Victims of Thiokol plant explosion remembered 50 years later

Surviving workers, South Georgia community honors 29 killed on Feb. 3, 1971

WOODBINE, Ga. – The Camden County community forever changed on Feb. 3, 1971, when an explosion at a Thiokol plant outside of Woodbine killed 29 people and injured 50 others.

That community gathered Wednesday to remember one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the United States.

Workers at that plant made trip flares for American soldiers to use in the Vietnam War at a 36-building facility on a former cotton plantation in Northeast Camden County. Building 132, where the explosion took place, included the assembly line and was where much of the explosives were stored.

About 80 people -- mostly Black women -- worked in the building, which was leveled by the blast. Three other nearby buildings were severely damaged and the fire engulfed nearby pine trees, which started a forest fire that eventually scorched 200 acres.

Angela Myers-Robinson, one of the first employees hired at the plant, said fires were not unusual. She had called out sick that day and went to the hospital after she heard about the explosion.

“They brought those bodies in and they had them laying outside on the concrete slab,” Myers-Robinson said. “It’s not an easy memory to get away from and I think about it because the majority of those bodies were the people I knew.”

“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 told News4Jax in 2016.

There were 29 people killed by the Thiokol explosion. Joseph Wainright, who was killed when a mortar went off at the plant in 1973, is also included in the Memorial Project even though he died later. (Photos from the Thiokol Memorial Project Inc.)

The explosive components in the trip flares were classified as Class 7 hazardous materials -- the most dangerous substances other than biological and nuclear materials -- until 1967. The Army, which contracted Thiakol to make the devices, downgraded the material to Class 2, but reversed that and reclassified the material Class 7 on Oct. 29, 1970. Through a communications error, Thiokol-Woodbine did not receive the information until three weeks after the explosion.

Dr. Drury Carl Jr. was the only doctor on the scene after the explosion.

“The people that were working with that material were warned (that) it’s highly flammable,” Carl said.

Out of the ashes of disaster, many things changed, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration enacting plant safety procedures and the formation of Emergency Medical Services.

Jannie Everette, who attended Camden County High School at the time, now runs the Thiokol Memorial Project, which hosted a ceremony at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Chris Gilman Stadium at the school to honor the victims of the tragedy.

“Denise Williams and I, we were sitting at the table at the high school (in) St. Marys and I went to get up from the chair and I felt the ground shift from under my feet,” said Jannie Everette, who now runs the Thiokol Memorial Project. “I never experienced an earthquake but you hear people talk about it. Soon after that, there was an announcement that Thiokol plant had blown up.”

The Thiokol Memorial Project is also trying to preserve the history of the plant, pushing to get a memorial made at the Vietnam War Education Center in Washington and working to get the 29 victims who died to be nominated for the Presidential Freedom Award.

They are also documenting the stories of those who lived through the disaster.

“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.”

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


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