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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Remembering a tragedy

Eastman marked its darkest day 50 years ago



It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon — shift change at Eastman Chemical Co. Ben Smith was preparing to head home for the day.
So were Howard Young and Mel Johnson, and hundreds of other Eastman employees.
But not Usif Haney. The 45-year-old head of the Aniline Division was desperately trying to figure out why his instruments had gone haywire. He had delivered a report earlier in the day, citing problems with the operation. Now Haney was preparing to climb a process tower to see if he could pinpoint the problem.
Across town, Haney’s son, Bruce, 13, was lacing up his tennis shoes, getting ready to go outside and play basketball.
That’s when it blew. A massive explosion followed by several smaller blasts could be heard for miles across the region.
Bruce Haney ran outside and looked toward Eastman.
“There was a big mushroomlooking black cloud. We listened to the radio, and I expected just any minute that we’d get a call from my dad. But he never did call.”
At approximately 4:45 p.m. on Oct. 4, 1960, the nitrobenzene process in Eastman’s Aniline Division blew up, destroying everything within an area the size of a city block.
Windows were blown out across town, and employees all over the plant were cut by flying debris.
Emergency crews raced to the scene from across East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Holston Valley Hospital prepared for the worst and discharged patients to make way for victims from the explosion.
At least 45 people were hospitalized that night, while hundreds of others were treated and released, mainly suffering injuries caused by flying debris.
The next day, the Times newspaper ran a banner headline declaring 13 lives lost.
Usif Haney was among the dead. Two more men died after deadline. Another died two years later from injuries he sustained in the blast, bringing the final count to 16.
Fifty years later, many of those who witnessed the events can still recall them in fantastic detail.
Jack O’Neill, now 95, remembers the day all too well. He was a draftsman in the engineering department and was standing about 200 yards away when the explosion occurred.
“It vibrated most everything and tore up a lot of things,” O’Neill said.
Crews worked into the late hours, searching for victims.
“We worked into the night, sometimes looking for people who were supposed to have been in the plant that we couldn’t account for. Some of them had gone home, and we had trouble finding out just who they were,” O’Neill said. “I’ve always regarded it as one of those things I’d just as soon forget.”
Howard Young headed a research laboratory at the time. He was visiting another area of the plant and had thought about going to see his friend, Dick Chadwell, that afternoon. Instead, he decided he needed to get back to the research lab, so he hopped a bus and returned to his office.
“I sat down at my desk in research and blam,” Young said. “I went to the top of the building and looked to see where that cloud of smoke was coming up, because I knew there would be one. And I said, ‘Oh boy, that’s right where I was a few minutes ago.’ ”
Back at Young’s home in Greenacres, the explosion had blown out the back windows of his house, near where his young daughter had been crawling just seconds before the blast.
“My wife called and said ‘You’ve blown the back glass out of the house.’ I said, ‘Get off the phone, woman.’ ”
Young said he knew emergency personnel would be needing to use all the phone lines.
He later found out that his friend, Dick Chadwell, had been killed in the explosion.
Mel Johnson was working in the Cellulose Esters Division at the time of the blast — about a quarter of a mile from Eastman’s ground zero.
“You feel the ground shake first, and then the shock wave came through the air a fraction of a second later. The side of the building facing the explosion — all the windows — first the glass goes in and then they get sucked back out. I ran down the stairs outside, and there was glass everywhere,” said Johnson, now 88.
He thought his own building — Building 120 — had exploded.
“Of course it hadn’t, but I didn’t know that at the time. So I ran upstairs. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Johnson said.
Three or four miles away in Sevier Terrace, Johnson’s son, Rick, who was in sixth grade, was sitting at his desk in his room, doing his homework when he heard — and felt — the blast. It was during the Cold War, when school children practiced hiding in bomb shelters in case of an attack.
The younger Johnson thought he might be witnessing a nuclear explosion.
“I felt the shock wave, and obviously the house shook. You could see a mushroom cloud over Eastman,” he said.
His father would call later that evening to let the family know he was OK.
Back at the plant, Ben Smith was searching buildings, trying to find anyone who needed help. Smith, who turns 88 in December, was a senior chemist who had just been reassigned to the dyes department from the development lab.
“The day before the explosion was my first day in this new assignment, and I was getting my feet wet,” Smith said.
Production meetings were held every morning, and on Oct. 3 and 4, Usif Haney spoke about the problems he was having in his division, Smith said.
“I had finished up my second day there. At 4:45, I was just getting myself ready to go home (when the explosion occurred). The lab right next to me — the ceiling fell down. The first thing I did was look around and help the ladies out of the building. They were frightened to death,” Smith said.
He then went to other buildings to see if he could help anyone. The third building he entered was Building 142 — which contained the control room for the Aniline operations. The sprinkler system had been triggered by the blast, and the first floor was flooded. A body floated in the water, Smith said.
“I ascertained that he was not alive, so I went on,” he said. “The most impressive thing to me was the silence. In normal times, you had engines running, people talking. But now, everything was deathly quiet. I went into the control room, but everybody was gone,” Smith said.
By that point, the plant protection people had opened the company gates to let emergency personnel in — and to let Eastman employees go home without clocking out, Smith said.
As a result, many employees were listed as missing immediately following the blast.
“There were people reported missing, and we didn’t have any way to find out if they were involved,” O’Neill said.
The next day, O’Neill worked to assign laborers to start repairing the damage. Windows were broken across the plant site. Pipes were blown apart. Metal fragments were scattered everywhere.
The actual building that blew — Building 207 — no longer existed. The force of the blast had created two craters, each about 12 feet deep.
Smith was assigned to answer calls from the community and collect debris that had been scattered in the blast. For several days, he made his way around neighborhoods, picking up pieces of metal and other fragments from people’s yards.
Smith recalled visiting one house where a piece of metal had crashed through the roof and landed in the attic.
“We just tagged the pieces and said where we found them,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, Mel Johnson was among those working to help get Eastman back up and running.
“There was an urgency to get going because a lot of the processes are time controlled. The material is going to spoil, and you’re going to have to scrap a lot if you don’t get going again,” Johnson said.
Years later, Johnson’s son Rick, the sixth-grader who initially thought that Eastman had been bombed, would follow in his father’s footsteps and go to work at the chemical company. He is now Eastman’s senior vice president of Fibers and Global Supply Chain.
Bruce Haney also followed in his father’s footsteps and went to work at the company in the late 1960s. That’s when he was shown a reminder of the explosion that killed his father — it was a steel ring measuring about 6 feet in diameter, which was lodged into a paved road inside the plant.
“It was stuck in there so deeply, they couldn’t pull it out. So they just cut it off with a welding torch and polished it over,” said Haney. “I’m sure they’ve paved over it by now.” Haney retired from Eastman in 1999. Even now, 50 years later, he said he still misses his father. “I found out later that he and an instrument mechanic were out climbing up the side of the tower to try to find the problem when it detonated,” Haney said.
“I still think about him every day. But it was an accident. That’s all it was.”