50 Years Ago, Oregon Blew Up a Dead Whale. With Dynamite. On Live TV.

50 Years Ago, Oregon Blew Up a Dead Whale. With Dynamite. On Live TV.
  • Fifty years ago, an Oregon news report captured the incredible demolition of a whale carcass.
  • Attendees weren’t just splattered with raining blubber—they were in danger of injury.
  • News reporter Paul Linnman became a icon for his role in the event.

    Today, we’ve reached the 50-year anniversary of something so bad, it belongs in 2020. On November 12, 1970, Oregon ABC affiliate KATU sent a reporter to an unusual event: the TNT-based “removal” of a huge whale carcass from a beach. The resulting footage, where the entire beach is splattered with different size pieces of blubber, has become iconic for its combination of newsy pathos and total chaos.

    Reporter Paul Linnman’s voiceover is very calm in the produced final piece. An unusual whale carcass had washed ashore in Florence, just 60 miles west of Eugene and the nearest beach town. Authorities decided to use TNT to dispose of the carcass, and an expert says on camera that the local group wasn’t really sure how much to use. That expert, Paul Thornton, was a highway engineer who made a plan to basically vaporize the whale into small enough pieces to be washed away or consumed by birds.

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    Thankfully for video history, Thornton chose to use half a ton of TNT. For perspective, that’s a sixth of what workers used to blast George Washington’s entire face into Mount Rushmore. Washington, however, is 60 feet high, while the whale carcass was just 45 feet—and made of rotting flesh, not stone.

    Immediately, it’s clear that this explosion is, well, overkill. First, a gigantic explosive radius dwarfs the carcass, and the camera operator has to shift to even cover it. Then, pieces of different sizes start to fall from the sky. The explosion is so big that it creates a brief, blubber-based weather phenomenon. Thornton’s reasonable-sounding plan had turned into a blubber rain that frightened all the wildlife away and didn’t even fully break up the full bulk of the corpse.

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    “When it blew up, it looked like an explosion from movies,” Linnman told Popular Mechanics in 2017. “Then, things started hitting the ground around us. I realized blubber was hitting around us. It took several seconds, but blubber is so dense, a piece the size of your fingertip can go through your head. As we started to run down trail, we heard a second explosion in our direction, and we saw blubber the size of a coffee table flatten a car.”

    Blubber is almost entirely solid animal fat, and a bowling ball-sized amount of it would still weigh about 7 pounds—the real bowling ball weight a child might use. Imagine launching hundreds of bowling balls 100 feet into the sky and letting them rain down wherever.

    “We saw blubber the size of a coffee table flatten a car.”

    The observers ran for cover, and thankfully, no one was hurt. But it’s easy to see how a larger piece destroyed even a giant, steel-frame contemporary car.

    The legacy of the great whale rain of 1970 continues to bounce around, especially in the internet era. “This thing never died,” Linnman told Popular Mechanics. “We were news people at the time. That was the day’s news, and we moved on. We started receiving requests from hazmat teams, police departments, and all branches of military.”

    When the footage hit the early forerunner of the internet, people traded it like a hot commodity. Linnman left KATU in 2003, but the story—and the unforgettable, regrettable video—is immortal.


    Caroline Delbert is a writer, book editor, researcher, and avid reader.

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