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
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
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
“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
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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