The Boom Years

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

The only place where Polich's memory disagrees with Rold's is in the state geologist's description of the protesters. "That was no crazy hippie movement," Polich says. "There were no psychedelic buses--we were responsible people."

As the time for detonation drew near, the protesters and politicians all turned into the same thing: spectators.

Unlike the "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" devices that exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Rulison bomb never had a nickname. The queerly shaped instrument of destruction measured fifteen feet long but was only nine inches in diameter, manufactured in the approximate shape of a pencil so it could be inserted into the long, skinny blasting hole. Filled with uranium-235, it weighed 1,200 pounds and was encased in a refrigerated, pressurized canister.

Much of the information about the blast is still classified, and the federal Department of Energy, successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, won't say exactly who gave the command to detonate the bomb.

Less reluctant to discuss the project is Hal Aronson, who was president of CER Geonuclear (which no longer exists). "We put in almost all of the money," says Aronson. "But someone from Los Alamos had the final say-so.

"There wasn't really a button to push, anyway," he adds. "It was more like an electronic timing device."

Just before the blast, Lesley Estes says he remembers overhearing a government agent being told that a couple of protesters--Green and Donithorne--had been picked up by a helicopter. "After that, he said, 'I don't see any more of them; start the countdown,'" Estes recalls.

Once it began, the countdown was carried live over KREX radio. Gene Rozelle was the entire news department, covering everything from high-school wrestling to cattle futures. Now retired, he remembers the Rulison countdown as a "dramatic event."

When the electronic timer reached zero, a pulse was sent to the explosives that surrounded the rods of uranium. Forced together, the U-235 molecules turned supercritical and exploded.

The bomb did a little better than the expected 40 kilotons. Scientists later determined that the blast yield was 44 kilotons, or the equivalent of 44,000 tons of TNT. By comparison, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, had a yield of 15 kilotons.

The bomb had been placed in a layer of solid rock. Once detonated, it vaporized the rock all around it, carving out an empty cavity 350 feet high and 76 feet across. It fractured rock for hundreds more feet in all directions, freeing natural gas as expected. (As predicted by opponents, the gas was also rendered radioactive, and millions of cubic feet had to be burned off at the site because it was too dangerous to sell.)

The closest structure to ground zero was a 100-year-old log cabin owned by the Haywards. "It survived, all right, but the whole thing moved about six inches," Craig Hayward says.

The shock wave spread in all directions, including through the air, where the helicopter that had picked up Green and Donithorne was hovering over ground zero.

"Even though we were about 2,500 feet in the air, we could feel that shock wave hit us," Green says. "It bounced us up and down pretty good." Donithorne remembers thinking that she was handling the situation well, but Green told her later that it had taken a couple of days to get the feeling back in his hand because she'd been squeezing it so hard.

The first people on the ground to feel the shock wave were McQueary and Puhls, who were about two miles from ground zero. McQueary was ready for it, because he'd been listening to the countdown on the radio.

The blast hit him at almost the exact moment he heard zero on the radio. "There's no way to describe the strength of the shock wave," says McQueary, who remembers being bounced six or eight inches into the air. "The best analogy I can give is laying down next to some train tracks and having a huge freight train go right past you at unbelievable speed. There was just such a sense of power and noise right near you."

C.W. Byerrum, now a social studies teacher at Parachute High School, saw the shock wave coming from his spot near the official viewing area, where he was hanging out with some friends. Although he was nineteen years old at the time and trying to act cool, he says he remembers his astonishment at seeing the ground move in ways he'd never seen before.

"You could see this wave coming along the ground toward you," Byerrum recalls. "We didn't know it was going to be that severe."

Mayor Estes was braced for the blast, but its strength surprised him, too: "It was like you were getting hit on the bottom of your feet with a sledgehammer."

The people in Grand Valley stayed calm, says Bobbi Wambolt, whose husband worked as a contractor at the blast site. Nearly every brick chimney in town fell down at once, but Wambolt says that wasn't the scariest part. The most frightening thing was the rumbling from the enormous cliffs that hover over town, an ominous noise that continued for 30 or 45 seconds. It was the sound of hundreds of rocks falling.

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