Gutsy Mayor orders SECRET removal of boxcars full of rocket fuel parked in the middle of the city
Diverted Disaster Leads to Renaissance of Downtown Las Vegas: An Untold Story
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LAS VEGAS - On Wednesday, May 4, 1988, the city of Henderson, Nevada was almost wiped from the face of the earth. Had it not been for the small valley surrounding the Pepcon rocket fuel plant that diverted most of a horrendous explosion upward into the atmosphere, what was later termed as the most powerful non-nuclear blast ever recorded within the United States would certainly have had a much more devastating effect.
On Thursday following the blast, I used my Las Vegas City Councilman credentials to gain access to the site where Pepcon once stood. I suspected there was more ammonium perchlorate rocket fuel nearby at the adjoining Kerr Mcgee factory, and I wanted a closer look.
Only fifty drums containing fifty-five gallons each of ammonium perchlorate was what it took to turn part of the southern Las Vegas valley into something resembling Ground Zero at the old Nevada Test Site. I wanted to know if Kerr Mcgee was still producing the powder. My suspicions were confirmed!
After driving my truck inside the perimeter set up by the Henderson Fire Department, I followed a dirt road around the tangled remains of Pepcon and the adjacent marshmallow factory to access the rear of the Kerr Mcgee plant. Through the telephoto lens on my camera, I focused on a loading dock stacked with hundreds of yellow fifty-five gallon drums stenciled with the words AMMONIUM PERCHLORATE.
The day after only fifty drums of the most volatile combustible known to man almost wiped out a city, hundreds more were sitting on a loading dock waiting to be shipped to clients around the world.
The Henderson spur of the Union Pacific Railroad has a side track running directly into the Pepcon and Kerr McGee plants. While I watched, a Kerr Mcgee worker opened a locked gate to let a small swithcher engine pull three box cars into the plant’s back lot. The short train pulled up beside the loading dock that was stacked with the yellow drums. A forklift began loading the barrels into the boxcars.
About an hour later, I photographed the cars being pulled out of Kerr McGee and proceed westward. I kept my camera aimed at the small train as it paralleled Warm Springs Road. It ran dangerously close to plush Green Valley neighborhoods and McCarran International Airport. The train soon crossed over Las Vegas Boulevard then over Interstate 15 where it converged onto the Union Pacific main line going north.
It was on its way into Downtown Las Vegas!
I raced ahead and watched the train pass over Tropicana Ave., then Flamingo Road as it paralleled the Strip. Knowing it would have to pass through the 300 acre Union Pacific rail yard downtown, I sped north on Industrial Road, crossed the tracks at Oakey Blvd., and continued on Martin Luther King to the security gate of the U.P. yard. There I used my credentials to gain access to the giant yard and waited for the train to cross over the Charleston Blvd. underpass.
Within minutes the engine pulled the three box cars onto a side track at the north end of the rail yard behind the Plaza Hotel, and there a worker disconnected the cars from the engine leaving them next to a lumber yard and several tank cars labeled COMPRESSED NATURAL GAS, and PROPANE. I watched as a vagrant walked by and flipped his lit cigarette toward the stacked lumber in the 100 degree heat.
I made an emergency call to then-Las Vegas Mayor Ron Lurie.
While I was describing the situation over the phone to the mayor, Union Pacific security officers ask me to leave the area. I showed them my City of Las Vegas badge, and waited for Lurie’s arrival. Within minutes the Mayor arrived with Fire Chief Clell West.
Lurie demanded that railroad management come to the scene with manifests containing the contents of the three unmarked box cars. Management soon arrived with the manifests and we were informed that each box car contained 300 barrels of rocket fuel, a total of 900 fifty-five gallon drums, or eighteen times the number of barrels that almost leveled Henderson! Enough rocket fuel to launch three Space Shuttles!
Chief West commented that the train cars were parked on a rise, and if they exploded, the blast would not be directed upward like at Pepcon, it would spread laterally wiping out the most densely populated section of our city..
West stated that tens of thousands of lives would be lost if another blast occurred near dozens of huge hotels. He also stated that the nearby lumber yard was a “tinderbox,” and that the tank cars full of compressed natural gas and propane along with the nearby box cars of ammonium perchlorate were the makings of an unimaginable disaster.
Mayor Lurie announced that he was going to declare an emergency and shut down the busy U.P mainline if the box cars were not removed within 12 hours. He then took me aside and gave me a specific order.
“Don’t tell the media. If you do, I’ll have to evacuate half the city.”
I agreed to keep my mouth shut for the time being, but told Lurie if the box cars were still there on Friday, I would call a press conference.
While Lurie and I spoke, Chief West was busy checking fire hydrants near the box cars. They were dry, and probably had been for decades! Lurie was furious! West ordered fire trucks to remain next to the box cars until they were moved. I went back to my office at City Hall to await news of the removal of the box cars. Within the hour, Chief West called to say they were on their way to Utah. Mayor Lurie then informed me to be available for a meeting that evening with the CEO of Union Pacific who was flying in from Omaha.
For over a hundred years the Union Pacific Railroad controlled over three hundred acres of prime real estate in Downtown Las Vegas. Three mayors; Oran Gragson, Bill Briare, and Ron Lurie had unsuccessfully tried to convince the company to sell their valuable property and relocate the freight yard so the city could develop the area. Union Pacific steadfastly refused, and the site became a hobo jungle and polluted eyesore.
Now, Ron Lurie had the legal ammunition he needed to evict Union Pacific and begin the renaissance of Downtown.
At 8 PM, I was summoned to City Hall to meet with a man named Olsen, the CEO of Union Pacific. Standing in the mayor’s conference room were Olsen, Chief West, City Attorney Roy Woofter, and the Mayor. Lurie opened the stand up meeting by stating he was going to “shut down the Union Pacific main line if all hazardous materials were not removed from the yard within one week.”
Olsen tried to appease Lurie by saying the company complied with his order to remove the three box cars of ammonium perchlorate, and no more would be allowed to park in the yard.
Lurie told Olsen his compliance was not enough. The Mayor said that U.P. exposed citizens of Las Vegas to grave danger for many years. He also mentioned the inoperative fire hydrants on their property. Lurie announced he was shutting down the rail yard, then tersely stated, “Sell it!” The meeting abruptly ended.
The following day, Chief West called to report that the lumber was being removed and the explosive tank cars were off the property. Within a year, the local and international real estate industry was abuzz with news of the offering of the availability of 300 prime acres in the center of Las Vegas. However, before the yard could be sold, the Environmental Protection Agency required a massive decontamination.
After U.P. moved out and the ground decontaminated from years of chemical and diesel fuel spills, trains no longer had a reason to stop in Downtown Las Vegas because passenger service had long since been discontinued.
Developers soon converged on the 300 acres, and sections of land began to sell off. The first to move onto the site was the Clark County Government Center.
Following the Government Center came the World Market Center, Premium Outlet Mall, Molasky Corporate Center (on the site where the three box cars were once parked), Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, and the beautiful Smith Center for the Performing Arts, with acres remaining for future projects.
Kerr McGee ceased the production of ammonium perchlorate in 1998. Now trains traverse the area at 35 MPH without stopping on their way to the new rail yard in Apex, twenty miles north of the city.
The diversion of a disaster led to the fulfillment of the dream of three mayors - the renaissance of an aging downtown.