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Community remembers tragic plant explosion

Workers, leaders honor those killed, hurt in explosion 45 years ago

WOODBINE, Ga. – The Thiokol Plant Explosion has been labeled one of the worst industrial disasters in the U.S. in the last century. The community of Camden County, Georgia, observed the 45th anniversary of the disaster on Wednesday.

It was the first time the State of Georgia recognized the victims and first responders involved in the explosion, which happened in Woodbine, Georgia, on Feb. 3, 1971. It killed 29 workers, injured 50 others and changed the country forever, state and local leaders said.

“Many of us went to lunch many times together. I mean, it was such a close-knit family, and you knew a lot of them, and when you think about them, you say, 'God, did this really happen?' But it really happened,” plant worker Alvenia Smith Blanks said.

Workers at the plant made trip flares for soldiers to use in the Vietnam War. Building 132 is where the explosion happened. It was designated for the assembly line where much of the ammunition was stored.

“It was so loud. It shook the building,” said Emma Gibbs, who worked at the plant. “Some people fell off the stool they were sitting on because it was just that powerful.”

Gibbs was only a block down from what she recalls as an earth-shattering bang.

“I could have been one of those (killed), because I was working near 132, and they transferred me that Monday to be a lead person at 129,” Gibbs said. “I was upset because I didn’t want to leave 132, but if I would have stayed in there, I probably would have been one of those who got killed.”

By observing the 45th anniversary of the explosion, the community is hoping to keep the past alive.

A group of about 50 people are working on the Thiokol Memorial Project to help preserve the history of the plant and to make sure the victims are never forgotten. They are collecting artifacts and information in hopes of one day opening a museum.

Jannie Everett, the force behind the memorial project, is pushing to get a memorial made at the Education Center in Washington, and for the 29 people to be nominated for the Presidential Freedom Award.

“The workers are up in their 70s and 80s. The firsthand account will be lost from us,” Everett said of the need for the memorial. “There have been other people writing about the response, but you have never really heard from the workers themselves.”

The memorial project is in the process of having a documentary made. A sneak preview was shown at the anniversary remembrance.

To donate to the memorial project, go to thiokolmemorial.org.