Few signs of 15-year-old fireworks tragedy remain in Pawnee County town

Monday, July 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JENNINGS, Okla. (AP) -- It's been 15 years since a series of explosions at a fireworks plant near this small Pawnee County town killed 21 of the 25 people working there.

Still, the silence surrounding the tragedy remains deafening.

"It's not something people bring up. It's so tragic they just don't talk about it a lot," said town Clerk Susan Hamlon, who heard the explosion while cleaning a home in Oilton, about six miles south of the plant.

And while a trip through town may reveal nothing about the physical and psychological destruction that plowed through the community on June 25, 1985, many remember the horror of that day all too vividly.

One firefighter, who had previously served in Vietnam, said the explosion at the Aerlex Corp. plant "was worse than a napalm strike."

Local businessman and rural Fire Chief David Frick was one of the first on the scene and said the visual impact of the explosion was too much to process. "You really didn't know what you had," Frick said.

"There was fire and debris all around. I remember a gentleman kicked the ground, because he had lost his wife."

Before a single spark set off the furious explosions, the workday at the Aerlex manufacturing plant had started out peacefully. Its workers -- many of them teen-agers looking to make some summer money -- came from Jennings, Terlton and Cleveland.

With Independence Day less than two weeks away, the pace at the plant was brisk.

According to news reports at the time, plant manager Dan Bridges noticed plant workers Dean Harper and Robert Osburn in the back of a pickup unloading barrels full of explosive ingredients used in large shells and rockets.

Bridges reportedly saw Osburn pick up a can and jump out of the truck bed. The can apparently scraped the edge of the truck, causing a tiny spark that instantly ignited some spilled flash powder.

The inferno spread almost instantaneously, reports said, first blowing up an assembly building and jumping to nine other buildings. Reports indicate that the 21 deaths were instantaneous.

One man claimed he survived after a blast blew him into a pond, where he waited out the deadly noise.

Sandra Thompson was a mile away, tending business at Jennings Grocery, when the jarring noise was enough to make her think the Cold War had escalated right there in Pawnee County.

"It rattled the windows, too," she said. "It looked like a mushroom cloud." While the explosion was a painful shock, its impact reverberated long after the blast.

"It hurt our business," Thompson said, clearly indicating that the pain was deeper than financial. "Of the 21 people who died, 18 were regulars. When you're a small business, you notice that."

Aftershocks hit Aerlex, too. Three months after the explosion, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for violating 13 regulations and slapped the owners with a $58,000 fine -- then the maximum allowed by law.

Survivors, victims' relatives and OSHA pressed for criminal prosecutions, but failed. Civil cases were filed against Aerlex, but some apparently still came up empty-handed. One survivor said he has received nothing in post-explosion settlements, despite suffering burns over 64 percent of his body and having to undergo skin grafts.

Jennings Grocery stopped selling fireworks after the explosion.

"It changed my attitude toward it," Thompson said. "After that, I sure wouldn't spend my money on fireworks."