By Staff Attorney Martin Conway and Judge Brian Addington
October 4, 1960.
John Kennedy and Richard Nixon prepared for their second televised presidential debate. Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates were a day away from beginning their battle with Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees in the World Series.
In Kingsport, Tennessee, the day seemed as uneventful as any normal Tuesday for the workers at Tennessee Eastman Company’s aniline manufacturing facility. Workers prepared for shift change, ready to go home after a long day’s work. Eastman employed over 12,000 workers. It was, as it is today, the city’s largest employer.
At 4:42 p.m., a massive explosion equivalent to six tons of TNT rocked the city. A damaged downtown clock is a frozen testament to the exact moment of the blast.
The concussion from the blast knocked children from their backyard swings. Basement windows in nearby homes blew out. As a thick tower of black smoke rose high over the city, some residents wondered if the Soviets had begun a nuclear attack. After all, it was supposed (correctly, as it turned out) that the nearby Holston Defense ammunition production facility was high on the Russian target list.
The blast totally destroyed the analine plant building and left two huge craters twelve feet deep. Ultimately, a total of sixteen men died. Some victims were identifiable only by college rings and fingerprints. More than 400 people were injured.
Nearby, chemical storage tanks and drums of stored material exploded after the primary blast. Arial photos taken that evening revealed the plant’s hydrogen tanks were undamaged by the explosion, giving Kingsport a reprieve from an even worse disaster.
Long-time Kingsport citizens remember the explosion well. Like other events of historic proportion, people remember where they were when it happened.
Tommy Hulse, Kingsport native and one of the Benefit Review Program’s founding mediators, is one of those people. At the time of the explosion, Tommy was a young Marine and Korean War veteran who worked at the Hamlett-Dobson Funeral Home. In those days, there was no local ambulance service. Funeral homes provided “first responders.” As one of the “first responders,” Tommy witnessed the destruction first-hand.
When the explosion occurred, Tommy was instructed to report to the city’s gas company, which was presumed to be the site of the accident. When he got there, he was waved on to Eastman.
Of all the victims Tommy encountered, the one he remembered most distinctly was an office worker who was struck by shrapnel while sitting in his chair. The victim worked in a section of the plant distant from the locus of the explosion, but the blast struck with such force that it sent parts of a steel beam through the office building and into the sitting victim.
Tommy said, “It’s a good thing that the accident happened at shift change. Some people had already left the plant by the time it happened, so there were not as many casualties as there might have been.”
Tommy rushed injured workers to Holston Valley Community Hospital for treatment. He recalls everyone pitching in to help. Rescue efforts were so hectic that the “first responders” at the scene often loaded victims onto the first ambulance they saw. Only on their way to the hospital did the responders realize they had taken another group’s ambulance. No one seemed to mind, though. The goal was to help as many survivors as they could.
Tommy also remembered large crowds at the hospital. Without the convenience of cell phones, people had to rush to the hospital to locate their loved ones among the casualties, which added to the congestion on the roads.
The fire was declared extinguished by 8:00 that evening. According to Pete Lodal, a leader at Eastman’s Plant Protection Technical Services Group who often lectures on the explosion, the fire was not exactly “put out.” “We basically had to stand back and let it burn itself out,” he said.
To this day, no one knows exactly what caused the explosion, but experts suspect a compromise in the plant’s distillation process. It “could have been something like opening and closing a valve, starting or stopping a pump,” Mr. Lodal said.
Before that day, there had been no similar accident in Eastman’s 40-year history in Kingsport, and there hasn’t been one since. One of the silver linings from the tragedy, according to Mr. Lodal, is Eastman maintaining a sense of vulnerability and a culture of safety.
Innovation certainly has improved safety and the ability of companies to detect danger and act preemptively. While some accidents cannot be prevented – Eastman’s aniline plant passed inspection shortly before the explosion – with vigilance and attention to safety, by both employers and employees, catastrophic accidents such as the one at Eastman fifty-six years ago can be avoided.
Tommy’s vivid memories and keen insight on the tragedy affected us deeply. In our line of work, we hear witness testimony and/or read medical records documenting human suffering every day. Over time, you can start to slowly lose your empathy or think, “These types of accidents will never happen here.” It was especially meaningful to hear the story from a former, trusted co-worker, who gave 100 percent to the Bureau and its mission every day. Tommy retired last year. Thank you, Tommy, for everything.
Much information was also gleaned from archived Kingsport News-Times articles.