A Georgia tragedy was reduced to two lines in history books. A museum aims to rectify that.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

The Thiokol Memorial Project started with two lines.

"One of the most devastating of tragedies in Camden County occurred on February 3, 1971, when a magnesium flare assembly building was leveled by the blast which killed 29 workers and injured many more. Thiokol Corporation was generous in its help to the injured victims and to the families of those killed."

Out of more than 500 pages of the official history book of Camden County, two lines were dedicated to one of the worst industrial disasters in Georgia's history.

Jannie Everette, the daughter of one of the explosion survivors, knew there was more to the story. Everette witnessed the devastation and trauma wrought upon the tight-knit community of Woodbine as a high school senior.

The 29 victims of the Thiokol explosion were assembling trip flares for the Vietnam War when a spark on the line turned into a raging fire. In building M-132, fires frequently ignited and were extinguished. But, this time, the flames licked across the concrete floor, catching the illuminant powders, and reached the cure room, where tons of pyrotechnic materials were stored.

At exactly 10:53 a.m., the explosion shook the earth for more than 15 miles beyond the plant. Windows in nearby homes shattered. Children playing in schoolyards fell to the ground.

Everette was goofing off with her friend at the lunch tables when she felt the quake. Minutes later, sirens pierced the air and students were let out of class. Thiokol had blown up, they were told. Some, including Everette’s brother, ran for the nearby hospitals.

But Everette stayed behind, and as she waited for the school bus, a neighbor rounded the corner in her car. On the passenger side was her mother, Lucille Washington Everette. She was covered in burns and blood but she was alive.

“She was burned in the face, but I knew it was my mother,” said Everette.

The effects lingered past Feb. 3

In the days and weeks after that Black Wednesday, Everette watched her classmates grieve for their lost mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.  Most of the victims were women from Camden County who served as the bread and butter of their households. Their deaths left a gaping hole in their families.

Everette watched her mother, who barely recovered from her injuries after six months, go back to the Thiokol plant and continue working. “I said, ‘Well, why would you go back out there?’ She said, ‘Them, boys need us to do our job. Besides, y'all need to eat.’ So that was it.” Everette recalled.

The year after the explosion, Everette graduated high school. She left Woodbine and joined the U.S. Army, and then made a career at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy in Washington D.C. Whenever Lucille came to stay with Everette in D.C., and Feb. 3rd rolled around, her mother would cry.

Decades after the explosion, Everette returned home to Woodbine. She was, once again, surrounded by family and friends, many of whom had a connection to the 1971 blast. Yet, she realized, none of the children knew what had happened. They weren’t being taught this piece of local history in schools.

Credit: Zach Dennis / Savannah Morning News

Credit: Zach Dennis / Savannah Morning News

“I said, ‘Nobody ever told you about this history?’ I said, ‘Your great grandma was killed out there. And my mom was almost killed out there,’” Jannie recounted, “They said, ‘No, nobody ever told us.’”

She looked for more within the “Camden’s Challenge: A History of Camden County, Georgia” and found those two lines.  “They didn’t even call these people’s names out,” she said.

The moment jumpstarted years of research and interviews to piece together what had happened on Feb. 3, 1971. Everette tracked down past Thiokol employees and relatives of victims and survivors. She gathered memorabilia and artifacts related to Thiokol and the day of the tragedy.

Building a museum to commemorate a forgotten day

In 2015, Jannie turned the collective effort into the Thiokol Memorial Project. The non-profit rents a small building on Lee Street in Kingsland, a city about 10 miles south of Woodbine. The space serves as the Thiokol Memorial Museum, whose exhibits chronicle the explosion and its aftermath.

But the museum doesn’t dwell only on the horrors of the event. It highlights the resilient spirit of the Thiokol workers and the unity of the rescue efforts of that day.

The 17-year lawsuit that followed the explosion, Everette points out, was a pivotal case of mass tort litigation against the federal government. Details of the case reveal that the U.S. Army’s negligence in failing to classify the trip flare materials as explosive ultimately led to the deaths of the Thiokol employees. Yet, U.S. attorneys fought for years in appeals courts to avoid compensating the injured and grieving for their pain. At the end of the legal wrangling, about $20 million was awarded to the nearly 60 plaintiffs who filed.

The Thiokol memorial is ultimately a tribute to the 29 workers, many of whom were women looking to make a decent living for their families, but became victims in the American war effort and a brutal battle for justice. At the museum, they’re given the title, The Patriots of Thiokol.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

“You're born poor, you're born a woman, Black, in the South. That's four strikes,” said Everette, “But these people they took where they were as just a circumstance, they didn't accept it as a destination. They just kept moving on.”

Over the years, the Thiokol Memorial Project, led by Everette, has built a home for this history and a space for healing.

When drivers fly down Interstate 95 towards exit 7, they now see the sign “Patriots of Thiokol Memorial Interchange” as well as a billboard advertising the museum.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Every February 3rd, the organization hosts a commemoration ceremony replete with community leaders, keynote speakers and musical performances. And, at 10:53 a.m., Camden County schools observe a minute of silence to pay respects to the victims. It’s a moment to reflect and a moment for students to finally learn about this buried piece of Georgia history.

But the Thiokol Memorial team isn't stopping there. They're continuing to raise awareness and the top priority of late is gathering enough signatures for a petition to honor the victims of the Thiokol blast with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“They made the munitions for Vietnam. This was a federal contract for the military. So I don’t understand why they’re still being left out of American history,” said Everette.

Also among the organization’s top goals is getting the state legislature to declare February 3rd an official day of remembrance. Everette also envisions an expanded education center in the Woodbine area, so that visitors can’t miss the history. Just because this story has been written out of the history books for decades, doesn’t mean it’s too late to start retelling, according to Everette.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

“Because we need to heal, we need to inspire our young people and people would come here from all around the world to learn this history.”

Learn more about the Thiokol Memorial Project at thiokolmemorial.org and sign the petition for the Congressional Gold Meal on Change.org.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: A Georgia tragedy was reduced to two lines in history books. A museum aims to rectify that.


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