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The 1939 Martin County Explosion

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Nearly six years before Hiroshima, a tremendous explosion shook the earth and briefly turned dark into light near the West Texas town of Stanton.

Well, it’s a bit overblown to compare what took place on the morning of Sept. 29, 1939 with what happened in Japan on Aug. 6, 1945, but the 1939 event likely still stands as the biggest bang ever heard in Martin County. The explosion in Texas claimed no lives, but it did play a role in the beginning of a new life.

Since the 1920s, when oil production first went wild in and around the Permian Basin, the DuPont Co. operated was what known as a shooting station about two-and-a-half miles west of Stanton. In the oil patch, “shooting” described the technique involved in coaxing oil from geologic formations by lowering exploding tubes of nitroglycerin into a well.

First produced by an Italian chemist in 1847 but not transformed into a commercially available explosive substance for another 20 years, nitro stood for decades as the most powerful form of explosive known to man. In addition to its formidable power, the product was dangerously unstable. Merely shaking a bottle of its liquid form could result in an explosion. Heat and flame also could detonate it.

Given its notorious volatility, it’s no surprise that DuPont wanted to locate its nitro manufacturing plants near the oil patch, but at a reasonably safe distance from any heavily populated area.

For something as devastatingly powerful as nitro, its means of production was relatively simple. In less than an hour, a few chemicals inert in their own right could be mixed, heated and transformed into an explosive substance capable of erupting into a flash of 5,000-degree gas, while producing a shock wave traveling at 30 times the speed of sound. No wonder its inventor said that nitro should never be used as an explosive or that the man who later commercialized it, Alfred Nobel, went on to fund the prestigious peace prize still awarded in his name.

The Stanton facility was a frame structure with only two rooms built on a sloping concrete slab to allow for gravity flow of the ingredients. The plant had a floor of lead sheeting to prevent static electricity, and for the same reason, a steam boiler to provide the needed heat instead of electrical power.

Normally, three men per shift worked in the plant, but on the morning of September 29, only the chief mixer, a man remembered only as Johnson, and his assistant, Marion Gibson, were on duty. They started work at 3 a.m. and by 4 a.m. they had made 220 quarts of nitro.

All proceeded apace until Johnson saw smoke coming from the mixing room.

“Let’s get the heck out of here,” he yelled. “Run!”

While he probably didn’t say “heck,” he and Gibson raced from the building as fast as they could.

They made it about 150 yards before the nitro exploded. Even though they were 450 feet from ground zero, the shock wave from the blast knocked both men face-down to the ground. As they lay there, pieces of splintered wood, shattered concrete and shards of lead rained down on them.

Amazingly, when the debris quit falling, both men stood up uninjured. Their ears ringing and hearts pounding, they walked into Stanton, a community instantly astir after a pre-dawn wakeup call that rattled windows for miles around.

Johnson called his boss in Odessa to report the explosion. The supervisor instructed him to return to the plant to see if any company property could be salvaged. He did as he was told, but he and Gibson found only a few recognizable remnants of the facility.

One of the people awakened by the blast was Gibson’s wife, Bernice. Given what her husband did for a living, she didn’t have to lie in bed wondering what had caused the loud noise. She comprehended immediately that the shooting station had blown up, and further concluded that her husband – and the father of her unborn child – had just been killed.

That stress-induced surge of adrenalin and cortisol sent her into premature labor. Later that day, she gave birth to a healthy girl the Gibsons named Jeanene.

While that was good news for the Gibson family, DuPont fired Johnson over the incident. Gibson, however, gained promotion to mixer and stayed with the company for years, making, delivering and detonating nitro in oil wells all over the Southwest. And as she grew older, his daughter Jeanene sure had a good story about her birthday to tell her kids and grandchildren.


© Mike Cox - September 6, 2014
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