Overblown

11 12 sperm whaleIn November 1970 the carcass of a 45ft (14m) long, 16,000 lb (7,300kg) sperm whale washed up on a beach in Florence, Oregon. So far, so awful. I’m not going to show you a picture of the whale. So here instead is a drawing of a rather bewildered looking live sperm whale. At first it was just a bit of a curiosity, but it soon became a problem, as it smelt dreadful. The infamous and ultimately abortive attempt to dispose tidily of the dead animal occurred on November 12th. The beach at Florence was a public right of way, so the task of disposing of the carcass fell to the Oregon Department of Transportation. The problem was, it had been so long since a dead whale washed up in that area, no one could remember how to get rid of one. Burying it didn’t seem like an option. It was massive. It couldn’t be cut up and then buried because, frankly, no one wanted to cut it up. There was also a good chance that it would just be uncovered by the tide and they would just have the same problem all over again. Burning it didn’t seem like a great idea either. So they opted for dynamite. What they expected to happen was that the dead whale would be blown into such tiny pieces that it would be cleared up naturally by seagulls, crabs and other scavengers. They also thought that if they placed all the dynamite on the landward side of the body, the smelly fragments would be blown towards the sea. This did not happen.

Unfortunately, no one at the Oregon Department of Transportation had any idea how much dynamite to use. The district engineer had gone away on a hunting trip and another engineer, called-George Thornton had been put in charge of the operation. He seemed pretty confident about it and hoped it would lead to a promotion. Twenty cases of dynamite were buried next to the whale, that’s around half a ton. Many spectators had gathered to watch the explosion and, for the sake of safety, they were all moved back to a distance of a quarter of a mile. Among the people there on that day was a man called Walter Umenhofer, a military veteran with some training in explosives. He tried to explain to Thornton that his calculations were very wrong. That it was far too much. That twenty sticks of dynamite would be more appropriate. But Thornton wasn’t interested.

The resulting explosion was caught on camera and is extremely easy to find. I won’t post a link, as it both delights and upsets people in equal numbers, but it’s out there. Unfortunately, the dynamite blew a crater underneath the whale which caused large chunks of it to be blown back towards the watchers. It landed on nearby buildings and in parking lots. It was everywhere. The watching crowd tried to run away as stinking whale blubber rained down on them. Luckily, no one was physically injured, but it must have been pretty traumatising. They couldn’t get rid of the smell for weeks. Paul Linnman, who was reporting on the incident claims he can still smell it.

Ironically, the only serious casualty of this incident was a car belonging to Walter Umenhofer, the guy who had advised against using so much dynamite. An enormous piece of blubber, about 3x5ft (about 1×1.5m) long was blown a quarter of a mile through the air and made a direct hit on Umenhofer’s brand new Oldsmobile. He had recently bought it in a special promotion which was advertised: ‘Get a Whale of a Deal’.

When the dust cleared, it was found that most of the whale remained on the beach. They had to bury it anyway. The hoped for scavengers were nowhere in sight, probably they had been scared away by the huge blast. As for George Thornton, the mastermind of the operation, he was promoted a few months later. He maintained that the operation had been a success and had gone exactly as planned, apart form the bit where everyone got covered in bits of dead whale. He felt that it was the news coverage of the event that had turned it into a disaster. He didn’t like talking about it though. He said every time he was interviewed about it, it blew up in his face.

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