Efforts to honor victims of the 1971 Thiokol Plant explosion in Woodbine, GA

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
December 9, 2016 2:15 p.m.


Jannie Everette, CEO/President of the Thiokol Memorial Organization, appeared before the Fernandina Beach City Commission at its December 6, 2016 Regular Meeting to update the city on efforts to create a National Park in Woodbine, GA in honor of the 79 workers who were killed or injured and the tremendous rescue response from across the Southeastern region following the explosion that occurred at the Camden County plant of the Thiokol Chemical Corporation, Inc. on February 3, 1971. This explosion, which was felt and seen throughout the region, has been called the worst disaster in the history of southeastern Georgia. On that morning, 56,000 trip flares blew up in the cure room. The explosion could be felt as far away as Gainesville, Savannah and beyond.

Jannie Everette, CEO and President of the Thiokol Memorial Organization

During her presentation, Everette credited Fernandina Beach with playing a key role in the rescue operation. “In 1971, it was your city,” she said, “that responded, along with Yulee, with your Fire Department. You activated your hospital. But most important, and what people don’t know, was that it was your city that put out a Civil Defense message that was intercepted by Jacksonville that propelled the entire state of Florida and surrounding areas into responding. It brought in the United States Naval bases in Jacksonville and the State Police. Your recognizing the state of the emergency brought all these people in.” The explosion had knocked out phone service into and out of the plant.

Everett added that plant workers from Fernandina Beach and Nassau County perished in the explosion, which leveled Building M-132, one of 36 buildings (and a rocket testing pit) on a 4,700-acre site at Horse Pit Bluff in Georgia. The workers produced CS-2 gas, 40mm and 88mm ammunition for the United States military troops fighting in Vietnam. Most of the workers were poor women of color, and 21 of them died in the explosion, along with 8 men who supported the women’s activities and tried to save their lives.

Surviving Thiokol plant workers today

Phase 1 of the national park creation began on the 45th anniversary of the explosion this past February with state recognition. Phase 2 is designing the park itself, which will serve as a monument, a museum and an education center. Phase 3 will be the opening in 2021. The park will be located closer to I-95, not on the original site, in Woodbine, GA. The museum will contain artifacts from the fire and police departments of the 14 jurisdictions that responded to the call for help in addition to examples of the material manufactured in the plant and personal artifacts of the workers. The education center will contain oral histories from survivors, rescuers and members of the community.

In speaking of the workers, Everette said, “These people were about God, family, community, country. They were dedicated. And our young people need to notice this. Even after the explosion, those who could went back to work and continued manufacturing there until 1975.” She told the audience that as a result of the disaster, there were 90 children placed into foster care in Camden County, who know little about their families or how they became foster children.

Everette asked the city of Fernandina Beach to furnish artifacts from the Fire Department—letters, patches, etc.—to add to museum displays. She also asked for a photo of the hospital that treated the victims, as well as photos of the Mayor and Fire Chief.

The museum will also contain a “Unity Quilt”, featuring the 14 communities that responded to the disaster. Fernandina Beach’s block will feature the Amelia Island lighthouse.

Kevin McCarthy

Following Everette’s presentation, local businessman Kevin McCarthy recalled for the FBCC and the audience his experience on the day of the explosion. He was working at what was then Container Corporation—today’s WestRock—when he heard the explosion. McCarthy said, “I heard the explosion and saw the smoke. It shook the entire paper mill; it was earth shattering. I’ll never forget it.”

Those people interested in contributing support, artifacts or stories to what will be the Thiokol Memorial National Park may visit the organization’s website www.thiokolmemorial.org.

The information below appears on that website and provides background to the disaster that occurred on February 3, 1971:

The Thiokol Plant Explosion

In the early 1960s Thiokol Chemical Corporation, Inc. while pursuing its quest to build solid propellant rocket motors for NASA chose Camden County as the best site for the rocket program. Camden County was selected over 60 other locations because of its available labor supply, proximity to Cape Canaveral, immediate deep water access, community attitude, and several other appealing attributes. They acquired 7,400 acres of land at Horse Pen Bluff to build a 36-building complex with a huge rocket-testing pit. In 1965 Thiokol test fired the world’s most powerful rocket at the site. Despite its success, the rocket motor production was stopped when the space program budget was curtailed. The company continued other production on the site.

Thiokol was committed to its employees and this community. Their workforce had grown from its initial count of 35. They had to reinvent themselves and find other uses for the facility. Thiokol was already producing pesticides in parts of the plant. The isolation of the plant and its layout with small buildings somewhat separated made it ideal for munitions production. They began the production of the CS-2 gas, 81mm, and 40mm for our military. In 1969 Thiokol was awarded a U. S. Army contract for the production of 758,000 trip flares. Their workforce grew to 500 employees working three shifts in a 24-hour period.

During the Vietnam War, these civilian workers manufactured the ammunition and trip flares for our military fighting an enemy in a foreign land in the name of “We the People of the United States of America.” They fulfilled this nation’s solemn duty and sacred obligation to support our troops. Twenty-Nine of them perished and fifty were injured in an explosion at the plant on February 3, 1971. The courageous response to this disaster by their fellow co-workers, fire fighters, military and civilian medical personnel, law enforcement, and private citizens across the southeastern region was historical. This was the worst disaster in the history of southeastern Georgia.

Complete destruction of Building M-132

The lives of these workers exemplify the pure essence of the American Spirit {Pride, Dedication, Resilience, and Selfless Commitment}. Prior to the explosion, the workers endured hazardous work conditions, numerous flash fires, and evacuations daily. Yet, each time an all clear was issued they returned to their work stations and continued the task. Building M-132 was totally destroyed and three other buildings were heavily damaged in the explosion. Even after all of the destruction, pain, and sorrow the workers salvaged what they could and continued manufacturing ammunition in the remaining seven buildings. They rebuilt the buildings destroyed in the devastation within a year after the explosion. When the injured workers recovered, those that were not permanently disabled returned to work manufacturing the ammunition until the end of the war.

The Thiokol Plant Workers kept America’s promise to our Military. We propose to build a monument, education center, and a museum in their honor.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.