George Thornton's death
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George Thornton, the highway engineer who made the infamous decision to detonate half a ton of dynamite next to a dead whale, passed away on October 27, 2013. He was 84.
A sample of the articles written to commemorate the event appear on this page.
Man behind the exploding whale debacle dies at 84 (KATU)
By Shannon L. Cheesman
PORTLAND, Ore. – The man who made the decision to blow up a dead whale on the Oregon coast – in a blunder that will forever be a legendary footnote in the state’s history – has passed away.
His name was George Thornton and he was a highway engineer for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) at the time. He died Sunday at age 84 in Medford.
After a dead whale washed up in Florence in November of 1970, ODOT, with Thornton at the lead, came up with a plan to get rid of it. The idea was to blow it up into tiny pieces and let the seagulls take it from there.
But it didn’t work out as planned. Instead, giant pieces of blubber were sent flying into the air. The blubber rained down on the immediate area and a large piece even landed on a car.
And for those who were there, including a young Paul Linnman, who was reporting for KATU News at the time, the stench was incredible. Linnman has even said that he can still smell it to this day.
Of course, there was a lesson learned in all of this — you can’t simply blow up a dead whale and hope the problem will go away. There’s a famous line from Linnman’s report in 1970 where he says “it might be concluded that should a whale ever wash ashore in Lane County again, those in charge will not only remember what to do, they’ll certainly remember what not to do.”
Exploding-whale engineer George Thornton has died at age 84 (OregonLive)
By Stuart Tomlinson
He will be forever known as the man who blew up eight tons of whale with a half ton of dynamite, thereby creating an Oregon legend that was often thought a myth.
George Thornton, the Oregon Department of Transportation highway engineer who won the job of removing a massive beached whale near Florence in November 1970, died Sunday. He was 84.
It all started on Nov. 9, 1970, when the 45-foot whale (initially thought to be a gray whale, but later identified as a sperm whale) washed ashore a mile south of the Siuslaw River. The carcass drew curious onlookers until about the third day, when it began to decay and emit a rancid odor.
Thornton, then an ODOT engineer got the job to come up with a plan to remove the whale. He would later complain that it fell to him because his colleagues had planned to go deer hunting — “conveniently,” as he said later in a newsletter.
“To be fair, they had plans to go, but this thing made them all the more anxious to go,’’ Thornton said.
ODOT officials struggled with what to do with the whale. Rendering plants said no thanks. Burying was iffy because the waves would likely have just uncovered the carcass. It was too big to burn.
So the plan was hatched: Let’s blow it up, scatter it to the wind and let the crabs and seagulls clean up the mess. So Thornton and his crew packed 20 cases of dynamite around the leeward side of the whale, thinking most of it would blow into the water. At 3:45 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, the plunger was pushed.
The whale blew up, all right, but the 1/4 mile safety zone wasn’t quite large enough. Whale blubber and whale parts fell from the sky, smashing into cars and people. No one was hurt, but pretty much everyone was wearing whale bits and pieces.
Thornton’s legacy was sealed on film by a KATU crew that included reporter Paul Linnman.
“That doggone thing, the BBC said it is the sixth most-watched TV news report ever,” Linnman said Wednesday. It’s also one of the most-watched videos on YouTube, with at last 6 million views in its various incarnations.
During his interview with Linnman, Thornton said he was confident it would work, “but we’re not sure just how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing so the scavengers — seagulls and crabs and whatnot — can clean it up.”
Linnman said TV news was so serious at the time that he decided to have some fun with the story. After it blew, Linnman said the explosion “blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”
Thornton always thought the media and Linnman in particular were unfair in their treatment of him. He worked for ODOT for nearly 40 years, from 1947 until his retirement in 1984, said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton.
ODOT, safe to say, never blew up another whale. The current protocol is to bury the whale or have it removed. In 1979, when 41 whales beached themselves near Florence, chain saws were used to cut them up and they were then buried.
Linnman attempted to contact Thornton in 1995 for a 25th anniversary story through an ODOT spokesman, but Thornton declined. He told the ODOT spokesman to tell Linnman that “Every time I talk with the media it tends to blow up in my face.”
Linnman said his news report made the national rounds and then the story took off as a pop culture phenomenon when humorist Dave Barry wrote a column in May 1990 about that day.
Linnman, now a radio host at KEX, said he tired of the notoriety the video brought him, but he has since come to celebrate its quirky popularity.
He lectures American students studying problem solving in Italy each year, and said that when he arrives, most of them inevitably have seen the YouTube video of the exploding whale. Linnman wrote a book on the subject, “The Exploding Whale and Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News,” in 2003. There’s even an exploding whale website.
Oregon’s governor also likes to needle Linnman.
“Every time a whale washes ashore I get a call from Governor Kitzhaber telling me to get down there,’’ Linnman said. “He likes to watch the video when he needs cheering up.”
Man behind Oregon’s infamous exploding whale dies (NBC News)
By Elizabeth Chuck
An engineer who blew up a whale carcass in Oregon using some 20 cases of dynamite has died, but the biggest bang of his career will live forever in YouTube infamy.
George Thornton, who was called into action by the Oregon Department of Transportation when a 45-foot whale washed up on the beach near Florence, Ore., in 1970, passed away on Sunday, The Oregonian reported. He was 84.
The massive mammal that beached on Oregon’s coastline on Nov. 9, 1970, was dead on arrival, and for a few days, local officials, unaccustomed to whales washing up on their shore, struggled with what to do with it. Burying it could result in it being uncovered; cutting it up or burning it were also ruled out because it was so big.
So highway officials called on Oregon Department of Transportation highway engineer Thornton to think of another way to remove the whale, which by that point, was starting to decay. Thornton devised a plan: He and a crew would line the beached beast with dynamite, hit the plunger, and let the pieces of blubber scatter into the water. What was left would be cleaned up by seagulls and crabs, he figured.
“It was unbelievable,” former correspondent Paul Linnman, whose news report on the whale explosion has garnered millions of views on YouTube, said of the whale. “The smell would have knocked you over. We went about our business, and got the video we needed, and caught up with Mr. Thornton, and spoke to him about what they thought they were going to do. He was all business, strictly an engineer-type. Only later that day did I find out he got stuck holding the bag that day.”
Thornton later complained that the job fell on his shoulders because his co-workers “conveniently” planned to go deer hunting.
“To be fair, they had plans to go, but this thing made them all the more anxious to go,” Thornton said, according to The Oregonian.
The event was captured by cameras on Nov. 12, 1970, for Linnman’s news station, Portland affiliate KATU-TV.
“I’m confident that it will work. The only thing is, we’re not sure just exactly how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing so the scavengers — seagulls, crabs and whatnot — can clean it up,” Thornton, wearing a hard hat, told Linnman on-camera minutes before the explosion.
It didn’t go as planned.
Bystanders were moved back a quarter of a mile before the blast, but were forced to flee as blubber and huge chunks of whale came raining down on them. Parked cars even further from the scene got smashed by pieces of dead whale. No one was hurt, but the small pieces of whale remains were flecked onto anyone in the area.
“The pieces that went into the air were of all sizes. The piece that flattened the car was about coffee-table size. But blubber is so dense that a piece as big as the tip of your finger can be like a bullet and kill you,” Linnman said. “I’m so happy and so thankful that nobody got hurt, nobody got killed, because I don’t think this thing would have lasted all these years had it been a more serious incident than it was.”
To make matters worse, a large section of whale carcass never moved from the blast site at all. In the end, highway crews buried all the pieces and particles of the whale.
“It might be concluded that should a whale ever wash ashore on Lane County again, those in charge will not only remember what to do, they’ll certainly remember what not to do,” Linnman said at the conclusion of his report on the blast.
Thornton worked for the Oregon Department of Transportation from 1947 until his retirement in December 1984, a spokesman for the department said, and then continued on as a consultant for five years after that. The department never blew up another whale after Thornton’s infamous incident, even when 41 whales beached themselves near Florence at the same time in 1979.
“They were cut up and removed,” said Don Hamilton, public information officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “ODOT has to deal with a lot of interesting incidents involving wildlife. Usually these involve deer and ducks and migrating fish, but on very rare occasions, we have to also deal with issues involving whales. [Thornton’s] was not the first and not the last, and it’s safe to say we’ve learned a lot in our ability to address those issues.”
The department now works with experts at the Marine biology center at Oregon State University when beached whales come onto shore.
“We have to look at every situation and evaluate it,” Hamilton said.
Thornton died in Medford, Ore., Hamilton said.
After the news report aired, Thornton did not stay in touch with Linnman, who is now 66 and working as a news talk radio host. Linnman reached out to Thornton when he wrote a book entitled “The Exploding Whale and Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News” in 2003 and on various anniversaries of the explosion, but the only response he got from Thornton was: “No, it seems like whenever I talk to the media, it blows up in my face.”
The video of the blast is the sixth-most watched video in history, according to BBC research, Linnman said.
Linnman decided to “play around a little bit” with his report in a time when television news was very serious, “but the one thing I didn’t want to do was make fun of anybody or in any way imply that Mr. Thornton had made this terrible mistake.”
He and his cameraman almost didn’t go to cover it at all.
“We were just having a good time covering the news. We were chasing cops and politicians and disasters and we were both in our early 20s and it was all about having some exciting times. When I first got assigned to go to the coast to cover the whale, I told the news director at the time, ‘I’m one the of the star reporters around here. I’m not going to go cover a dead whale.’ He said, ‘They’re using dynamite.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’m going.'”
Man Behind Oregon’s Famous Exploding Whale Dies (NPR)
By Bill Chappell
Oregon highway engineer George Thornton, who in 1970 led an operation to blow up a dead beached whale with half a ton of dynamite, died this week at age 84. Thornton’s decision resulted in a foul shower of whale blubber; video of the event has resurfaced periodically, often leading viewers to declare the whole thing a hoax.
But the problem facing Thornton and his colleagues was both real and huge: Measuring 45 feet and weighing 8 tons, the whale had begun to emit an “incredible” stench as it decomposed on the beach, as Oregon’s KATU-TV news reports.
After consulting experts in the Navy and elsewhere, Thornton decided the best course of action would be to detonate the whale with enough force to disintegrate it into chunks that could be eaten by scavengers — “sea gulls and crabs, and whatnot,” as Thornton told KATU back in 1970.
“I’m confident that it’ll work,” he said, while admitting to some uncertainty over how much dynamite to use. His team approached the problem as they would a large boulder that needs to be broken down, in this case with 20 crates of dynamite. The charge was buried on the landward side of the whale, with the intention of blowing its remains toward the Pacific Ocean.
The event on the beach near Florence, Ore., was covered by KATU’s Paul Linnman, whose witty narration may be part of the reason viewers have suspected the whole thing was a put-on. Linnman interviewed Thornton at the scene, did an on-camera report from next to the decaying whale — and stood with dozens of spectators a quarter of a mile away as the massive explosion was triggered.
And that’s when yelps of excitement and admiration (including a “Wheee!” from one attendee) at the sight of the big blast turned to cries of alarm and disgust, as a torrent of stinky whale flesh fell from the sky.
“A large chunk nearly destroyed this car,” Linnman said, as his report showed a sedan whose roof was flattened so thoroughly that it resembled a four-door convertible. The vehicle was in a parking lot more than a quarter of a mile from the blast site. Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported.
Linnman signed off by observing, “It might be concluded that should a whale ever wash ashore in Lane County again, those in charge will not only remember what to do, they’ll certainly remember what not to do.”
“Thornton had refused to talk about the exploding whale for many years,” The Associated Press reports, “once remarking that every time he did, ‘it blew up in my face.’ ”
The news agency asked Linnman about that comment.
“I don’t think he was trying to be funny,” said Linnman, who now works for Portland radio’s KEX. “It’s just the way he felt.”
While Thornton was loath to revisit the episode, Internet viewers have shown no such reluctance. The video has been rediscovered several times; in the early 1990s, it reportedly triggered angry calls to Oregon officials from people who believed the incident had happened recently, not in 1970.
Ed Shoaps, who worked as a public information officer for Oregon’s Department of Transportation, tells the AP that he sees the KATU footage as an early viral video.
“I consider it the first story to go viral on the Internet,” Shoaps says. “The story persists because it is interesting.”
An overview of how the story — and the jaw-dropping video — kept resurfacing comes from Howard Stateman, who has written about the Web on his Howeird site. In the early 1970s, Stateman was on duty for The Daily Astorian, miles up the Oregon coast from the blubber-blast site. Here’s how he recalls the early life of the story, and its resurrection:
“In 1978, I changed careers, and was one of the early users of the Internet. Imagine my surprise when this story started popping up in Usenet groups as if it had just happened. It was one of the first Urban Legends, which is pretty funny because (a) it was fact and (b) Florence, Oregon is anything but urban. Click here to see an email message I received in 1993, where the sender apparently thought the whale was exploded in the last week or two.
“But the surprise wasn’t over. When the Web started up in earnest about 15 years later, this story again popped up, again as if it had just happened, and was widely dubbed a hoax.”
As might have been said by those in attendance, and by Thornton himself, if only it were so.
The initial TV story was shot on Super 8 film, Stateman says. Here’s a crisper version of the video, presented in a recap by KATU years later:
Oregon Man Behind Decision to Blow up Whale Dies (ABC News)
By Jeff Barnard
An Oregon highway engineer who blew up a dead beached whale with a half-ton of dynamite in 1970 has died at the age of 84.
George Thomas Thornton gained national attention over the exploding whale, and the act endured for decades thanks to a video that shows giant pieces of whale carcass splattering across the beach and spectators.
Thornton got the call Nov. 12, 1970 to remove a 45-foot-long sperm whale estimated to weigh 8 tons that had washed up near Florence, and had started to stink. At the time, the state Highway Division had jurisdiction over beaches, said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Don Hamilton. Thornton was a highly respected engineer who worked 37 years at the agency, he said.
Thornton had refused to talk about the exploding whale for many years, once remarking that every time he did, “it blew up in my face.”
“I don’t think he was trying to be funny,” said Paul Linnman, who hosts a news show on Portland radio KEX and did the 1970 report for KATU television news that became a staple on YouTube. “It’s just the way he felt.”
Thornton told Ed Shoaps, then a public information officer for ODOT, that the district engineer was going elk hunting and left the job to him.
Shoaps said Thornton felt they couldn’t haul the whale out to sea because it would wash back up. They couldn’t bury it on the beach, because the waves would uncover it. And they couldn’t burn it. So Thornton consulted the Navy and other munitions experts, and was advised to blow it up. His crew set the dynamite on the landward side of the whale, hoping to blow it into the water.
“We all know what happened after that,” said Shoaps.
In Linnman’s report, Thornton wears a hardhat and explains in a straightforward manner that the plan is to blow the whale into little pieces that can be consumed by gulls and crabs. About 75 spectators and news reporters draw back to a sand dune a quarter mile away. When the blast erupts, it is greeted with cries of wonder that are soon replaced by sounds of revulsion as bits of whale covered people in goo.
“The humor of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere,” Linnman says in the video. One big chunk flattened the roof of a car.
Some 20 years later, humor writer Dave Berry [sic] wrote about the exploding whale as one of his, “I’m not making this up” stories, said Shoaps. Someone posted it on a bulletin board in the early days of the Internet, and outraged people started calling ODOT to complain, not understanding it had happened 20 years before.
“I consider it the first story to go viral on the Internet,” said Shoaps. “The story persists because it is interesting.”
Indeed, a Google search turns up the YouTube video and a website, www.theexplodingwhale.com.
Perl Funeral Home in Medford confirmed Thornton died Oct. 27. His family declined comment.