On a clear November day in 1970 in Florence, Ore., state highway engineers lit 20 cases of dynamite to blow apart a 45-foot sperm whale carcass that had washed up on the beach and festered for three days.
Unfortunately, the explosion did not go as planned.
The engineers intended for the 8-ton carcass to be thrown into the ocean in pieces. Instead, chunks of flesh flew toward the beachside town and fell from the sky, crushing a car a quarter-mile away and raining down on a crowd who had gathered to watch the pyrotechnics.
The spectacular failure, and the remarkable local newscast the captured the event, have since become enshrined in Oregon history, so beloved that Florence residents voted to name a park earlier this year after the detonated sea mammal. To celebrate the event’s 50th anniversary on Thursday, the Oregon Historical Society released a remastered video of the original broadcast and the TV station interviewed the former employees who recorded it.
“I was asked about it, virtually every day of my life, or commented on it, by everybody, strangers alike,” Paul Linnman, the on-camera reporter, told KATU.
When the whale washed ashore on Nov. 9, 1970, as Linnman reported at the time, it had been so long since the community had encountered a beached cetacean that no one knew how to dispose of the animal.
As officials pondered the problem, the body began to decay, festering until the surrounding beach smelled of rot. The state finally enlisted engineers from the Oregon State Highway Division three days later to disintegrate the body using a half-ton of dynamite, hoping most of the pieces would be washed away by the sea or eaten by scavengers.
“I’m confident that it’ll work,” engineer George Thornton told Linnman, who was 23 at the time, in the moments before the explosion. “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 whatnot can clean it up.”
When the dynamite detonated, a cloud of sand and whale puffed into the air. Onlookers sitting on the sandbanks about a quarter-mile away erupted with cheers and laughter.
Linnman and cameraman Doug Brazil, who had arrived at the beach near the midpoint of Oregon’s coastline with cameras in hand, captured the moment the excited crowd suddenly realized the rancid blubber that had propelled into the air would soon plummet back onto their heads.
“Here come pieces of . . . uh . . . whale,” a woman said, her tone incongruously calm as the flesh came hurtling back to the ground, landing with a stomach-flipping squelch. Linnman, in his news report, said “the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”
Although the story was well-told in Oregon, it didn’t lodge itself into the national imagination until 20 years later, when Miami Herald humorist Dave Barry found a copy of the video and called it “the most wonderful event in the history of the universe.”
“This is a time to get hold of the folks at the Oregon State Highway Division and ask them, when they get done cleaning up the beaches, to give us an estimate on the US Capitol,” Barry wrote.
Since then, the event has been recounted in news stories, humor columns, interviews and even a book that Linnman wrote. And the two journalists who documented the shocking event never heard the end of it.
“I’d come out of Starbucks at 7 a.m., run into someone, they’d say. ‘Hey, I bet no one’s mentioned the whale to you yet,'” Linnman told KATU Thursday. “Yeah, the guy at the Oregonian box an hour ago mentioned it to me.”
Despite the chaotic mishap, the incident wasn’t the last time explosives have been used to dispose of dead whales. Others have since used controlled explosions to break apart carcasses, though they often set the explosives off in the ocean, away from the shoreline.
In the end, besides the crushed car, the near-disaster ended without any serious injuries or lasting damage to Florence. In fact, the event became the city’s claim to fame, and Florence in June christened a riverfront park “Exploding Whale Memorial Park” to mark the 50th anniversary.
“To have it live as story still on the Internet after 50 years is just amazing,” Brazil told KATU.