Antique Rose Florist with her husband, Dick, on South Water Street in 1979, says that her business ground to a halt after the blasts.
“It was spooky,” she says, “It put everything at a standstill.”
Montoya was also in her shop at the time of the blast. When the first explosion hit, Dick was in the parking lot. He ran into the shop, yelling for her. The building was shaking; vases were falling off the shelves. After the second explosion, he rushed her into their car, and, along with another employee, they sped off to their home in Boulder City.
“When we came back, there were armed guards standing in the street,” Debbie recalls. “It was really shocking.”
Debbie says she wasn’t worried about business eventually returning, and it did. But another disaster— 9/11—changed all of that. “My phone didn’t ring for six months after 9/11,” she says. “It’s never bounced back to where it was.”