Sunday, July 10, 2005
Blast Still Fresh In The Minds of Residents
By Jim Frost
Of the Journal
A sudden flash woke Betty Pound to a new world 60 years ago.
Just before 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945, she had been sound asleep in her family's ranch house southwest of Socorro when a brief, intense light filled her bedroom.
"The room was lit brighter than daylight," recalled Pound, who was 16 at the time. "It was just so bright. It was unreal, and it just scared me out of my wits."
Terrified, she ran to the front porch where her parents had spent the night, hoping to find respite from the midsummer heat. She found them wide awake and just as scared.
Click for more on the Trinity site
"And my mother, of course, was a very religious person," Pound said. "The only thing she could think of was that it was the end of the world, which made us even more scared."
In many respects, the world as they knew it had ended. Unknown to them and their neighbors, the U.S. government had detonated the first nuclear bomb less than 50 miles their home, ushering in the Atomic Age.
Through the day, Pound and her family speculated about the cause of the strange light. With the war still raging in the Pacific, she thought maybe the Japanese had attacked. However, no word about the flash came over the radio, and, for another month, she and much of the world wouldn't know anything about the test of a new weapon.
'Like a big airplane'
About the time Pound was huddled with her family on the porch, George Dean and his father were standing in their yard in Bingham, clad only in their shorts.
The Dean family, the town's only residents, operated the little store and post office across Highway 380 from their house. They had also been asleep when the flash came from an area about 15 miles to the south on what was then White Sands bombing range.
"We didn't know what to think," said Dean, 75, now a resident of Elephant Butte. "It was so bright, you couldn't look at it. It lasted maybe a little longer than a flashbulb."
He and his father saw a mushroom cloud in the predawn sky. Then the sound came.
"It was just like a big airplane coming over us," he remembered. "And when the sound came over us, it shattered a window in the house."
The stunned pair went back into the house to investigate the broken window but kept an eye to the south. The cloud hung in the air for quite some time and appeared to glow, but Dean couldn't tell if the light came from the cloud or if it was illuminated by the rising sun.
The wind carried the bomb's fallout northeast of the test site, settling on a ranch owned by William Wrye.
Wrye and his family had returned from a trip to Texas the night of July 15 and had slept through the blast. Shortly after sunrise, the family noticed some men near their stock tank carrying Geiger counters.
"My father had told me that when he went out to ask them what they were doing, they told him they were looking for radioactivity," said Bill Wrye, who was an infant at the time.
"You're certainly not going to find any of it here," Bill Wrye, 60, recalled from his father's story. "We haven't had the radio on for a week."
That story and many other events of the day have slipped from William Wrye's memory, but he still recalls the odd white powder that collected all over his ranch.
"It looked like snow on the ground," said William Wrye, 87, who now lives in a nursing home in Truth or Consequences. "At night, you would see it, but then when the sun came up, you didn't."
The dust disappeared after a few days, but William Wrye soon noticed his Hereford cattle turned white on one side. Then, when he grew his beard out some time later, it, too, came out white on one side of his face, he recalled.
Other nearby ranchers reported similar events after the blast, including the Bursums.
"The government bought two carloads of our cattle that had turned white on their side," said Holm Bursum III.
Bursum's father told him the cattle had been taken to Oak Ridge, Tenn., where they spent long, normal lives under the watchful eye of the government a story confirmed by a White Sands official.
Didn't know anything
"We didn't get that kind of fallout," said Dean, recalling the events on the Bursum and Wrye ranches. "The only radiation we knew anything about was X-rays. We didn't know anything about what went on."
Government officials put out the story that a large munitions dump had exploded near Alamogordo, Dean said. But he and his father didn't buy it.
"That wasn't any ammo dump that blew up," Dean said. From his perspective in Bingham, the blast wasn't in the right location.
Few witnesses remain of the Trinity test, even though the flash was reported from all parts of the state. Jarvis Brown, a young soldier in the Army Air Force at the time, recalled many surprised comrades at his base in southeastern New Mexico.
"Everyone was all excited," he said. "That was all they could talk about that morning."
Brown, now a retired minister living in California, looks back on that day with a little regret. It had been the dawn of a momentous age in history and he slept through it.