Hallett, OK Fireworks Plant Explodes, June 1985
FIREWORKS PLANT EXPLODES; 21 DIE.
Hallett, Okla. -- A series of explosions felt as far as 13 miles away flattened a fireworks plant Tuesday where extra workers had been hired for the Fourth of July season, killing at least 21 people, injuring five and leaving two missing.
"It was a massive explosion, very intense," said DR. JOSEPH PIERCE, the medical examiner for Creek County who checked the bodies as they were brought from the rubble. "It melted metal into gelatin."
Authorities were checking reports that some people younger than 18 years old were working illegally at the plant during the holiday rush. KERRIE GERS, director of the Employment Standards Division of the state Department of Labor, said federal and state laws require that employees be at least 18 to work in such plants.
The plant had a necessary manufacturing license, said PAULA ROSS, a spokesman for the state Tax Commission, the issuing agency.
"It sounded just like a loud bomb. There was this huge mushroom cloud and white smoke all over the place," said MARY LEWIS, who lives in a trailer house about a quarter of a mile from the sprawling Aerlex Corp. plant, which manufactured high-powered aerial displays.
LEWIS said she grabbed her three children and ran toward the home of her mother-in-law, who lives about 200 yards from the plant.
"I saw two men coming up the hill .. one of them was burning," she said. "We put him in a car and took him to the hospital. He was tearing off his clothes and screaming." She identified the man as RICHARD ALAN JOHNSON of Jennings, the owner of the plant.
JOHN COCHRAN, fire chief of Cleveland, Okla., said the explosions rattled the windows at his fire station, 13 miles from Hallett. The explosions also set several automobiles on fire and started three grass fires 500 yards from the plant, located in a densely wooded hollow.
Lt. JIM KING of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said rescuers were searching for two people who were reported missing.
Gov. GEORGE NIGH ordered 18 National Guard personnel to help law enforcement officials at the plant site for the next several days. The governor also declared a period of mourning and ordered state flags flown at half-staff through Sunday.
The explosion was the second in six years at the plant, which began manufacturing fireworks in 1973. No one was injured in a blast at the company's main building in 1979, which was blamed on sunlight reflecting from an automobile mirror and igniting combustible material.
KING said the cause of Tuesday's explosion had not been determined, but authorities were investigating reports the blasts may have been caused by carelessness outside the building where a pickup truck was being loaded.
Hallett, a town of fewer than 200, is about 40 miles west of Tulsa. The plant is about three or four miles southeast of Hallett.
Daily Herald Chicago Illinois 1985-06-26