November 12, 1970, was a whale of a day at Florence, Oregon. The sun was bright, and the skies were clear. Only the presence of a decomposing whale carcass marred the beautiful morning.
Three days earlier, a 45-foot, 16,000-pound whale washed ashore. It had been so long since anything like that had happened that no one in the community quite knew what to do about it. The unseasonably warm weather made the situation increasingly untenable. As the whale’s black skin soaked up the sunshine, its body bloated, spewing noxious gases that could be smelled throughout the community.
It was the responsibility of the Oregon Highway Department to keep the beaches clear. Engineers had plenty of ideas about how to repair bridges and fill potholes. The question of how to remove an 8-ton whale from the beach had not been covered in any of their classes, however.
As the whale’s decomposition hastened and its stench intensified, several possible solutions were discussed. Someone suggested burying the whale in the sand. This approach was discounted since winter storms could shift enough sand to bring the whale back to the surface in a few months. By then, the state of decomposition would be worse than ever. Someone else pointed out that if the whale remained buried, it could create something like a sinkhole as it putrified. If an unwary person was strolling on the beach and happened to step over that, he or she could get sucked into a horrifying morass of liquified whale remnants.
Burying the whale might have been an option if they had taken action sooner. Dragging the whale further inland would have provided a more stable area for its grave. After three days, however, the fragile corpse would fall apart and make its stench worse.
At last, someone hit upon a dynamite idea: “What do we do if we’re building a road and need to remove a big chunk of rock? We blast it away!” There’s really no difference between a big rock and a massive ocean mammal, after all.
In the sense that both rock and whale are susceptible to dynamite, that observation is correct. That does not mean the two respond in quite the same way, however. Rock is hard and resistant. A little bit of dynamite goes a long way in moving or disintegrating granite. A whale, on the other hand, is soft and pliable. Given the differences, how much dynamite should be used?
That was the primary question on the mind of project manager George Thornton. “I’m confident that it’ll work,” he said to a reporter shortly before the big event. “The only thing is, we’re not sure just exactly how much explosives it’ll take to disintegrate this thing so the scavengers, seagulls and crabs and what-not, can clean it up.”
This should have been a big clue to anyone associated with this project that things could turn out rather poorly. When the engineer in charge of blowing up an 8-ton whale doesn’t have a clue about how much dynamite to use, it would seem that someone should have pushed the “pause” button to give everyone a chance to think this through a little better.
Nevertheless, the growing stench of the rotting whale was getting to everyone. With high hopes, engineers prepared the whale and the beach. In an ideal world, the blast would send the whale back into the ocean to be carried away by the waves. If that didn’t happen, at least the carcass would be broken up into a bunch of bite-sized morsels for the flock of hungry seagulls gathered around the site.
Since no one knew just how much dynamite to use, Thornton decided to err on the side of excess. His crew dug into the sand around and under the whale and packed case after case of DuPont dynamite around the dead beast.
The one person who seemed to have enough knowledge about explosives was concerned. Unfortunately, he was not associated with the project. Walter Uemenhoefer, an executive with the Kingsford Charcoal Company, happened to be in town on business. Uemenhoefer received training on handling explosives while serving in the military. He took one look at 20 cases of dynamite and knew the approach was wrong. He approached Thornton and suggested that a better approach would be a small charge of about 20 sticks to push the whale off the beach. Alternatively, if they wanted to vaporize the creature, they would need a lot more explosives than what they had on hand. Uemenhoefer warned that if Thornton went ahead with the 20 cases of dynamite, it would only end in a bigger problem than what they hoped to resolve.
Despite the advice, Thornton decided to go ahead with the original plan. He ordered spectators to clear the area. Uemenhoefer got as far away as he could, thinking that he was saving himself from any further involvement in the affair. He was to quickly learn that he was mistaken.
With all spectators at least a quarter of a mile away from the blast site, Thornton gave the all-clear to proceed. Everyone held their breath, awaiting the detonation.
What happened next was a remarkable mixture of comedy, tragedy, and horror. The blast shook everything, filling the air with sand and pieces of the whale. Television reporter Paul Linnman later recalled that it looked “like a mighty burst of tomato juice.” Spectators initially cheered with excitement. The cheers quickly turned to cries of alarm as massive chunks of rotting flesh and shards of whalebone came raining down upon them.
The whale was far from vaporized. The pieces of flesh that pummeled the area ranged in size from tiny specks to huge chunks that were larger than a refrigerator. The scene was strangely prescient of the infamous “Turkey Drop” scene from WKRP in Cincinnati.
As the television camera faithfully recorded the ensuing debacle, one woman’s voice can be heard saying, “All right, Fred, you can take your hands out of your ears now … here come pieces of … oh my G—…”
It turned out that Walt Uemenhoefer was right about what would happen. He was, however, wrong about being safely away from it. A piece of whale carcass the size of a coffee table dropped directly onto the roof of his car, collapsing the top and blowing out all of the windows. The car was new. He ruefully remembered the sales promotion at the Eugene, Oregon dealership when he purchased the automobile: “Get a Whale of a Deal on a New Oldsmobile.”
Miraculously, no one was hurt in the explosion and subsequent rain of whale bits. No one was spared the indignity of getting covered with bits of whale innards, however.
“Fortunately, no human was hurt as badly as the car,” Linnman said in his newscast. “However, everyone on the scene was covered with small particles of dead whale.”
As for the plan to remove the whale, it did not turn out as hoped. Most of the whale carcass remained on the beach. The explosion only intensified the scope and strength of the foul aroma. As for the expectation that seagulls would help the cleanup process, that, too, did not turn out. The explosion succeeded in spooking away all wildlife for miles around.
Thornton, the architect of the debacle, insisted that it was all part of the plan — more or less. “It went just exactly right,” he said to the Eugene Register-Guard. “Except the blast funneled a hole in the sand under the whale.” When he was asked what when wrong, he testily replied, “What do you mean, ‘what went wrong?’”