1971 Georgia Thiokol Plant explosion that killed 29, now largely forgotten

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Half a century ago, an explosion rocked a Georgia factory that made flares for the Vietnam War army, killing 29 workers and injuring 50 others.

But today, few people remember the Woodbine accident, the dangerous conditions the employees worked in and the little compensation injured survivors and family members received afterward, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“There’s no science for that,” said Melissa Jackson, whose mother and cousin died in the 1971 blast. ‚ÄúThere is no historical memory or understanding of it. For me the memory of the whole day is still very vivid and very painful and very clear. But outside of the few of us who remember, it’s like it’s been erased.”

Local students in the coastal community were not taught much about the incident and little research was done.

The Alabama-based Law Center, which has campaigned for the rights of oppressed and impoverished people in the United States since the early 1970s, hopes to raise awareness of the blast and its aftermath. The nonprofit said it donated $50,000 to the Thiokol Memorial Project in Woodbine last fall.

The project’s museum there displays around 350 artifacts from the disaster, but it’s run mostly with the help of volunteers and trying to secure a larger piece of land that can serve as a memorial to victims, the Law Center reported.

The blast and its memory also show how victims were compensated compared to what is available today. The Law Center article noted that the US government, which hired Thiokol Chemical Co. to manufacture the flares, argued that the victims had no right to legal claims.

After years of court wrangling, a federal judge found the government guilty of negligence. Reports indicated that the Army had determined that the materials used to manufacture the flares were so explosive that the Thiokol facility had to be closed and reconstructed to make it safer. But the army did not share its findings with the manufacturer.

Some of the most seriously injured victims received more than $100,000. However, under Georgia workers’ compensation laws at the time, death benefits for dependents of dead workers were capped at $17,000 – approximately $123,700 in today’s dollars.

“These injuries were not compensated well,” Arnold Young, a Savannah, Georgia attorney, told the Law Center.

According to a national report by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute, the cap on death benefits in the 1970s was significantly lower than the approximately $270,000 cap permitted by law today. That’s a significant improvement from the $230,000 maximum allowed two years ago.

But not all dependents receive the maximum. The 2022 death benefit is capped at two-thirds of the deceased worker’s weekly wages, or a maximum of $675 per week, and spouses lose the benefit if they remarry. The maximum death benefit in Georgia is higher than what Florida allows, but less than the maximum allowed in Alabama.

For injured workers, Georgia continues to rank low in the US for some types of benefits, according to the WCRI report.

The February 9, 1971 explosion resulted in some safety improvements, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted. Federal safety inspectors regularly inspected the remaining and rebuilt portion of the Thiokol plant in Woodbine, and workers were trained in the use of fire extinguishers.

Photo: Aftermath of the Thiokol plant explosion in southeast Georgia in 1971. (Georgia Public Broadcasting)


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