KINGSPORT — The title of Pete Lodal’s historical lecture last Tuesday night was direct and to the point: “Please God Let It Rain Hard.”
Those words came from a first responder on Oct. 4, 1960, when a massive explosion and fire at Tennessee Eastman Company’s (TEC) Aniline manufacturing facility killed 16 people and injured more than 400 others.
More than 100 people — Eastman retirees, residents who knew the deceased and interested citizens — filed into the Tennessee Room at the Kingsport City Schools headquarters to listen to the lecture on the disaster by Lodal, a technical fellow and group leader of the Plant Protection Technical Services group at Kingsport-based Eastman Chemical Co.
TEC’s Aniline facility, run at the time by Eastman Kodak, produced antioxidants for food preservatives, according to Lodal.
Lodal began by describing his first day on the job at Eastman on Oct. 3, 1977, when he was told that he had to be fingerprinted.
“I asked the woman who was checking me in: ’Why was I being fingerprinted?’” Lodal told the crowd. “Without a trace of irony, she said ‘You know 15 or 20 years ago, we had a really bad accident, and (fingerprinting) is the only way we can identify some of the victims.’ How was your first day at work?”
Lodal said aniline had a reputation as being “not a nice chemical,” but not particularly explosive.
He quoted former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as to why Eastman continues to study the explosion: “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you can see.”
Remember that 16 men lost their lives as a result of the explosion, and that should not be forgotten, said Lodal.
“The reason I do this (explosion study) is I want to make sure something like this never happens again,” he said intently.
He then showed a photo of a clock station frozen at 4:42 p.m. — the exact time of the explosion — plus images of shrapnel damage that still exist as a reminder of what happened.
“One of the younger engineers came up to me and said ‘That can be repaired,’” Lodal said of the shrapnel damage. “I said ‘Not on your life, son. You leave it right where it is.’”
Lodal disclosed the only known 90-second video of the incident — taken by an off-duty Eastman employee from his front porch — was discovered in the early 1990s. The eight millimeter film was digitized and included in Lodal’s presentation.
The two existing Tri-Cities TV stations at the time, Bristol’s WCYB and Johnson City’s WJHL, had no video record of the explosion, according to Lodal.
The Tennessee Room crowd watched in silence as they viewed images of billowing black smoke and fire that covered the area.
Eastman would not share the video so it could be viewed on the Times-News website, but the Archives of the City of Kingsport did.
“Pete shares that video with small groups that have a personal interest in the story,” Eastman spokeswoman Kristin Parker said of the video. “I don’t feel posting it online would serve the same purpose or have the same value without context of Pete’s discussion and the ability for questions and answers as we have during these smaller public events.
“As you know, we want our community to feel safe and know that we at Eastman are doing all we can to maintain safe processes and operations at our plant. Showing this video without context of Pete’s discussion could heighten anxiety.”
After showing the video, Lodal noted the explosion was cited on NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” that night.
Lodal also showed an image of the next day’s front page of the Kingsport News with the “Blast Kills 11” large headline.
“One of my colleagues (who saw the headline) said ‘That’s a wartime font,’” Lodal said.
The Aniline facility, Lodal continued, had been featured in Eastman’s employee handbook which included workplace safety rules.
As for newspaper coverage of the explosion, Lodal said the Johnson City Press-Chronicle quickly secured a helicopter to take aerial photographs of the scene before nightfall.
Those photos revealed nearby hydrogen tanks unharmed by the explosion or its blast waves.
“You can imagine what might have happened if those had (exploded),” Lodal said of the tanks. “Someone called the radio station and (WKPT broadcaster) Martin Karant and said ‘There’s a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb about to go off in the Eastman facility’ ... (Eastman said) no, no, no it would be a very big fire but not a nuclear detonation.”
Still, Lodal pointed out, the explosion was equivalent to a six-ton TNT blast. Flames and heat caused steel pipe bridges to collapse.
The fire was declared to be out about 8 p.m. the same day.
“How did we fight this fire? We didn’t. We basically had to stand back until it burned itself out,” Lodal said. ” ... (But) one of the big concerns in the initial search and rescue effort was electrocution because of lots of water and electrical lines down.”
With that portion of the plant site looking like World War II-style bomb damage, and with the year 1960 being at the height of the Cold War, tension in the community ran high.
“(People) were sure the Russians would hit Holston Defense,” Lodal said of the ammunitions production facility formerly run by Eastman. “And, indeed, Holston Defense was on the Russians’ target list.”
Something in the plant’s distillation process was compromised. Testing had been done at the plant before the explosion, said Lodal, but it wasn’t sophisticated enough to prevent the incident.
“That’s one of the things that keeps me up at night,” he told the audience. “...What exactly set it off, I can’t tell you that ... This could have been something like opening and closing a valve, starting or stopping a pump.”
The north end of the plant site, said Lodal, was basically down for six months and did not operate again until spring 1961.
One of the lessons of the explosion, he concluded, is Eastman maintaining a sense of vulnerability and safety culture.
“It’s how you behave when no one is looking,” Lodal said.