Sunday, September 22, 2013

Powder Plant Igloo Explosion on April 27, 1966 at INAAP, Charlestown, Indiana

Igloo 5186 Q, sibling of the now missing Igloo 5185 Q.
 At about 9:00 on April 27, 1966, the earth near Charlestown Indiana erupted in a volcano like explosion.  In one instant, 175,000 pounds of gunpowder exploded, ending three lives and shattering windows three miles away.  This is the story of what happened that morning, and what is left today.

The missing igloo, 5185 Q, is marked with a red X.  The two neighboring igloos are still intact, and are visible as green bumps.  Period newspaper reports ID the wrong igloo as having exploded, 109 R
Located on the ground of the old Indiana Army Ammunition Plant (INAAP) in Charlestown Indiana, igloo 5185 Q was one of 180 such structures built in 1941 when the plant opened.  The units are constructed something like in-ground swimming pools, rectangular concrete boxes built into the earth.  They are covered with arched roofs, which are then covered in a layer of dirt.  The roofs are thin, and the doors face in "safe" directions, so that should one explode, all the energy is directed upwards and into a harmless direction.

The roads leading to the igloos are marked with signs such as this one.  The marking is repeated on the doors of the bunkers as well.

Igloo door.
Every igloo has a steel vault door that locks securely from the outside.  There is also a loading dock, so that trucks could pull up to them.

Close up of padlock, shielded to make removal difficult.
Ladder on igloo front.  Note the grounding wire running from the third rung over to the metal rim.
The igloos were constructed with safety in mind.  Grounding wires run from every metal surface to the building itself, so that there would be less risk of static sparks, along with the resulting explosions.  A system was also employed to ground trucks that pull up the loading docks.

Igloo 5184 Q, the other neighbor of the now missing igloo.
What happened that morning is unclear, as no one who witnessed the events survived to tell about it.  Certain facts are known, however, and that is all that we can relate here.  Three men clocked in to work that morning and checked out a 1.5 ton truck.  Dale E. Lord (aged 30), Adair Hayes (52) and William C. Zimbro (27) were tasked that day with transporting some powder from Igloo 5185 Q to another part of the plant.  

The missing igloo would be to the right of the telephone pole.
At a little after 9:00 a.m., something went tragically wrong.   It could have been static discharge, a stray lightning bolt, anything, and at least one family was simply told that it was an "act of god."  Regardless, there was a massive and earth shaking explosion.  175,000 pounds of M9 flake powder used for launching mortar shells went off all at once.  Nothing was left of the igloo, and according to somewhat insensitive newspaper reports of the time, the men were killed traumatically by the blast.  A roll call of the plant employees was used to determine who exactly was missing, and thus presumed to have been killed in the explosion.  Little remained but a crater, some truck parts and very little that could be identified otherwise amidst the piles of dirt and concrete.  

Site of 5185.  The shallow impressions in the ground are all that is left of tons of concrete and steel.  A survey of the site still shows traces of semi-volatile organic compounds, almost 50 years later.
Most people know little of gunpowder, assuming that it is all the same stuff, a fast burning black powder.  In reality, gunpowders vary in both power and burning speed, and the M9 flake involved in the blast was uniquely dangerous.  It was made to burn EXTREMELY fast, so that it could launch a heavy shell long distances from a very short tube.  M9 is also sensitive to being handled roughly, and those who worked with the stuff in the 1960s still have a healthy fear of the stuff.

M-9, the demon powder.  The stuff is really thin, allowing light through it.  This is why it looks darker in the middle, where the pile is thicker, as it allows less light through.  The little wafers are very "sticky," and have to be cleaned off of whatever they contact.

Cattle still graze in the field across from the igloo ruins, as mentioned in the paper.  At least one was killed by the blast that day.  This field was covered in debris from the explosion, and the road in front of it was blocked to traffic by dirt and concrete.
Cattle guards are scattered throughout the plant, to keep cows in place.  The land was leased out during the war to farmers who let their animals graze around the plant.  This eliminated the need for lawnmowing.
The blast shattered windows miles away, all around the plant itself and across the river in Prospect, Kentucky.  Aside from the three men who were instantly killed, dozens were injured by the blast wave or resulting broken glass.  Once the human remains were recovered, the hole in the ground was simply allowed to grow over with grass.  The igloo was not rebuilt, and nothing marks the site today.  (Summer of 2013), though I have heard that at times things have been placed on the site in remembrance of the lost.

Every igloo is bracketed by two telephone poles.  These are giant lightning rods, designed to send the power of a strike deep into the ground using thick copper cables.  More buildings can be seen down the road.
The plant was more or less closed once the Vietnam War ended.  Beginning in the 1990s, tracts of the land were sold off for redevelopment.  Today, some parts have been transferred to the Charlestown State Park, while others remain under lock and key.  The igloo field can only be accessed with special permission, which we were lucky to get.  One day these unique buildings will be torn down, and nothing will remain on the site.

The three men who were killed in the blast are today buried in surrounding cemeteries in Charlestown, Sellersburg, and Jeffersonville.  During the course of my research, I located all three graves, paying my respects at each. 

Dale E. Lord, father of five.  He and his wife Bonnie are buried side by side.  Dale was known to as "Catfish" to his friends and family.

Adair Hayes, father of four, is buried by himself, as far as I could determine.  He went by the nickname "Boots," and was the oldest of the three men.

William Zimbro, single, was buried with his parents and a sibling.  He was one of 12 children.
Like Adair Hayes, Mr. Billy Zimbro was a military veteran, and his grave features a second government stone.
What follows here are some newspaper clipping from the Louisville Courier Journal, covering the two days after the blast.  These were pulled from microfiche, and the photos didn't come out that clear as a result.

And here are three sets of reports from the Louisville Times.  One from the day of the blast, published that evening, and then two from the following days.

A final departing show of the area, the igloos showing up as weird mounds.

To keep up with future updates, "Like" us on Facebook.  We will add to this post and others like it as our research turns up more information. 

This post has gotten a lot of attention lately.  Rather than copy and paste every comment into the article, it seems better to leave them as posted below.  This will keep the context intact.  Besides, any effort I make to rewrite them will fail to convey the meaning they already have.  If anyone posts anything that seems especially sensitive (phone numbers, email addresses) I will probably trim them just to prevent people from getting on spam-mail or phone call lists.

Thank you all for comments and stories.


  1. I was in jr high t.v. math class in the lunch room of charlsetown high school. At that time it had three doors to the outside, all three swung fully open at the time of the blast.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. Did everyone know right away what had happened, (that it was a plant explosion) or did it take time for news to filter in? What was the atmosphere at school like the rest of the day?

      Its simply hard to wrap my head around the power of the blast. I live several miles from the site, and even here buildings were damaged by it. I can't imagine what it would be like nowadays with a plant like that near by. Sure, it created thousands of jobs, but... you know.

      There were a number of accidents at the plant over the years, most just injuring people. There was another fatal incident in 1969 that killed two people, but I haven't found out much about it yet. At some point, we will cover it as well.

  2. Charles, This is very informing! Dale Lord was my Mom's husband and my Sisters and Brothers Dad. My Mom's heart was broken until the day she died! His children will always miss him! Sad to say you found out more than we ever knew about that day. Thank You for the story and the respect you gave to it.

    1. I am sorry about your family's loss. I tried to approach it with as much dignity as I could, and Its good that the post has been of some use to someone. If you have any information thing you wish to add, please post it here and we will update the article. If you wish to contribute a picture of Mr. Lord, please send it to us at eerieindianablog (at) gmail dot com, or at our facebook page. Wishing well to you and yours.

  3. I am the daughter of Dale E. Lord and Thank You so very, very much for you posting this tragic information that caused my Father's death. I was a 6 yr old child when he was killed and me and my brothers and sisters have never been allowed access to read the inquest into his death and the other two men. We have been trying for years to get any info and you, my dear sir, have giving me more than I could find, for this I am truly grateful. I would be so happy if you uncover any more info to include me. Again, God Bless you Sir and Thank You, Susan Lord-Jones

    1. Ms. Jones,
      I am glad the article has been helpful, and I send my condolences. Truly, I'm surprised that people even found this page. I will do some more digging around and see what I can find. Anything I turn up I'll forward your way.
      thank you again.

  4. William C. Zimbro was my mother's brother and I remember hearing stories about what happened from my Grandmother. My mother was 20 at the time of the accident. However his death did not leave my grandmother alone - she had 12 children in total with William being the 2nd child that passed.

    1. I sincerely apologize for the factual error, and I have since corrected it. I misread something along the way and appreciate the correction. If you have anything else you or your family wishes to add, please post it and I will make more edits.
      thank you.

  5. I was in grade school at Marysville In. W were sitting there and all of sudden every window including the building ratteled. Of coarse we all thought it was a earth quake but later The principal Mr, Robinson told us what happened. it was a sad day.

  6. My father had been a temporary replacement on that crew until shortly before the explosion.I wish I had seen this before as he has passed away

  7. I am the younest sister of Billy Zimbro, I was 13 @ the time and remember it like it was yesterday. I still have the paper clippings in a book. I always wanted to see where it all happened, didn't know how to go about it. However my mom did, and after that she went to work there. I don't remember the date of the second explosion, but my sister's mother-in law was killed, Emma Doss. Both of these were taking someone else's place. My brother wasn't suppose to go out on the lines he had not been there 30 days.

  8. My grandfather was young at the time and he had lived (and still does) just right down the street from the plant, when the explosion occurred it was so powerful it knocked their chimney off the roof, and destroyed every last window.

  9. If you check the latest Google Earth image of the area, appears that whole row of
    igloos are being removed.. dated 9/22/2014

    1. I had heard this was happening, or was going to happen soon. They are removing all the dirt from each igloo, and then poking holes in them to make them collapse.

  10. Such an interesting and also scary part of our history. I guess none of us will ever know exactly what happened that day.

    1. Yea, there are 3-4 real potential options for what happened. Given the damage and lack of witnesses, its just impossible to know. There was at least one other explosion involving M-9 flake, and this second one had a survivor, as I understand it. It just seems like the stuff was dangerous, and liked to explode.

  11. I attended Prather Elementary School when the explosion occurred. The building shook for what seemed like minutes and lots of windows blew out. It was so scary for grade school kids. Rumors at the time were one of the men tried to light a cigarette. Heard later that was probably not true as they had to leave smoking materials in their lockers. So sad for the families of the men lost.

  12. Adair Hayes was my Uncle and he was survived by a beautiful family. I know we all remember exactly what we were doing when the explosion occurred. Everything seemed like such a mystery. Since this happened there has always been questions because it just seemed unreal. Thank you for your very informative article.

  13. I had started working on the Ammo Plant Fire Dept. about a month before the explosion and was there when it happened. All the bay doors at the station flew open as a result of the explosion. When responding to the area Fire Truck had to avoid being hit by stampeding cattle running wild. Cattle ran into the South Boundry fence, fell down on top of each other, jumped up and began running the other way. Just like 911 it was a day you never forget for the rest of your life.

  14. I was also at Prather Elemtary school at the time of the blast. Most of the windows on the first floor were shattered and many of the florescent lighting fixtures fell from the ceilings. I was on the upper floor of the school and remember the teacher hollering for us to get under our desk. I think i was in the 2nd grade at the time and I haven't forgot that dreadful day.

  15. My dad, Robert Courtney, was working there that day. I remember worrying if he was involved or not because he drove powder out to the igloos. He was not injured.