Remembering Deadly 1971 Chemical Plant Explosion in Georgia

Posted on Feb 03, 2014

Forty-three years ago today, there was a devastating explosion at the Thiokol chemical plant southeast of Woodbine, Georgia, that killed 29 workers and seriously injured at least 50 others. At the time of the explosion in 1971, the GA chemical plant was filling contracts for three Army agencies, including the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland and the Army Ammunition Procurement Agency in Illinois. Investigations launched into the cause of the deadly explosion, which leveled a magnesium flare assembly building at the plant, found that the company was entirely to blame for the workplace injuries and deaths, which were ultimately caused by mislabeled and improperly stored chemicals and inadequate fire safety procedures. If you have been injured in an on-the-job accident in Georgia, consult our experienced attorneys at Rechtman & Spevak today.

Actions Leading up to Explosion

The Thiokol chemical plant, built in 1964, was originally designed to manufacture solid propellant motors for use in the U.S. space program, but NASA in 1965 decided to turn to other products, including chemical and ordnance systems for the military. In 1969, Thiokol won a government contract to manufacture more than 750,000 trip flares for Army use in Vietnam. The illuminant material used in the trip flares was explosive and considered dangerous, but the Army in 1967 had downgraded the material from Class 7 – the highest hazard ranking below nuclear warheads – to Class 2, which is considered only a fire hazard. In October 1970, an order directing the illuminant material to again be classified as Class 7 was pigeonholed, and was finally received by the Woodbine plant on February 25, 22 days after the fatal explosion.

Chemical Plant Blast Was “Like an Atomic Bomb”

The explosion at the GA chemical plant was so devastating that a security guard at the plant gate likened it to the blast of an atomic bomb. Navy helicopters were sent in to transport victims, many of whom were dismembered and required months of hospitalization, if they survived. The first victim transported from the blast at the chemical plant was a woman in her early 30s, placed in the plane of Dave Ritter, an air taxi pilot for Golden Isles Aviation, on a door being used as a makeshift stretcher. “She was badly burned and had severe lacerations and was bleeding from the mouth. Her face was all burned and some of the flesh was hanging off her legs,” Ritter recalled. “She was conscious and kept trying to reach over the seat to me. She cried, ‘Please help me,’ then ‘Please shoot me.’ I’ll never forget it.” Ritter later learned that the woman died from her injuries.

Contact Our Workers’ Comp Lawyers Today

According to officials, approximately 80 workers, the majority of them women, were in the immediate area of the blast, and as many as 15 dead and wounded were thrown into the pine thickets surrounding the building when the deadly explosion occurred. It was four hours before the media were allowed to see the site of the explosion, which was littered with metal flare cases and hunks of concrete from the building, as rescue workers searched the twisted steel and smoldering debris for additional victims. The deadly work accident in Georgia sheds light, now more than four decades later, on the importance of a safe and healthful work environment for all employees. If you have suffered injuries in a work-related accident in Atlanta, or if you lost a loved one in a fatal on-the-job accident, contact our workers’ compensation lawyers at Rechtman & Spevak today for legal help.

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Jaret A. Spevak
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Atlanta Attorney with Over 20 Years Experience