Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Austin Powder Fatal Explosion Anniversary


Residents of McArthur and Zaleski thought they had heard a sonic boom.
After the blast rumbled through the hills, news of a deadly explosion traveled just as quickly to the rest of Vinton County.
Cars pulled off on Route 677, first a few, then enough to form a long line down the highway. Most were anxious spouses of employees hoping for relief, dreading news of tragedy.
Fifty years ago, the news was this: On Friday, June 3, 1966, five men were killed in an explosion at Austin Powder Company’s Red Diamond Plant. The explosion took place inside a gelatin mix house just after the crew arrived to work at 7 a.m.
The two-story building was described in news reports as being “isolated ... behind one of the hills on the grounds.” It was completely demolished, the blast leaving behind a large hole where it once stood. Debris reportedly scattered 500 feet throughout the landscape.
Those dead included:
  • Arvin Caudill, 30, of Creola. Born in Kentucky, Caudill was survived by his wife and three children. He is buried in Elk Cemetery.
  • Glen Pendleton, 35, of Radcliff. He was survived by his wife and five children and is buried in Radcliff Cemetery.
  • Duane Lowe, 35, of Athens. He was survived by a wife and three children. A Radcliff native, funeral services were held there and he is buried in Radcliff Cemetery.
  • Oliver Risner, 46, of McArthur. A veteran of World War II, Risner also served as secretary of the McArthur Aerie, Fraternal Order of Eagles. He was survived by a wife and three children and is buried in Elk Cemetery.
  • Pearley Seymour, 26, of Dundas. He was survived by a wife and daughter and is buried in Elk Cemetery.
  • All funeral services were held by the Wrightsel Funeral Company, of McArthur.
Risner’s son, Jeffrey, was employed at the time as newspaper delivery boy for the Democrat-Enquirer as well as for its competitor, the McArthur Republican Tribune.
“Despite this horrible tragedy, I didn’t miss a delivery,” he said.
Incidentally, Jeffrey Risner said he later worked at Austin Powder himself as an environmental scientist.
Most of the 1966 victims were reported as veteran employees of the explosives company. They averaged nearly 11 years of experience at Austin Powder.
In the months prior to the accident, Red Diamond had been preparing for a sizable expansion announced earlier in the year. Plant Manager John Salts spearheaded the project, which was designed to highlight technological improvements and modernize the complex.
The summer of 1966 instead harkened back to previous accidents at Red Diamond and perhaps further than that, given Vinton County’s industrial history and gritty natural resource labor. Some of these stories have become lasting folk tales, known to thrill seekers as the haunting Moonville brakeman and the iron workers killed at Hope Furnace.
As for Austin Powder, the Red Diamond plant opened in 1931 (the company itself was formed in 1883). The first major incident came 15 years later, when an explosion killed E.E. Wills, John Timms and Ernest Perry in 1946. Two more men were killed in 1954, Ralph Hutchinson and James Ross Jr.
By the mid-1960s, Red Diamond was one of seven Austin Powder sites, with 250 employees spread out within 1,100 acres off Route 677.
The Athens Messenger profiled Red Diamond in 1970, with Salts defending the plant’s safety record.
“We don’t have many accidents, but when we do it’s a big one and it gets lots of publicity,” he said. “We have a lot better safety record than other industries, such as the steel industry.”
Years passed until a female employee was killed in another explosion in December 1975. She became the 11th work-related fatality in the plant’s 34-year history.
Between her death and March 1976, hundreds of other employees combined to work 100,000 “man hours” without a lost-time accident, earning Red Diamond an industry safety award.
Then tragedy struck again a year later. An explosion in December 1977 killed three men: David Jarvis, 26, of Wellston; Roger Ervin, 26, of Wellston; and Steve McVey, 22, of Albany.
In the decades since, Red Diamond has played an important economic role in Vinton County.
In 2013, Austin Powder announced a $16.8 million expansion at Red Diamond. Plant Manager Keith Mills called it a “vote of confidence” that “secures the Red Diamond facility” (in Vinton County). A year later, the company donated $7,000 to the Vinton County Sheriff’s Office when Canine Dooley retired to help pay for training a new canine officer. Austin Powder was honored as the 2014 Wild Turkey Festival’s Parade Grand Marshal.
The economic influence of Austin Powder continues to grow, just as the legacy of those killed in Red Diamond’s earlier operations lives on.
The incident was “a tragedy which staggered all of Vinton County,” Gerry Frye wrote after the 1966 explosion. “If it is any comfort, Vinton Countians are praying for the five men whose lives ended so abruptly Friday.”

No comments:

Post a Comment