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Survivor recalls 1958 Tenn. nuclear accident and up-and-down life that followed

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Asked what he remembers most about June 16, 1958, Bill Clark said simply, “Everything.”

That was the date of the worst nuclear accident in Oak Ridge history, and it changed his life. Clark is the only remaining survivor of the eight men who received severe doses of radiation in the criticality accident — an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction — at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. Now 81 years old, he still thinks about that day and his frightening encounter with radiation.

“It’s not like getting hit with a bullet,” he said. “You don’t feel nothing.”

Clark remembers the flashes of blue light in the C-1 Wing of Building 9212, an area of the plant where scraps of bomb-grade uranium were chemically processed for recovery. At first he thought the light show was a welding arc. But he quickly realized nobody was welding, and workers were starting to run. Sirens were sounding, and there was an awful, awful smell.

“It was the worst thing I ever smelled in my life,” he said. “It was a lot worse than rotten eggs.”

He knew he was supposed to evacuate, but first the 25-year-old chemical operator took a moment to turn off his equipment — an evaporator behind him, and three centrifuges in front of him.

“I should have just left,” he said.

Clark didn’t know a solution of highly enriched uranium had mistakenly been diverted into a steel drum about 50 feet from his work location. The unsafe configuration resulted in a fission reaction that lasted about 15-20 minutes and turned the workplace into a dangerous field of radiation.

He said it wasn’t unusual for alarms to go off at Y-12. But this time was different. Once he got outside, workers were being told to leave that part of the plant. Gates that normally were locked tight had been opened, and Clark said workers were told to walk. Every time they stopped to talk or look around, they were told to keep walking. He said he didn’t stop until he reached the old Skyway Drive-in on Illinois Avenue, about a mile from Y-12, where a bunch of workers had assembled to await further news.

A man with a bullhorn was telling workers they needed to locate one of the trucks where men with Geiger counters were checking to see who had been exposed to radiation. Clark got in line to wait his turn, and when he got to the front — even before he handed over his badge — the needle on the counter hit the peg.

After that, events became a blur.

Clark said he was placed in a van and rushed to a changehouse. Those in charge were stripping away his work clothes even before they got there. Three or four other exposed workers were already in the showers, and Clark soon joined them for the scrubdown of his life, an urgent effort to remove any skin contamination.

While workers were scoured in the showers, plant officials looked for ground zero and tried to figure out what went wrong. Radiation experts pieced together information on worker exposures as it became available, and the early outlook wasn’t good.

Clark was the youngest of the radiation victims. He also was the farthest from the source at about 2 p.m., when the enriched uranium went critical, and he received the lowest dose of the eight. All of those factors may help explain why he’s the only one still living.

After the accident, the Y-12 workers were hospitalized, initially the five with the worst exposures and then — a day later — the other three, including Clark.

“At about 11:00 p.m., on June 16, 1958, the clinical staff of the Medical Division of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies was advised that an accident had occurred at the Y-12 Plant in which five men had received large, and probably dangerous, doses of radiation,” Dr. Beecher Sitterson of ORINS wrote in a clinical report.

The Oak Ridge hospital, a nuclear research center established by the government after the World War II Manhattan Project, didn’t have regular bed space available at the time. So a recreation area was turned into a temporary ward, and the Y-12 workers were placed there. The first five arrived at about 1 a.m., and two hours later, Dr. K.Z. Morgan, a pioneer in radiation studies at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, telephoned the hospital and provided tentative estimates of the doses the men had received. The higher doses — 320 to 706 rems — were thought to be potentially lethal.

Those estimates were scaled down later as experts used various techniques — including a simulated accident using a burro — to get the most accurate measurements possible. Clark’s dose was originally estimated at 30 rems, well below what some of the other accident victims received but many times the safe limit for worker exposures. In 2002, his radiation exposure was re-evaluated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and found to be about 90 rems, three times higher than the 1958 estimate.

Medical and radiation experts from around the country were consulted on the treatments. Because of the unusual circumstances — and some of the highest radiation doses in U.S. history — the Y-12 workers were studied exhaustively. There were physical exams, round-the-clock analyses of symptoms, and almost endless blood work to evaluate what the radiation was doing to their bodies.

Clark remembers a lot of loud groaning from his co-workers and fellow patients, and he wondered whether they were in horrible pain or just scared.

He was scared, too.

Clark is a bit of a character, the kind of guy who always has a nickname.

When he was in the Air Force, friends called him “Jabo” because he talked a lot. When he returned to Y-12 after the accident, other workers called him “Blue Glow” — for obvious reasons. When he worked at TVA, everybody called him “Billy White Shoes” because he had a propensity (and still does) to wear white shoes and a white belt.

He lives in the same North Knoxville neighborhood where he grew up. From the street, his house looks to be of modest size, not unlike others in the area. But around back, it’s a virtual compound, with add-ons to carport and garage. He needs room for all his vehicles. He has seven cars and trucks, including his current pride and joy — a 2001 champagne-colored Jaguar in mint condition — and a yellow dune buggy with a Porsche engine. He also has a power boat in his garage and two Jet Skis at the lake.

He swears he isn’t an adrenaline junkie, but he seems to enjoy a good thrill.

Clark admits to a time not so long ago when a driver on the interstate tailed him annoyingly close. He put the pedal to the floor in his Jag and the speedometer soared into triple digits.

When he was 67 years old, he wanted to see what it felt like to be a NASCAR driver, and so he paid $700 to attend the Richard Petty Driving School at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He got to drive one of Jeff Gordon’s #24 cars for a few laps. Organizers were a little concerned about his age — until he got on the track. Clark has a certificate that shows he topped out at 162 miles per hour, the fastest of that day’s participants.

As he was getting out of the car, his knees buckled. But he said it was a heck of a ride.

Nowadays, he takes it a little easier. He drives up to Pigeon Forge a couple of times a week and takes advantage of his season passes at Dollywood and Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg. “I just like walking around,” he said. He also has a small place in Florida and loves Disneyworld, where he always rides Soarin’, an attraction at Epcot that simulates hang-gliding.

He has been divorced for many years. His favorite companion is 5-year-old Brownie, a chihuahua/terrier mix who likes to ride in the convertible and have his belly rubbed.

Clark never liked working at Y-12. He hated being a chemical operator, mopping floors all the time to recover specks of lost uranium. He was on the verge of quitting his Oak Ridge job and re-enlisting in the Air Force when the accident happened. That changed his plans.

He was cleared to return to work at Y-12 later that year, but it wasn’t a good situation. He said he made the mistake of his life when he let personnel officers at Union Carbide — then the plant’s managing contractor — talk him into taking a weekly salaried position as a records clerk in Quality Control.

Clark didn’t have a lot of seniority in his previous union job, but he had even less job security in his salaried position. He felt he was treated poorly, never given a raise, and thought he was targeted for a layoff at the earliest opportunity. That came in 1965. He remains bitter toward Carbide.

The layoff came with his wife pregnant, and he soon was taking any job available, no matter how menial, to put food on the table and support his two daughters. It seemed that nobody wanted to hire him once they found out he’d been in the big radiation accident — and word got around. He couldn’t get insurance. There was too much fear and uncertainty.

The turnaround came when U.S. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. wrote a letter of recommendation. Suddenly, Clark had his choice of jobs, including three different ones at TVA, where he entered a training program to become an engineer associate.

He loved his time at TVA. The work was rewarding, the pay was good, and he had a ninth floor office with a view of Knoxville’s Market Square. His career was cut short, however, when he developed narcolepsy at age 57 — a problem that’s now controlled with medication.

Ever since the accident, the government and its contractors have protected the identities of the victims. In accident and medical reports, the men are typically referred to by letters of the alphabet, A through H.

In June 1960, however, their names became public record when all eight filed suit against the Atomic Energy Commission, seeking financial compensation for injuries — ranging from loss of hair and vision problems to sterility — suffered as a result of the nuclear accident. Besides Clark, they were Bill Wilburn of Knoxville, O.C. Collins of Clinton, Travis Rogers of Alcoa, R.D. Jones of Lake City, Howard Wagner of Knoxville, T.W. Stinnett of Rockwood and Paul McCurry of Knox County.

The lawsuits were ultimately settled out of court for what today would seem like paltry sums. The payments varied according to the radiation dose received.

For instance, Clark received $9,000, a third of which went to his attorney. In a 2001 interview, Wilburn confirmed that he received an $18,000 settlement. His radiation dose was among the highest in the group.

Based on follow-up reports, it appears that most, if not all, of the Y-12 radiation victims developed some form of cancer in the years following the 1958 accident.

Both Clark and Wilburn spoke out when the government began implementing the Energy Employees Occupational Illness and Compensation Act, which was passed by Congress in 2000 to help those made sick by workplace exposures at Cold War nuclear facilities like Y-12.

They felt they should be compensated even though their earlier financial settlement included a promise not to seek additional money from the government.

“I think if anybody deserves it, we do,” said Wilburn, who had more than a dozen cancerous lesions removed from his face and in the early 1980s had to have his penis amputated because of a malignant growth there.

It’s not known if all families of the Y-12 accident victims received compensation from the federal program, but Clark acknowledges that he collected multiple payments totaling about $250,000.

He had surgery for colon cancer in 1975 and later developed multiple skin cancers.

Clark still goes to the Radiation Emergency Center/Training Site in Oak Ridge at least once a year to have a physical exam and to give blood for continuing studies of the radiation victims. The federal facility is operated by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, which was originally called the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies.

ORAU confirmed there is only one surviving member of the accident group and said there are plans to produce an updated study within the next year. The last one was published in 1980.

“Since 1958 ORAU physicians and medical staff have been involved in the medical monitoring and care of the eight Y-12 criticality accident victims,” spokeswoman Pam Bonee said in a statement. “Hopefully, what we’ve learned from these eight gentlemen will never have to be used on other victims, but the knowledge we’ve gained from the medical journey of these men will help the medical community treat others should the need ever arise.”

Clark said he’s a pretty happy guy, although he thinks his health has gone down in the past couple of years.

In an odd way, he said, things have probably worked out for the best. If the accident hadn’t happened, he likely would have rejoined the Air Force. “Who knows how that would’ve worked out,” he said. Or, worse yet, he might have stayed a chemical operator at Y-12, a job he detested. Instead, he ended up at TVA, where he had 25 good years. That was satisfying to him, and the past 10 years in retirement have probably been the best of his life, he said.

“When you’re sliding down a hill, like I am, and your life’s about over, at some point you had to be on top to slide down,” he said. “So, it’s OK.”
 

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