BOULDER, Colo. –
On Mother’s Day in 1969, Stanley Skinger and William Dennison bent to tape the cuffs of their coveralls, pulled on their rubber gloves, adjusted their masks, looked at each other and thought, “Let’s go.”
Then, without knowing anything about how to fight a fire, the pair waded into the worst industrial conflagration the country had ever seen. It wasn’t safe, Skinger knew, but the alternative was far worse.
Forty years ago, when Building 776-777 on the Rocky Flats campus eight miles south of Boulder caught fire, it contained 7,600 pounds of plutonium, enough for 1,000 nuclear bombs.
“We were told that the firemen that had originally gone in at the fire’s start … had been contaminated and there was nobody else to go back in,” Skinger, who was a security guard at the time, said in a 2005 oral history recording for the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum.
“It wasn’t a logical firefighting thought process. It was two guys going in who had, you know, worked prairie fires and things like that in the past, just because of being in the country, but we’re not out there with burlap sacks beating off grass,” said Skinger, who was a security guard at the time. “We’re doing what we can. We didn’t know how to use fire hoses — didn’t know how to turn them on. So I mean, you learned as you went.”
After nearly six hours of battling the blaze, the fire was out. The shell of the building was intact. And the Denver-metro area, whose population had no idea of the danger, had narrowly escaped a Chernobyl-type nuclear disaster thanks to the efforts of 29 brave men.
“Had the fire breached the roof of that building, Denver would have been nailed,” Skinger, 66, said Tuesday from his Lakewood home. “I don’t think most people have a clue.”
Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the blaze, but only in the last 15 years has the declassification of government documents shown how close Colorado came to destruction. They also reveal just how much the people who extinguished the flames risked.
Doing their job
By the time the alarm rang inside the Rocky Flats fire station at 2:27 p.m. May 11, 1969, the fire had already been burning for hours. Flecks of plutonium left inside a “glove box” — a sealed container with glove inserts that allowed workers to safely manipulate plutonium — had spontaneously ignited sometime late in the morning, according to research compiled by University of Colorado professor Len Ackland, author of the book “Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West.”
Glove boxes throughout the building were connected by sealed conveyor belts, allowing the fire to spread quickly from box to box. But the heat detectors were placed outside the boxes, and they didn’t detect the fire until the flames were hot enough to burn through the containers, according to a 1969 report by the Atomic Energy Commission.
“I was on a second responder team,” said Otto Ahlgrim, 70, said last week from his Longmont home. “To tell you the truth, when we opened the door and we saw what we had, I didn’t think I’d ever see another Mother’s Day.”
Unlike the security guards who had been asked to help in desperation, Ahlgrim, a trained firefighter, knew what he was doing. And one thing had been made very clear to the plant’s firefighters: Never, ever use water to put out a plutonium fire. The combination could cause a “criticality,” he was told, a nuclear chain reaction, and so firefighters were taught to use carbon-dioxide extinguishers and the building had not been equipped with sprinklers.
It became immediately clear, however, that carbon dioxide was inadequate, and the workers knew that if the building collapsed — or if the fire burned through the roof — plutonium ash could escape into the air and rain down on Coloradans from Boulder to Golden to Denver. So without any other obvious options, the fire captain ordered Ahlgrim and his partner, David Sweet, also of Longmont, to turn on the hoses.
“We were the first two gentlemen ever to put water on a plutonium fire,” Ahlgrim said. “Naturally we were scared, but you don’t think about that at the time. You’re trying to do your job and when it’s all over it really hits you. When you think about what could have happened — I had two young children at home and my wife. It was kind of a frightening situation. But I did it — I’m glad I did it.”
Keeping it secret
In the days following the fire, the story trickled out in the press, but the facts released by the federal government were sanitized and the magnitude of the danger remained largely classified. On May 12, the day after the fire, the Daily Camera ran just a few paragraphs on Page 6. A fire at Rocky Flats — of which there were 163 in the three years leading up to Mother’s Day 1969 — was not always considered news.
“It was very well-hidden,” Skinger said. “We were forbidden to talk to anybody about this. They tried to keep it to little one-paragraph areas in the paper.”
But for a group of scientists in Boulder, the information leaking out of Rocky Flats, however brief, didn’t add up. In June of the same year, seven local researchers signed a letter to the governor expressing their concern. They had no proof at the time that areas outside the plant had been contaminated, but the heart of their argument was that, conversely, the government had no proof that contamination had not occurred.
“It’s common sense,” said H. Peter Metzger, who penned the letter along with scientists from the University of Colorado the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Ball Aerospace. “If you have a fire and you have plutonium in the fire then plutonium is going to be spread by the fire.”
After months of independent investigation, the scientists found disturbing amounts of plutonium contamination outside the Rocky Flats campus. And while the researchers later concluded that the plutonium dust may not have come from the 1969 fire, their discoveries still raised concerns about the sanity of putting a nuclear bomb-making facility so close to Denver.
Their worries were shared, though secretly, by the Atomic Energy Commission. When memos, reports and testimony before Congress were released in the 1990s, it was clear that the commission knew how real the threat had been.
“An Atomic Energy Commission official acknowledged after the fire that if it had been ‘a little bigger’ it would have gotten out of control and contaminated ‘hundreds of square miles,'” Ackland, co-director of CU’s Center for Environmental Journalism, said in an e-mail. “The Mother’s Day plutonium fire is a sobering reminder that the production of nuclear weapons as well as their possible use pose huge dangers.”
According to Ackland’s book on Rocky Flats, the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said in 1994 that “the high-concentration of plutonium solutions and reactive plutonium scrap stored at Rocky Flats posed the most severe and immediate safety risk of any stored plutonium in the DOE Weapons Complex.”
Still waiting for help
Plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons haven’t been made at the Rocky Flats plant for 20 years.
And in the summer of 2007, when the Environmental Protection Agency officially declared the $7 billion cleanup of Rocky Flats complete, the land was handed over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage as a wildlife refuge.
But the battle with the government over Rocky Flats isn’t over. Many former employees who are sick with cancer linked to radiation exposure are still waiting for compensation despite a federal law passed in 2000 promising it to them.
More than 175,000 of the nation’s Cold War-era nuclear bomb builders — or their survivors — have applied for help. Only 50,000 have gotten any.
This spring, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, introduced legislation that would reform the program, and for Skinger, help can’t come fast enough.
Skinger’s mask was knocked off while he was fighting the 1969 fire, allowing him to inhale a toxic mixture of chemicals that likely included plutonium
“It’s like, ‘I’ve got to get this thing on,'” he remembers thinking at the time. “And in the meantime, I’m breathing hard and I’m breathing the fumes, and I know this isn’t good. This is very not good.”
Now Skinger suffers from a cancer called mesothelioma, which he blames on the fire. It took years for his paperwork to move through the bureaucracy before he got any compensation, and he’s still waiting to be reimbursed for lost wages.
Today, Skinger, who claims to have lived years longer than he should have, says the story of the fire still has relevance.
“Don’t trust our government,” he said, “when they tell you everything is OK.”
Contact Camera Staff Writer Laura Snider at 303-473-1327 or email@example.com.