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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

November 13, 1974

Hello, everyone! Are you ready for another Tuesday Timeline special?

Today is the thirteenth of November, and I'll admit that I had a bit of trouble selecting a topic. Of all the possible topics I could have chosen, many of them were ones that I had already featured, or ones that I weren't really interested in. There are also some instances in which for some of the topics, I couldn't do them justice in a blog entry.

So, I ended up getting a little bit creative, choosing a subject that I wasn't familiar with, and found one that was interesting, yet tragic.

I'll get into why later on.

Firstly, why don't we begin by wishing the following famous people a happy birthday. Celebrating a birthday today are Tom Atkins, Daniel Pilon, David Green, Mel Stottlemyre, John Hammond, Jay Sigel, Timmy Thomas, Joe Mantegna, Terry Reid, Mary Lou Metzger, Frances Conroy, Tracy Scoggins, Chris Noth, Whoopi Goldberg, Ginger Alden, Rex Linn, Stephen Baxter, Caroline Goodall, Neil Flynn, Vinny Testaverde, Jimmy Kimmel, Steve Zahn, Noah Hathaway, Ari Hoenig, Chanel Cole, Nikolai Fraiture (The Strokes), Monique Coleman, and Austin Williams.

And, for historical events on November 13, we have the following...

1002 – The St. Brice's Day Massacre takes place in England

1160 – The wedding of Louis VII of France and Adele of Champagne

1841 – James Braid observes a demonstration of animal magnetism, which leads to his study of what would later be called “hypnotism”

1864 – The new constitution of Greece is adopted

1887 – Bloody Sunday clashes in London

1901 – The 1901 Caister Lifeboat Disaster

1916 – Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes is expelled from the Labor Party over his support for conscription

1918 – Allied troops occupy Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire capital

1927 – The Holland Tunnel opens to traffic, making it the first Hudson River vehicle tunnel linking New Jersey and New York

1941 – HMS Ark Royal is torpedoed by U-81, sinking the next day

1947 – Soviet Union completes the development of the AK-47

1950 – General Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, them president of Venezuela is assassinated in Caracas

1956 – The United States Supreme Court declares Alabama laws requiring segregation to be illegal, which puts an end to the Montgomery Bus Boycott

1965 – SS Yarmouth Castle burns and sinks off the coast of Nassau, killing 90 people

1969 – Thousands of protesters against the Vietnam War stage the “March Against Death” in Washington D.C.

1970 – A cyclone strikes the Ganges Delta region in Pakistan, killing an estimated half a million people...the worst natural disaster of the 20th century

1982 – The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is dedicated in Washington D.C.

1985 – The eruption of Nevado del Ruiz melts a nearby glacier which causes a volcanic mudslide that buries the entire town of Armero, Colombia

1988 – Ethiopian born law student Mulugeta Seraw is beaten to death in Portland, Oregon by Neo-Nazi group East Side White Pride

1990 – Aramoana Massacre takes place in New Zealand in which David Gray kills thirteen

2001 – United States President George W. Bush signs executive order allowing military tribunals against foreigners suspected of planning terrorist attacks, or being connected to any terrorist attacks against the United States

2002 – Oil tanker Prestige sinks off the Galacian coast which causes a huge oil spill

2004 – Russell Tyrone Jones – otherwise known by his stage name Ol' Dirty Bastard – dies of a drug overdose two days before his thirty-sixth birthday

2005 – Wrestling star Eddie Guerrero dies at the age of 38 in Minneapolis, Minnesota

For today's look back through time, we're going back in time almost 40 years.

November 13, 1974.

On November 13, 1974, a woman, just twenty-eight years old, was on her way to meet with a man named David Burnham, then a journalist for the New York Times. Steve Wodka, an official of the woman's union national office was also scheduled to be present at the meeting. The meeting was set to take place in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She had left a union meeting at a cafe, armed with a bundle of documents and a binder. Whatever the meeting was going to be about, it had to be something explosive...something that would make the front page of every newspaper in the country.

Tragically, Karen Silkwood never made it to that meeting.

Her body was found inside of her car later that evening, after the car had veered off the side of the road and into a culvert. She was pronounced dead on the scene. What followed were suspicions of foul play, as well as one of the biggest workplace scandals involving health and safety violations, concluding with a huge lawsuit.

But, why don't we start at the very beginning?

I'm going to introduce you to the late Karen Silkwood. Her picture is above. Quite the beautiful young woman, wasn't she? She was born on February 19, 1946, which would make her 66 years old today had she lived. She was born in Longview, Texas, the daughter of Merle and William Silkwood, and when she was young, her family moved to Nederland, Texas, where she was raised. In 1965, she had gotten married to William Meadows and had three children with him, but the marriage would end seven years later, in 1972. 1972 would end up being a rather memorable year for Silkwood. She moved to Oklahoma City, and took on the job that would be the starting point of what would become her worst nightmare.

1972 was the year that Karen Silkwood began working at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site just outside of Crescent, Oklahoma where her job was to manufacture plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. Shortly after being hired, she joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union, and actively took part in a worker's strike at the plant. Once the strike was over, Silkwood was elected to the union's bargaining committee, making history as the first female elected to the position since the plant opened.

One of her main duties that Karen held as part of that position was to investigate any and all health and safety issues within the plant. It didn't take long for Silkwood to find all sorts of violations within the company, including exposing workers to contaminated substances, workers using faulty or damaged respiratory equipment, and improper storage of samples. She also had the belief that the lack of adequate shower facilities could cause a negative impact on the health of its employees, putting them at risk of contamination.

In the summer of 1974, Silkwood testified to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) about having been contaminated, alleging that the safety standards had been slipping due to an increase in the production speed. Prior to that, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union had come to the conclusion that the plant had been manipulating product inspection records, had been manufacturing faulty fuel rods, and risked employee safety, and was threatening to file charges against the company.

Just a few months later, on November 5, 1974, a frightening event took place. On that day, Silkwood was performing a routine self-check and was alarmed to realize that she had 400 times the allowed limit for plutonium contamination inside her body! She underwent immediate decontamination at the plant, and when she went back home, she was given a testing kit so that she could collect bodily fluids for further tests. Tests done at the facility proved that there was plutonium present on the surfaces that she touched with the gloves that she had been using, but there were no holes inside the gloves. The only conclusion that could be made was that the contamination had come from a source outside of the glovebox.

The next day, she tested positive for contamination again, despite the fact that her duties only involved filing paperwork, and was given a more intense decontamination. The next day after that, she entered the plant and once more tested positive for contamination. This time, the contamination was so severe, she was actually expelling traces of plutonium from her breath. A team of health physicists accompanied her back home where they discovered traces of plutonium in her refrigerator and bathroom. The entire house was stripped of its furnishings and decontaminated, some of Silkwood's belongings having to be completely destroyed, and Silkwood, her partner Drew Stephens, and her housemate were sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory for further tests.

All the while, the question of how Silkwood ended up becoming contaminated between November 5 and 7, 1974 was still lingering. Silkwood did offer a possible explanation for the traces found in her bathroom on the morning of November 7, as she believed that it may have come from her accidentally spilling the urine sample that she had collected the day before. The tests also showed that the samples from her home had a higher level on concentration than the samples taken at Los Alamos.

The only conclusion that Silkwood could draw was that she had gotten contaminated at the plant. But she wasn't prepared for the statement that Kerr-McGee had issued, claiming that she had made herself sick on purpose to portray the company in a negative light. It was an allegation that Silkwood would not accept.

Over the next few days, Silkwood compiled a bunch of documentation that included company papers to support her claims. And part of the reason why she called the reporter from the New York Times was because she was ready to go public with her claims in regards to her own theories as to how she really ended up contaminated.

The meeting was scheduled to take place November 13. She never made it.

Upon examination of her body, the police report had stated that Silkwood had fallen asleep at the wheel, and a state trooper had remembered seeing a couple of sedatives inside the car, as well as some marijuana. An autopsy on her body later proved that she had traces of the sedatives inside her bloodstream at the time of her least twice the recommended dosage.

Still, the crash site was suspicious enough for people to speculate about how the accident really happened. It was speculated that Silkwood's car was forced off the road in an attempt to keep her from talking. Skid marks from Silkwood's car were also present on the road, which suggested that she was trying to stay on the road after she was rammed from behind.

Perhaps the most glaring piece of evidence that suggested that Silkwood's death was no accident was the fact that the documents that she had reportedly taken with her in the car were nowhere in sight, and according to Silkwood's family, she had received several threatening and menacing calls in the days leading up to the accident.

Silkwood's organs were examined by AEC and the State Medical Examiner, and the findings showed high levels of radiation in her lungs and gastrointestinal system. Her death inspired a lot of public suspicions, which in turn lead to a police investigation into the plant. The National Public Radio reported that as much as sixty-six pounds of plutonium had been misplaced or had gone missing at the plant.

The ultimate result ended with the closure of the Cimarron plant one year later, in 1975. Almost twenty years later, the Department of Energy had declared the plant decommissioned and decontaminated.

The epilogue of this story is this. Silkwood's family eventually launched a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee for negligence on behalf of her estate. The jury eventually rendered a verdict of over half a million dollars in damages, and ten million dollars in punitive damages. The settlement was appealed, which reduced the monies awarded to just five thousand, and completely voided the punitive damages. It wouldn't be until 1984 that the decision was reversed, and Kerr-McGee settled out of court for $1,380,000, the whole time maintaining that they had done nothing wrong.

In the end though, a whistleblower ended up losing her life...all in the name of ensuring that everyone that she was working with was entitled to a safe workplace. Regardless of your opinions on the case, you have to admit that the case of Karen Silkwood had opened up the eyes of many people, and exposed a company's shortcomings in the process.

If you want to learn more about this case, there's a couple of sources that you can look into. In 1983, a movie adaptation was released entitled “Silkwood”, which starred Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood. The film also starred Cher and Kurt Russell. I'd definitely watch this movie, as Streep's performance is outstanding.

Or, if you want a more in-depth look, check out Richard L. Rashke's book, The Killing of Karen Silkwood.

And that's what happened on November 13, 1974.

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