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Exploding Whale is One of Oregon's Most Memorable MomentsBonnie King Salem-News.com
It’s no wonder this event was, for many years, considered to be an urban legend.
(SALEM, Ore.) - November 12, 1970 is a day that has lived in infamy for Oregonians and bizarre-story enthusiasts the world over.
That fall day, 43 years ago, the Oregon Department of Transportation delivered half a ton of explosives to the underside of a getting-smellier-everyday decomposing whale and blew it to smithereens. Millions of bits of stinky whale goo and pieces of blubber, splattered up to half a mile away.
The 45-foot-long sperm whale was estimated to weigh 8 tons. It had washed up near Florence, on Oregon’s central coast and was reported to be a gray whale, but the species name was corrected when journalist Paul Linnman contacted Dr. Bruce Mate from the Hatfield Marine Science Center, who was there that day. Dr. Mate said that it was in fact, a sperm whale.
People were first very intrigued by the huge mammal, and it drew attention of locals and tourists until it was became a smelly situation.
At the time, the state Highway Division (now ODOT) had jurisdiction over Oregon beaches and because the district engineer went elk hunting, the job of disposing of the rotting carcass was left to engineer George Thornton.
Thornton and others decided that they couldn’t haul the whale out to sea because it would wash back in, and they couldn’t bury it on the beach, because it would just become uncovered via the waves, and they couldn’t burn it.
Apparently, Thornton consulted the Navy and some munitions experts, and the consensus was that they blow it up, leaving the seagulls and other wildlife to clean up whatever was left.
Thornton told Portland newsman Paul Linnman that he “wasn't exactly sure how much dynamite would be needed.” 20 cases it was determined, would be enough. They set the thousand pounds of dynamite on the land side of the whale, theorizing that it would blast toward the ocean.
Walter Umenhofer, a military veteran with explosives training, was at the scene that day.
He had driven over from Eugene to scope out some property for his boss, and get some miles behind the wheel of his brand new car. He had just bought the Ninety-Eight Regency at Dunham Oldsmobile, ironically, during the "Get a Whale of a Deal" promotion.
He had “warned Thornton that the amount of dynamite he was using was very wrong—when he first heard that 20 cases were being used he was in disbelief. Instead of 20 cases they needed 20 sticks of dynamite,” said Umenhofer, to The Springfield News.
He said Thornton was not interested in the advice.
Just minutes later, it was Umenhofer's brand-new Oldsmobile that was flattened by a chunk of falling blubber from the blast almost a quarter-of-a-mile away.
At least 75 spectators and news reporters prepared for the blast, moving back to a large dune 800’ or so away.
As expected, when the dynamite exploded, there were “oohs & ahhs”… for just a moment, until every one started getting splatted by pieces of whale flesh. Then they gasped and ran for cover, but none fast enough.
The blubber blew into bits of all sizes, some big enough to crush nearby cars, like Umenhofer’s. All the onlookers and bystanders were covered with whale guts. Luckily, no one was injured. Still, it was the epitome of a bad idea.
Reporter Paul Linnman was only 23 when he reported the whale story, but it is one that he rates highly in his professional life.
The below video news report tells the whole story, as it was experienced on that most memorable day on the Oregon Coast. Linnman laughed that the “landlubber newsmen” who stayed back from the blast had become “land-blubber newsmen…for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.” That’s a whole lot of blubber.
George Thornton passed away last week, Sunday, October 27, 2013 at the age of 84. He had a full life and career, and the whale story was a part of his story.
In the the mid-1990s, Linnman said Thornton felt the operation had been an overall success and had been converted into a public-relations disaster by hostile media reports. Years later, when Linnman was working on a book, he reached out to Thornton for an interview, but Thornton said, “No, it seems like whenever I talk to the media, it blows up in my face.”
The video of the exploding whale went viral years ago. It has well over 400 million views. KATU rebroadcast the original exploding whale report and interviewed Linnman afterward on the 40th anniversary. Here it is, in its entirety:
Bonnie King has been Publisher of Salem-News.com since August '04. She is a photographer and video producer, writer, editor and mother, which she considers her greatest position. Bonnie has served in a number of positions in the broadcast industry; TV Production Manager at KVWB (Las Vegas WB) and Producer/Director for the TV series "Hot Wheels in Las Vegas", posts as TV Promotion Director for KYMA (NBC), and KFBT (Ind.), Asst. Marketing Director (SUPERSHOPPER MAGAZINE), Director/Co-Host (Coast Entertainment Show), Radio Promotion Director (KBCH/KCRF), and Newspapers In Education/Circulation Sales Manager (STATESMAN JOURNAL NEWSPAPER).
Bonnie has a depth of understanding that reaches further than just behind the scenes, and that thoroughness is demonstrated in the perseverance to correctly present each story with the wit and wisdom necessary to compel and captivate viewers and readers alike. An lifetime activist for just causes, she continues to strive to present facts that support Truth, Justice and Peace, as we are in the world to change the world for the better. "TJP"
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