The Nuclear Age's
Locals Witnessed History in a Flash
By Fritz Thompson
Journal Staff Writer
Sparkey Harkey and his son, Richard, were standing in the gloom before dawn, waiting for a train at Ancho, when the bomb went off.
"Everything suddenly got brighter than daylight," Richard Harkey remembers today. "My dad thought for sure the steam locomotive had blown up."
"My grandmother thought it was the end of the world," remembers Rowena Baca, who runs the Owl Bar in San Antonio. Baca and her family were among New Mexicans who saw the sky suddenly turn red 50 years ago when scientists set off the Trinity blast.|
It was 5:29.45 a.m. on July 16, 1945. Harkey and his father didn't know it then, but they had just witnessed, in that instant 50 years ago, an event that came to change the course of history and thereafter to touch the lives of everyone in the world.
It was mankind's first detonation of an atomic bomb -- at Ground Zero on the empty, foreboding sweep of some of the most desolate land in New Mexico: Jornada del Muerto, it is called, the Journey of Death.
Awesomely thunderous, the explosion transformed the sand in the desert to green glass, hurled dust and smoke thousands of feet into the sky and startled the bejabbers out of early morning risers in central New Mexico.
The place where the bomb exploded is called Trinity Site, and it was 50 miles and a mountain range away from the Harkeys, standing as they were on the tracks, mouths agape, bathed in the glow from man's most fearsome and terrible weapon. That they could see a manmade light brighter than the sun from their far vantage point attests to the incredible power unleashed that morning.
Ancho was not even a whistle-stop then. Sparkey, the stationmaster, was out on the tracks, ready to wave a red flag to stop the train so Richard, then 18, could board and ride to his job in Tucumcari.
"It was a blinding flash and it lasted at least a full minute," Richard says. "We didn't know what it was."
Was he curious?
"Yeah. But when you see something like that you're so flabbergasted that you just let it go."
'The sun was coming up'
Ranchers and other residents on both sides of the Oscura Mountains had a ringside seat to the explosion but didn't know it. In one of the best-kept secrets before or since, civilians had no warning.
The lone exception was the late José Miera, proprietor of the Owl Bar in San Antonio, a mere 35 unobstructed miles northwest from Trinity and a popular hangout for the site's scientists and soldiers. Rowena Baca, who runs the family establishment these days, says friendly MPs that night went to her grandfather's house, woke him up, "and told him to stand in the street out front because he was going to see something he had never seen before."
Baca remembers that the sky suddenly turned red. It illuminated the inside of the house she was in, reflecting red off the walls and the ceiling.
"My grandmother shoved me and my cousin under a bed," Baca remembers, "because she thought it was the end of the world."
At the same moment, a U.S. Navy aviator named John R. Lugo, now of Scottsdale, Ariz., was flying a naval transport plane at 10,000 feet some 30 miles east of Albuquerque, en route to the West Coast.
"I saw this tremendous explosion to the south of me, roughly 55 miles from my position," Lugo recalls. "My first impression was, like, the sun was coming up in the south. What a ball of fire! It was so bright it lit up the cockpit of the plane."
Lugo radioed Albuquerque. He got no explanation for the blast but was told, "don't fly south."
As the sun finally rose, rancher Dolly Onsrud of Oscuro woke up, looked out her window and saw a mushroom cloud rising from the other side of the mountains -- right about where her cattle-grazing land had been before the U.S. Army took it over three years earlier.
She had been none too happy about giving up her 36 sections, and now it looked as if the government was blowing it up.
Like Onsrud, most ranchers who witnessed some aspect of the blast are the same ones who were moved off what became White Sands Missile Range. They are still bitter -- bitter that the Army never returned the land, bitter that they weren't more generously compensated for giving up their ranches for what they believed was a patriotic duty. And, these days, they would much rather talk about their lost lands than about the first atomic bomb.
With the passage of half a century, these same people also find it remarkable that the government never warned them about an event that some scientists thought might set off a chain reaction and destroy all humanity.
The fact was, not many workers at Trinity knew for sure what they were working on. Retired teacher Grace Lucero of San Antonio said soldiers who came to the bar her husband operated told him they were building a tower. "They said they didn't know what it was for," Lucero says. The tower, everyone later learned, steadied the bomb before it was detonated.
"No one knew what was going on out there," says Evelyn Fite Tune, who lives on a family ranch 24 miles west of Trinity. "And of course none of us ever heard of Los Alamos or the atomic bomb."
She and her late husband, Dean Fite, were away in Nevada when the blast went off. They couldn't tell from the news accounts of those days exactly where it happened.
"Finally, on the way back we went to a movie house in Denver and watched the newsreel," she says. "When they showed the hills around the blast area, my husband said 'Hell, that's our ranch!' ''
Pat Withers lives south of Carrizozo. He is 86 now and has been a rancher all his life. His house is 300 yards from the black and hardened lava flow that's sometimes called the malpais.
"The explosion was loud enough that I jumped out of bed," he says. "I thought the malpais had blowed up. It wasn't on fire, so I went back to bed."
Few ranchers had an experience to match that of William Wrye, whose house then and now is 20 miles northeast of Trinity.
Wrye and his wife, Helen, had been returning from a tiring trip to Amarillo the night before the explosion. "We got to Bingham (on U.S. 380) and there were eight or 10 vehicles and all kinds of lights shining up on the clouds. We were stopped by an MP and a flashing red light. After we told them who we were, they let us go on to the ranch. We were so tired we must have slept right through the blast.
"Next morning, we were eating breakfast when we saw a couple of soldiers with a little black box out by the stock tank. I went out there and asked what they were doing, and they said they were looking for radioactivity. Well, we had no idea what radioactivity was back then. I told them we didn't even have the radio on.
"For four or five days after that, a white substance like flour settled on everything. It got on the posts of the corral and you couldn't see it real well in the daylight, but at night it would glow."
Before long, Wrye's whiskers stopped growing. Three or four months later, they came back, but they were white, then later, black.
Cattle in the area sprouted white hair along the side that had been exposed to the blast. Half the coat on Wrye's black cat turned white.
End of innocence
Out at the north end of the Oscura range, 30 miles from Trinity, rancher Bill Gallacher was 15 years old. He remembers the blast, that it lighted up the sky and the rooms in his house, much brighter than a bolt of lightning. His father, evidently a man of few words who was just getting out of bed, simply said "Damn."
"It was a sort-of-sudden deal," Gallacher says, "especially before you've had your morning coffee."
Several ranchers say they never believed the Army cover story that an ammunition dump had blown up. But they didn't guess what it was until the devastation of bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki weeks later. Even then, they didn't guess the import of what had been wrought in their backyard.
Evelyn Fite Tune and her friends and neighbors visited the site soon after. "We found the hole, we picked up the glass, we climbed the twisted and melted parts of the tower," she says.
"All those people," she says, "grew up and got married and had kids. Nobody that I know of ever turned up sterile."
Back at the Wrye Ranch, Helen Wrye goes to the front door, gazing at the sweep of prairie and desert, the Oscuras looming to the south, 20 miles from here to Trinity. She speaks of this dawn of the atomic age, and she sounds wistful.
"People weren't afraid of the government then," she says. "It was a time of innocence. People were trusting. We had never heard of an atomic bomb."
She is silhouetted against the sunlight of a bright spring day.
"It was a happy time to live," she says. "It was a happy time to live."