Remembering the Pepcon Disaster

No one living in the Las Vegas Valley on May 4, 1988, will forget the horrifying claps, the trembling ground and the sickening plume of thick, black smoke rising from a little-understood but profoundly dangerous industrial area in the southeast part of the desert.

A series of massive explosions shattered the Pacific Engineering & Production Company (Pepcon) solid-rocket-fuel component plant and leveled the adjacent Kidd Marshmallow facility, killed two Pepcon workers, injured more than 300 people and inflicted losses of more than $80 million.

I was working at the Henderson Home News office on Water Street in downtown Henderson. Shortly before noon that Wednesday, we heard reports of a fire at the Pepcon plant, near what is now Wigwam Parkway and Gibson Road. A low rumble soon shook our tiny building, triggering memories of earthquakes I felt growing up in Southern California.

Another reporter and I ventured out in my car to see what was going on and to help document the event. We were stopped at a traffic signal at Water Street and Lake Mead Drive, about two miles away from the fire, when the most devastating blast occurred. We felt a shock wave that jerked us to the right. Sure, I had seen the effects of explosions in war movies and disaster films, but never would I have imagined feeling one myself: A stomach-churning, heart-palpitating feeling of complete helplessness shot through me.

Fortunately my windows were open, because we soon saw other cars with glass shattered and even some roofs caved in. We drove up Lake Mead and interviewed people to help with the news coverage in any way we could. Traffic streamed from the area, and police and fire officials started preventing anyone from getting closer.

Our community newspaper went to press that day only a couple of hours late with a rebuilt Page 1, the large vertical headline ìBoom!î next to a photo of the mushroom cloud.

Pepcon was one of the nation’s two producers of ammonium perchlorate, a crystalline white powder used in solid fuel rockets such as those that propelled the space shuttle. (The Challenger explosion occurred more than two years earlier, temporarily halting missions and suspending one of the needs for the fuel.) Several theories about the explosions were investigated, debated and litigated for years. The Clark County Fire Department concluded that a spark from a welderís torch caused a fire, which spread to stored ammonium perchlorate, igniting the explosions.

Pepcon’s ammonium-perchlorate operations soon moved to Utah and the other producer, Kerr-McGee, continued production until 1997. The blasts propelled critical attention to the BMI complex, located on Clark County-controlled land, but surrounded by the City of Henderson, which housed Kerr-McGee and other industries. The industries, which initially supplied material to help the country’s effort in World War II, created Henderson, and they had staunch defenders justly proud of their heritage. But examined with renewed vigor were issues such as air, land and water quality; storage and transportation of chemicals and products; emergency communications; and zoning, insurance requirements and aesthetics.

In 1991, the Nevada Legislature approved the Chemical Catastrophe Prevention Act, which established a list of hazardous materials and set a limit on the amount facilities are permitted to store onsite. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection introduced programs that required plants producing hazardous materials to identify what could go wrong with the facility, install more safeguards and provide reports that detailed training of employees, emergency procedures and maintenance programs.

Henderson remained the fastest-growing city in the country from 1990-96, but the Pepcon explosions, a major chlorine leak from Pioneer Chor Alkali in 1991 and other fires at Titanium Metals Corp. throughout the decade were harrowing reminders of the dangers of the industries that helped built it.