Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

YOU ARE THERE: Kingsport, Tennessee, 1960

Thursday, January 16, 2014

From "The Day Kingsport Wept," a retrospective on the Eastman aniline explosion

by Mary Kiss, Kingsport Times, October 5, 1975.

"In Kinsgport, much of life is attuned to the rhythm of Tennessee Eastman Company. Traffic ebbs and flows with the changing of shifts at the giant chemical plant on the southern edge of the city….

"The pattern extends far beyond the city limits.  And close to Kingsport, there is almost no one whose life is not touched in some way by what happens in the Eastman plant….

"[On October 4, 1960], as the afternoon waned, Kingsport was caught in that fleeting moment of calm-the few quiet minutes between the letting-out of school and the five o'clock rush. Downtown, businessmen were checking their watches and their cash registers, preparing for closing time. At Tennessee Eastman, office workers were clearing their desks. Maintenance men were washing away the day's grime. A few had already finished their showers and were walking toward the gate.

"There were never any generally published accounts of what happened next. But there were reports that an unusual plume of yellowish-brown smoke had begun pouring from the top of Tennessee Eastman's new aniline plant….

"At approximately 4:45 p.m., the aniline plant exploded with a thunderous roar, flinging chunks of concrete and metal outward with the force and speed of TNT.

"Someone on Skyline Drive happened to be looking toward Eastman at that precise moment. They described the view later to Kingsport Fire Chief C.M. Kenner. 'They said it looked like the whole building raised up in the air and then just flew all to pieces.'

"Shock waves vibrated through Kingsport. Windows crashed in homes and businesses across a three-mile radius. Parts of the shattered building, still searingly hot, rained down on streets and houses.

"On Lincoln Street, a piece of debris whizzed through an automobile windshield and passed, meteorlike, out the other side.

"Against a background of flames, a giant cloud of black smoke filled the sky above the demolished aniline plant.

"Earth-shattering events have a way of burning themselves into the consciousness. Most people, if they're old enough, can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and that President Kennedy had been shot.

"For Kingsport people, it's that way with The Eastman Explosion."

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