Henderson Historical Society Stories


Pepcon explosion, 25 years later

Pepcon_smokeArticle by Fredric Watson

The City of Henderson is about to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a tragic episode in its history.  An industrial accident that reminds long-time residents of the recent disaster in West, Texas.  The PEPCON explosion was such a traumatizing experience that those who lived through it will never forget where they were the morning of May 4, 1988.  The Henderson Historical Society is attempting to capture the memories of those who lived through that frightful morning and its aftermath in the hopes that the costly lessons of our history are not soon forgotten.  For Henderson newcomers and the children who have been born since 1988, a short history lesson is in order:

The city now known as Henderson began as a WWII era Defense Plant Corporation project to produce magnesium, a material that was vital to the U. S. and its allies as the United States was drawn into the war in Europe.  The Government and its contractor, Basic Magnesium Incorporated (BMI), built a production plant in 1941, brought water and power from Lake Mead and Hoover Dam and constructed housing necessary for the nearly 15,000 employees who would be needed to refine magnesium.   By July 1943, less than one year after production started, BMI became the world’s largest producer of magnesium.  Late in 1944 the plant began to scale back production as the war drew toward its end.  BMI reduced the work force and many families returned to their pre-war homes.  However, a good number of families chose to stay and they began to advocate for preserving their town.  The State of Nevada heard them and averted the dismantling of their community as had been the plan of the War Assets Administration.   Provisions were made for residents to purchase the homes that were rented to wartime workers and the BMI Plants, and after much effort over the next nine years the valuable assets of the area attracted new companies including U. S. Lime, American Potash, Timet, Kerr-MacGee, and Pacific Engineering (later merging with American Pacific Corporation).  Along the way the community that housed, supplied and met the needs of the BMI workers was incorporated into a town.  A mayor and town council were elected and the new town of Henderson became an official entity.

In the 1960s, as the United States began to experience success in its space exploration program and as the cold war competition led the Defense Department to develop rocket propelled weaponry, solid fuels became an important commodity.  By the 1980s Pacific Engineering Company of Nevada (PEPCON) was one of only two American producers of ammonium perchlorate, an oxidizer used in solid fuel rocket boosters, including the Space Shuttle and military weapons.  In 1986 the Challenger space shuttle exploded in mid-flight and NASA put the program on hold until it could correct flaws that caused the disaster.  However, production of ammonium perchlorate was allowed to continue at PEPCON.   Though supplies grew, there was no government plan for PEPCON regarding where to ship the product, and no required storage procedure nor proper storage facilities for such large quantities (approximately 4,500 tons) of the product.