Friday, February 23, 2018

Waverly Disaster

On a chilly Friday afternoon, just days after a train derailment in Waverly, Tennessee, a tanker car loaded with an unstable gas exploded during cleanup attempts. Sixteen people died in the February 24, 1978 blast.

The derailment of 24 cars from a Louisville and Northern Railroad freight train occurred Wednesday night, February 22, in downtown Waverly. Officials made the mistake of classifying one of the tankers as double walled when it was actually single walled. Local police and fire departments were on the scene for two days, spraying the cars with water in an attempt to keep them cool. The weather was assisting with temperatures in the 20s and a light snow on the ground. When HAZMAT teams arrived Friday morning, the weather had changed; the sun was shinning and temperatures had climbed into the mid-50s – heating up a single walled train car containing 2,000 gallons of liquefied petroleum gas. Officials tested the area for leaks and found none. At around 3pm, as crews were setting up HAZMAT equipment, an explosion rocked the region, igniting the car into a fireball, throwing train cars for hundreds of feet, and triggering flash fires in and around the downtown area. Residents were evacuated within one mile of the blast zone for fear of more gas leaks.

Records indicate that six people were killed instantly in the blast. Ten died as a result of injuries sustained from the explosion. Among them was Waverly’s fire chief Wilbur York, 65, city police chief Guy Barnett, 46, Tennessee Office of Civil Defense state investigator 24 year old Mark Belyew, five L&N cleanup crew members, two fire fighters, and six local residents. Forty-three people were burned and injured. For the next several hours assistance came from as far as Memphis and Nashville with firefighting air assistance and air ambulances traveling from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Burn victims were sent to Cincinnati Ohio, Louisville Kentucky, and Birmingham Alabama. A total of 16 buildings were destroyed in the downtown area.

Reports later indicated that the blast was caused when the single walled train car began leaking gas out through a crack that was caused by the derailment. Although the local emergency crews were prepared to handle train derailments, they were not trained in handling hazardous materials. In 1980, new training standards were put in place in Tennessee. To date, there have been no emergency responders killed at HAZMAT sites in the state.
Today the town remembers the horrific incident with a museum and memorial. The Waverly Train Explosion Memorial Museum is located by the railroad tracks where the blast occurred. A fitting tribute to those who died.
~ Joy

Friday, February 16, 2018

Did Opening King Tut’s Tomb Dig Up a Curse?

Valley of the Kings
It was February 16, 1923, in the Valley of the Kings when the tomb of King Tutankhamen was officially opened. English Egyptologist Howard Carter had searched for five years before discovering the tomb on November 26, 1922. Fortunately, it was one of the few tombs that had not yet been found, which meant that the treasure trove it contained was still intact.

King Tutankhamen
The sarcophagus contained three coffins encased inside one another. In the last coffin, made of solid gold, explorers discovered the mummified body of King Tutankhamen.
King Tut’s tomb contained close to 5,300 items his followers had sealed away for his use in the afterlife. Things like chariots, weapons, furniture, jewelry, statues, clothing, funeral items, and works of ancient art. But the most valuable artifact in the tomb was the mummy of the boy-king. 

Tomb Treasures
The relics were removed from the tomb for sketching, photographing, recording, and cataloging. Due to the interest in preserving the artifacts, it took more than 10 years to remove all of the treasures... and some "disappeared." Once the items were preserved, a traveling exhibition known as the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” made its way around the world. The collection now resides in a permanent home at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. 

Of course, there were rumors of a curse that would descend upon all who disrupted the ruler’s eternal rest. Supposedly engraved in hieroglyphics on the exterior of the tomb were the words, “Death Shall Come on Swift Wings To Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King.” The “Mummy’s Curse” is claimed to have taken numerous lives.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon
Lord Carnarvon and His Daughter
Carnarvon had financed the excavation of the tomb from 1918 to 1923. The Earl was on hand at the Tomb in November, 1922, and again on March 6th the day he was bitten by a mosquito. He nicked the bite while shaving and it became infected. Carnarvon died of blood poisoning on April 5, one month after his second visit to the tomb, and six weeks after the media began reporting on the curse. To add fuel to the fire, there was a widespread blackout in Cairo on the night Carnarvon died. But it was said that power failures were common in the area…

 George Jay Gould

American financier and railroad executive, George Jay Gould, visited the tomb in the spring of 1923. Rumor spread that he became ill with a fever immediately afterwards and died of pneumonia on May 16, 1923.

Sir Archibald Douglas Reid
Sir Archibald Douglas Reid was the radiologist who x-rayed the mummy before it was presented to museum officials. Reid became sick the following day and died of a mysterious illness three days later, on January 15, 1924.

Arthur Cruttenden Mace
Arthur Cruttenden Mace was a British Egyptologist, and member of Carter’s excavation team in 1923. Mace assisted Carter in writing the draft for the first volume of The Tomb of Tutankhmun. Mace died of arsenic poisoning on April 6, 1928; another death supposedly related to the curse.

Richard Bethell
Richard Bethell, Howard Carter’s personal secretary died on November 15, 1929 at the London Mayfair Gentleman's Club. He was discovered smothered in his room. Some suggested that it was the curse at work since Bethell’s home had experience a series of small fires after some of the treasures from the tomb were "stored" there.
Richard Bethell, Baron Westbury
Bethell’s father, Richard Bethell, 3rd Barron Westbury was also thought to be a victim of the curse. The Baron killed himself by jumping off the 7th floor of his apartment building on February 20, 1930. It was reported that several of the tomb’s treasures had also been stored there. Bethell's suicide note read, in part, "I really cannot stand any more horrors and hardly see what good I am going to do here, so I am making my exit." Were the horrors related to the tomb? No one could say for sure.
By 1929, eleven people were said to have died from the curse.
Howard Carter
Interestingly, Howard Carter, the first person to enter the tomb never suffered any ill effects. Carter lived to the age of 64, dying of natural causes. He did, however, record in his diary during the excavation that he had seen jackals, known as the guardians to the dead, roaming in the area. It was the first time he had seen them in that region after 35 years of working there.

So was the curse real? Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, said he was sure the curse existed and began promoting wild accusations after Lord Carnarvon died. Others say that Carnarvon himself created the curse as a way to keep reporters and sightseers away from the excavation. (Unfortunately for him, he added to the legend by conveniently dying soon after.) Although the tomb was opened 95 years ago, many think the curse is still to be believed.
~ Joy

Friday, February 9, 2018

Remembering George Burns

George Burns
Nathan Birnbaum was born on January 20, 1896 in New York City. He began his career singing harmony with other 6 and 7 year olds while making candy in a basement shop. People came down to listen, tossing coins when they finished. Nathan decided it was showbiz for him from there on out. He began billing himself at George Burns – George was his brother’s name, who was glad to lend it out. And Burns came from the Burns Brothers Coal Company whose trucks George would steal coal from to heat their home.
George partnered with several girls but the chemistry just wasn’t there. One partner was Hanna Siegel whom George married so that they could go on tour together. When the tour ended after six months, they divorced, having never consummated the marriage.

Gracie Allen
Grace Allen grew up in San Francisco but started in Vaudeville in 1909 with her sisters as “The Four Colleens,” a dance act. And then George met Gracie. It was  1923 when Allen met Burns met at a vaudeville theatre in Newark. This time the chemistry was seismic. Billed as Burns and Allen, the two played off each other masterfully with Allen as the “Dumb Dora” character, and Burns as her straight man. Gracie Allen was so witty she ramped up the illogical logic patter to a level all audiences appreciated. The two became a long-running team with Burns writing their comedy, and Allen delivering lines with perfect timing. 

They married in 1926, and continued in Vaudeville until they launched their own radio show in 1932. Their characters were single, but when the audience found out the two were actually married, demand increased that the show reflect it. During the last 1930s, the couple also did several comedic films.
In 1941, The Burns and Allen Show adapted a situational comedy approach, complete with supporting actors. With the rising interest in television, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show debuted on the CBS Television Network in 1950. The show now featured famous actors as guests, and playing local characters. Burns loved talking to the audience during the program, telling jokes and offering amusing asides about the other performers. The show lasted until 1958 when Gracie retired due to health reasons. 

Gracie Allen died in 1964 of a heart attack. Burns was bereft, but friends convinced him that work was the only answer. He toured nightclubs and performed at theatre venues around the country. Then, in 1974, his best friend, Jack Benny was dying of pancreatic cancer. Benny requested  Burns take over his part in a film called The Sunshine Boys. Benny died a few week later. A broken-hearted Burns stepped into the role, playing opposite Walter Matthau. Burns received an Academy Award for best Supporting Actor in the comedy. At the ago of 80, Burns was the oldest person to win an Oscar. With his newfound fame firmly in place, he ushered in a comedy film career for the later part of the century.

In 1977, Burns played opposite of John Denver in Oh, God! The film inspired two sequels, Oh, God! Book II, and Oh, God! You Devil where Burns played both roles of God and the Devil.
Burns went on to make appear on The Muppet Show, and starred in three more films: Just You and Me, Kid, Going in Style and 18 Again! Burns continued to do regular stand up gigs at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, where he had a lifetime contract.

George Burns died on March 9, 1996 – 49 days after turning 100. He was interred in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale California next to his comedic and life partner, Gracie Allen. Their epitaph reads: "Gracie Allen (1902–1964) & George Burns (1896–1996)-Together Again." George felt that Gracie should be given top billing this time.
~ Joy

Friday, February 2, 2018

A Look Back at the 1971 Thiokol Chemical Plant Explosion

Location of Woodbine, Georgia
Woodbine, Georgia was selected as the place to build the Thiokol Chemical Corporation in the mid-sixties, thanks to its close proximity to Cape Canaveral where the space race was in full orbit. Situated on 7,400 acres, the company built and tested solid propellant rocker motors for NASA. The plant was comprised on 36 buildings that housed all types of fuels and chemicals produced here.

Devastation From Explosion
On Wednesday morning, February 3, 1971, one of those buildings known as the Woodbine Plant (Building M-132) exploded killing 29 and injuring close to 50 workers, most of them women. According to reports, the fire began in an area where ignition chemicals were added to other explosives including magnesium. The fire then spread to a storage area that contained 56,000 flares. The resulting blast leveled the building, killing 24. Officials were not sure of the immediate death toll due to victims being dismembered from the explosion, and bodies being blown from the building into a nearby forest. 

Building Destroyed
Three more buildings were heavily damaged and more than 50 workers were injured, five so severely, they died within days from their injuries. Nearby buildings sustained scorched and buckled aluminum walls, and charred utility poles. Another seven buildings received minor damage from the blast. One survivor said it was “like an atomic bomb” had gone off. Heavy smoke and dangerous fumes lay over the plant as a dismal rain began to fall on the wreckage.

Air Lifting Victims
At the time of the tragedy, the plant had an order to produce 758,000 trip flares for the Army’s use in Vietnam. The materials were originally given a Class 7 designation – the highest ranking for hazardous chemicals and materials. But in 1967, the Army had downgraded the classification to a Class 2 – which designated a fire hazard. The Army reissued the Class 7 designation in the fall of 1970. It reached the Thiokol Plant on February 25 … 22 days after 29 people lost their lives in the devastating explosion.

Today, children of survivors are working to develop the Thiokol Memorial and Museum to honor those killed and injured in the incident - most who were women. Thiokol was one of the few places in the late 60s and early 70s where a woman could get a full time job and be paid the same wages as a man. Due to the Army contract, the plant’s workforce at the time of the blast was close to 500 employees working round-the-clock to get the order filled. 
Tomorrow, February 3, is the anniversary of the explosion. A memorial service will be held to honor those who died and were injured 47 years ago.
~ Joy