RADFORD, Va. -- Jan. 6, 1978. It is 6:05 a.m.
Vinton Lineberry is lying on his back, though how he got there he can't remember. His wispy consciousness is drifting like smoke in a hollow. The world around him is vague and silent, its only point of reference the winter sky above. He fixes his mind on the iron-bellied clouds, waiting for time and place to mend. And then Lineberry realizes that moments before there had been a roof overhead, but now it is gone.
Five feet away, Glenn Richardson lies dead. As for James Pearman, father of eight who was working 100 yards away--his body will never be found.
When 5,000 pounds of nitroglycerine accidently detonated at the Radford Army ammunition plant that morning four years ago, it not only killed one man and obliterated another, but literally pulverized a storage house and a processing station as well.
Elsewhere, such an experience might give pause to a man lucky enough to survive. Not Lineberry. He was back at work at first opportunity six months later, doing the same thing he had been doing the morning of the explosion: making nitroglycerine.
"I look at it like this," says Lineberry, 62, who retired this year after 36 years at the plant. "We have a car wreck, and we spend six months in the hospital. What's the first thing we do when we get out of the hospital? I'll tell you what we do. We get right back in a car and drive off."
That sort of realism is the norm in this Blue Ridge community where more than 3,000 people gingerly manufacture the explosive propellant for the bullets, mortars and rockets of a modern war machine at the largest facility of its type in the nation.
Most people here have grown up with the 42-year-old plant as a neighbor and regard its dangers as a fact of life. Since 1970, for instance, 142 employes have been injured and seven killed in nine explosions, the latest death occurring earlier this summer. And while all such accidents are taken seriously, local newspapers long ago developed a habit of measuring each blast's force by how far away it rattles windows.
In part, the local attitude is born of economic necessity. Were it not for the arsenal, as it is called, this part of Virginia, 240 miles southwest of Washington, might conceivably be among the state's economically depressed areas. In fact, however, arsenal workers earn an average of $7.22 an hour, and their jobs are so desirable that the personnel office has an estimated backlog of 5,000 job applications.
Undoubtedly most important in shaping public perceptions here is that just about everyone has worked at the plant at one time or another -- or known someone who has, said Lowell (Pete) Strader, president of the 1,700-member arsenal employes' union. Right now, for example, the Radford mayor and one City Council member work there. Strader, 36 years old and an employe since 1966, says the typical arsenal employe has been on the job between 10 and 20 years.
"For so many of these people," he explains, "this is all they've ever known."
He and others say that workers are far more likely to express concern about the possibility of layoffs than of sudden death or injury, especially with regional unemployment hovering just above 10 percent, about 3 percent over the state average.
"We don't pay that much attention to the plant," sums up Radford fire chief Calvin Whitt, 39, whose department has been called into the arsenal to help fight fires caused by explosions at least six times in the last 15 years.
So, save for an explosion, about the only time the plant ever appears in print here or elsewhere is when professors from nearby Virginia Tech discover something worth studying there. Last year, for instance, a Tech professor announced he was trying to figure out why some 1,300 vultures had taken to roosting on a hill in the midst of the plant. And more recently, a Tech professor has been studying how to get commuting arsenal employes to wear seat belts (he claims seat-belt usage has increased from 6.3 percent to 20 percent in one year, thanks to his efforts).
Slowly, over the years, the plant has managed to work its way into the fabric of this quiet, small-town, largely rural area, where old-fashioned patriotism (no one can ever recall an antiwar demonstration outside the plant, even during the Vietnam war) and conservatism ("I gotta educate most of these guys about the value of a union," sighs Strader) are traditions.
Carved from about 7,000 acres of cornfields and forests in just nine months beginning in late 1940, the plant transformed sleepy Radford, boasting a population of 6,990 in 1940, into a booming industrial community of 25,000 during World War II.
"People were renting chicken houses and barns," recalls Charles E. Flynn, 68, who has worked continuously at the plant since March 1941 and is now the senior plant employe. "There were even people renting beds by the shift. Someone would sleep in a bed from midnight to eight, then the midnight shift man would sleep in it, and so on."
It stayed that way for just over four years until, by the end of the war, the plant had produced about 500 million pounds of propellant -- a figure that has since grown to between 2 billion and 3 billion pounds.
Then, overnight, in the first of the boom-to-bust cycles of powder production that were to hit the area, the boom was over. On Aug. 13, 1945 -- one day before Japan surrendered in the war -- "an order came to cease construction of new plant facilities at noontime," says Flynn. "The next day they signed the peace treaty, and there was a holiday on the 15th and 16th. Then on the 17th, which was a Friday, they started laying off people."
As the direct result, plant employment plummeted from a wartime high of about 10,000 to about 250 within four months, Flynn recalls. It remained there for the next three years--while the plant produced ammonium nitrate for fertilizer as part of the Marshall Plan.
Since then, the plant's employment has unerringly mirrored world tensions. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, for instance, plant employment rose to about 9,000, while postwar layoffs usually reduced the staff to about 3,000. In the meantime, Radford's population stabilized at about 13,000.
Through it all, however, the essential aspect of the heavily guarded plant, one of about 12 government munitions plants still operating, has remained unchanged since World War II despite a massive, $700 million renovation and expansion project begun in 1970 and due to end in 1988.
Buildings where sensitive chemical manufacturing processes are handled are still surrounded by huge, earth-filled wooden ramparts that direct accidental explosions upwards. They are also separated by a hundred yards.
Everywhere on the government-owned but privately operated facility are signs cautioning passersby to "Beware Nitroglycerine Truck" and "Watch for Powder Trucks and Trailers." Huge pipes carrying sulfuric and nitric acid crisscross overhead, prompting a guide to caution against standing underneath them. Rarely are more than two workers seen together in any one spot, and most wear all-white protective garments.
Yet, despite its forbidding appearance and the plant's notoriety earned through the years because of explosions, Army Capt. Joseph Daves, the plant executive officer, notes that arsenal workers are injured at about only one-third the rate of the chemical industry as a whole.
"The problem is when we do have an accident . . . they're more dramatic, more spectacular," he says. "We get a lot of publicity when that happens."
All the same, while Strader agrees the plant is generally conscientious about safety, the specter of another explosion--and people's indifference to it--troubles him.
"Over the years, you get really attached to people and you see a lot of people hurt," says Strader. "After an explosion, you can feel it in the air. People worry about it, but after a while, it's like it never happened . . . It don't take but one little mistake in one of those buildings, and you don't have a chance to get away."
Strader is not alone. Many of the wives of plant employes are terrified by the possibility. The wife of 38-year-old James Pearman, who was killed about six months after being rehired following a layoff, told reporters after the explosion that she had asked him not to return.
Lineberry, who had a brother-in-law killed at the plant, also says his wife begged him not to return. But he went anyway.
"I just felt like I had to get back," he says softly. "I still don't know why."