"When they blow up a whale..."


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The following article appeared in the Eugene Register-Guard on Friday, November 13, 1970 — the day after they blew up the whale. Larry Bacon was the RG’s new coast reporter, and this was his first front page byline.

When they blow up a whale, they really blow it up!

Thursday, November 13, 1970

Of the Register-Guard

FLORENCE – It was a beautiful day to blow up a whale.

The sun was shining and there was a gentle breeze on the beach south of the Siuslaw River Thursday as State Highway Division workers placed twenty 50-pound cases of explosives under the 45-foot whale which washed up on the beach Monday.

Coast residents, as well as many from Eugene, walked over the sand dunes to the beach to see the show. Cameras dangled from nearly everyone. The crowd included a sprinkling of television cameramen.

As workmen excavated the holes for the dynamite, shutterbugs took pictures of each other in front of the beached whale — lying on its side displaying a gaping red and white expanse of flesh and bone where someone had sawed away its lower jaw.

Everybody stayed upwind.

One woman onlooker suggested the highway division should wait until Monday to blow up the whale. That way, she reasoned, the people who come to the beach for the weekend could have an opportunity to see it.

For safety reasons, George Thornton, assistant district highway engineer, ordered everyone back as demolition experts from his Eugene office placed the charges.

He said his plan was to place the explosives so the force of the blast would throw most of the pieces of the whale toward the ocean. Then when the tide washed it back in, he said, highway crews would haul away or bury what the seagulls didn’t eat.

It took an hour and 45 minutes to place the dynamite. As final preparations were made, a green-helmeted sheriff’s deputy moved the ranks of onlookers back.

The dunes a quarter mile south of the whale were dotted with spectators — most of them watching through binnoculars [sic] or telescopic camera lenses.

Thornton gave the signal to push the plunger.

The beach erupted in a 100-foot high column of sand and whale. Chunks of the animal flew in every direction and spectators began to scream and run for cover when they glimpsed the large pieces soaring directly overhead.

No one was hit, but a piece about three feet long caved in the top of a late-model car in a South Jetty Road parking lot.

Walter Umenhofer, a Springfield businessman, stood in the middle of a crowd around his damaged car and ruefully watched a hard-hatted highway worker remove the piece of blubber with a shovel.

“My insurance company’s never going to believe this,” he said.

After the large pieces had fallen, it began to rain small particles of foul-smelling blubber. Many in the crowd ran for their cars and drove away. But they wouldn’t be rid of the nauseating odor until they bathed and washed their clothes and cars.

Down on the beach, Thornton inspected the blast area — strewn with pieces of whale and sprinkled with blubber powder. Where the whale had been, there was a large hole. The only recognizable part of the whale was its tail, a few feet from the blast area. The smell had improved, but not much.

“It went just exactly right,” Thornton said. “Except the blast funneled a hole in the sand under the whale.”

As a result, he said, part of the whale was thrown away from the ocean toward the parking lot. He added the result of the blast justified the precautions taken in moving the crowd so far away.

As Thornton walked away, a bulldozer began moving in to bury some of the larger chunks.

A small boy ran down the beach ahead of his father.

“Look,” the boy cried. “A piece of the whale.”

A long-haired young man wearing an Army field jacket and carrying a movie camera stood watching.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered. “So incredibly surrealistic.”

© 1970 Eugene Register-Guard