The Boom Years

Twenty-eight years after a nuclear bomb rocked Colorado, its shock waves still reverberate on the Western Slope.

"There was a restaurant in Rifle that put 'Thou shall not blast on Sunday' on their sign," says Donithorne. "We got a kick out of that."

After a week of delays, the blast was set to go forward on Monday, September 10. The protesters broke into pairs and fanned out across the site. "We decided to separate so they couldn't pick us all up in one fell swoop," McQueary says. Each pair carried a portable radio and listened to the countdown, which was being broadcast by a Grand Junction radio station.

A few minutes before the blast, the protesters set off their smoke bombs. Moments later, two Air Force helicopters appeared, one for McQueary and Puhls and another for Green and Donithorne, who were at least two miles away.

The chopper that came for McQueary and Puhls wasn't able to land on the steep hillside, but an armed man opened the door and started yelling something to them. "Of course we couldn't hear a word he was saying," McQueary says. He figured out that the federal agent was motioning for him to move to a place where the chopper could land, but McQueary would have none of it. "After all of this, I was not about to just march into their arms," he says. "We had come too far for it to end like that. We were scared, but we weren't going to willingly turn ourselves over."

Green and Donithorne weren't as lucky. A helicopter landed within a few dozen feet of them, and they were forced aboard at gunpoint. Donithorne remembers being exhilarated. "I understand how much fun war games can be," she says. "I can see what makes war so appealing. Aside from getting killed here and there, it's very exciting."

The helicopter carrying Green and Donithorne lifted off, then hovered over the area until the blast.

McQueary and Puhls remained on the ground. "We figured out later that we were the closest to ground zero," he says. The two had consulted several scientists on how to prepare for the blast. As the countdown approached zero, they took the experts' advice: Having cleared all the large rocks away from a patch of ground, they lay on their bellies and waited for the shock wave to hit them.

McQueary says his memories of the seconds before the blast are crystal clear: "I remember looking into [Puhls's] eyes and there was a real sense of fear there, and I'm sure she saw the same."

Tom Lamm was in Washington, D.C., when the bomb exploded, but he, too, was jolted by the blast. Along with his brother Dick, Lamm was fighting the Rulison project in the courts as an attorney for environmental groups. He'd been given the assignment of carrying the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tom Lamm, who today practices law in the Denver area, says it was a great thrill going to Washington. But he admits the only reason he got to appear before the nation's highest court was that he'd lost everywhere else. "We got our butts kicked every step of the way," he recalls.

By the time the Supreme Court agreed to listen to Lamm, the Rulison bomb was already in the ground, and the fissionable matter inside was decaying. A delay of two weeks more would have made it unusable. And because it had been buried under thousands of feet of gravel and concrete, it could never be retrieved.

The court was out of session, and the justice who normally would have presided at the emergency hearing, former University of Colorado football star Byron "Whizzer" White, was on a fishing trip. The case was assigned to Justice Thurgood Marshall. "I was terrified, of course, because I didn't know my ass from third base," Lamm says. If the notion of appearing before the high court wasn't bad enough, there was the press to worry about. A group of reporters were lying in wait when he arrived for his last-minute injunction hearing on September 10.

"There must have been a hundred people out front with cameras and mikes and everything," Lamm recalls. "So I asked the cab driver what was going on, and he said that some lawyer is flying out from Colorado to try to stop the nuclear explosion. Well, I had to tell the cab driver, 'I'm that guy,' and I think even the cab driver knew that I was in serious trouble. He was a grizzled old guy, and he knew I was wet behind the ears. I asked him if knew some back entrance to get into the building, and luckily, he did."

Inside, the situation wasn't much better. "I got kicked all over the court, but everyone was real nice because they all knew that I was just a dumb kid from Colorado," Lamm says. He lost the hearing, an outcome he fully expected.

"I wasn't in any hurry to talk to [the press], so I took my time, and I stopped by as I was leaving and thanked all of the clerks for being so nice," he remembers. "The press people didn't mean to intimidate me, but they did. I got outside and they were all waiting, and the first thing they said was that the bomb just went off and did I have any reaction? All I said is, 'It didn't take them long, did it?'"

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