Saturday, July 16, 2005
Thousands Gather at Trinity Test Site for 60th Anniversary
By Felicia Fonseca/
WHITE SANDS MISSLE RANGE Emmett Hatch dropped to his knees to pray on July 16, 1945, shortly after the world's first atomic blast.
His grandmother was awake at 5:29:45 Mountain War Time that morning in Portales to make breakfast when she saw the explosion.
"She thought it was the coming of the Lord, because the sun rose in the west that day,'' said Hatch, who was 8 years old and more than 220 miles from the Trinity test site at the time.
Hatch said his grandmother woke him up after the blast and ordered him to his knees to pray during what they thought was the end of the world.
Hatch joined thousands of others, including Japanese observers, at Trinity Site on Saturday in a restricted area of the White Sands Missile Range for the 60th anniversary of the dawn of the nuclear age.
"It's a place that I think you should see, but I wouldn't come twice,'' Hatch said during his second visit to show his two daughters. "It's a piece of history, that's all.''
The depression left at Ground Zero on what is now White Sands Missile Range is marked by a lava obelisk with a simple inscription: "Trinity Site, Where the World's First Nuclear Device Was Exploded on July 16, 1945.''
A long stretch of dirt road leads to a chain-link fence surrounding the monument. On the fence, hangs photographs of Manhattan Project scientists from Los Alamos assembling the device and the brilliant mushroom cloud.
Nearby, rests a replica of the metal 5,000-pound casing that was used to drop the bomb on Nagasaki.
Visitors stooped to pick up pieces of trininite, a radioactive, turquoise crystal-like material that was created by the blast. About a dozen people walked over the site with Geiger counters that were beeping sporadically.
Missile Range officials tell visitors not to fear radiation. On average, an American is exposed to 360 millirem of radiation from natural and medical sources every year. After an hour at the Trinity site, visitors are exposed to one half millirem of radiation, according to the American Nuclear Society quoted in a brochure distributed by the missile range.
Visitors seemed more interested in the historic significance of the site than in any medical side effects.
Andy Aranda, an Albuquerque high school student, said he learned about the Trinity test from textbooks.
"It's kind of creepy, kind of eerie to be right here where it happened,'' he said.
Clemente Deister of Socorro was in the Marines fighting in the South Pacific during World War II when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
He watched the faces of visitors to the Trinity Site on Saturday.
"I find all kinds of expressions of sadness and horror,'' he said.
The blast produced a flash of light that could be seen 250 miles away, a roar heard 50 miles away and a mushroom cloud that rose 40,000 feet.
"The most amazing part of it to all of us is that it seemed to last so long,'' Jay Wechsler of Española who measured the explosion that day, recalled in an interview before the Trinity Site tour. "The cloud just looked like it was boiling and luminesce and kept on going up and up and up and seemed like it was never going to stop.''
Scientists, engineers and military personnel were cut off from the world and sent to a mesa top in northern New Mexico where Los Alamos National Laboratory now stands.
The Manhattan Project resulted in the two atomic bombs that essentially stunned Japan into surrender and ended World War II.
"I had no conception that it could wipe out a small city,'' said Herb Lehr of Mesa, Ariz., who helped put the bomb together at Trinity Site. "I didn't have that conception until I saw what happened at Alamogordo.''
Ben Benjamin, a photographer who documented the Manhattan Project, recalled saying, "My God, it's beautiful,'' after witnessing the blast.
But Benjamin, who did not go on Saturday's tour, said another man who worked on the project told him the blast was horrible and that he could think of nothing more than the moral implications.
"I thought about it, of course,'' said Benjamin, who now lives in Albuquerque. "But I also thought, 'Didn't these guys bring it on themselves?' Look what they did at Pearl Harbor.''
Scientists at Los Alamos were certain the uranium bomb they developed would work, but wanted to test their plutonium bomb.
That first bomb was assembled at a ranch near Trinity Site and hoisted onto a 100-foot tower that was vaporized during the explosion.
After the test, Lehr and a friend made a stop at Albuquerque's Alvarado Hotel, entering the coffee shop still dressed in coveralls.
"I wonder if those people up in Los Alamos had something to do about it,'' he recalled hearing from people at the next table. "They better be careful because someday they are going to kill somebody.''
Lehr and his friend smiled at each other.
Many of those involved in the Manhattan Project said they had no regrets.
"It was important work. People were pretty driven to get things done in the length of time we did,'' said Wechsler, who did not attend the tour. "Motivation is hardly the world. Driven is more like it. The goals were set, and people moved ahead and got on with the work. We all felt it was pretty important.''