It was 10:53 on a Wednesday in early February. In 1971 the war in Vietnam was still burning hot. In sleepy Woodbine Georgia that fire came home in a visceral way.
It was big news in the area when an anti-poverty agency was charged with hiring and training workers for a factory 17 miles deep in the Georgia scrub pines. Pay was set at $18 per day. It was a job that promised a modicum of security in a historically poor corner of Georgia.
Thiokold, the former manufacturer of solid fuel rocket propellant was in the middle of producing 750,000 tripflares destined for the already ravaged Vietnam countryside. Magnesium is the primary ingredient in flares and they burn at 2,500 degrees and refuse to be extinguished by normal methods. Out in the jungle the flames slowly dissipate the energy via combustion. It’s in closed space that the effect is explosive. Thiokold’s building, ingloriously named M-132, was bursting with materials and completed flares. Conveyors rushed the ingredients from one workstation to the next to create the battlefield ready sticks. At one station an ignition agent was manually added to finalize the deadly concoction. Fires were known to happen in M-132 on occasion but in each case was extinguished without harm. On this late Wednesday morning 80
hourly workers were punched in and back on the line after a mid-morning break but surely anticipating their lunchtime respite. A fire broke out and quickly spread up and down the conveyors. Believing the flames were unstoppable the workers – mostly women and most African-American – dashed for the exits.
Remarkably and unconscionably management had never educated employees about the powerful concussive effect of the contents. The workers lingered near the building awaiting fire-fighters. Eighty mothers, daughters and sons who had walked sleepily to their job deep in the pine forest of coastal Georgia thought the building might burn. They never knew that the only outcome could be a blast that would be heard fifty miles away in Jacksonville. In a shocking instant twenty-four workers were killed. Another five died shortly after. Another 50 suffered debilitating injuries. The victim’s torture extended for more than 15 years as the US government tried to deny their role in the destruction of these humble worker’s lives.
It was a morning like most others. In a moment equilibrium was stuck between Southeast Asia and rural Georgia.
note: details of this tragedy were sourced on-line and especially from a New York Times Magazine article from 1986 published soon after the faulty Thiokold solid fuel rocket destroyed the Challenger manned space flight killing all seven astronauts.