Exploding-whale engineer George Thornton has died at age 84 (10/31/13)
By Stuart Tomlinson
He will be forever known as the man who blew up eight tons of whale with a half ton of dynamite, thereby creating an Oregon legend that was often thought a myth.
George Thornton, the Oregon Department of Transportation highway engineer who won the job of removing a massive beached whale near Florence in November 1970, died Sunday. He was 84.
It all started on Nov. 9, 1970, when the 45-foot whale (initially thought to be a gray whale, but later identified as a sperm whale) washed ashore a mile south of the Siuslaw River. The carcass drew curious onlookers until about the third day, when it began to decay and emit a rancid odor.
Thornton, then an ODOT engineer got the job to come up with a plan to remove the whale. He would later complain that it fell to him because his colleagues had planned to go deer hunting — “conveniently,” as he said later in a newsletter.
“To be fair, they had plans to go, but this thing made them all the more anxious to go,’’ Thornton said.
ODOT officials struggled with what to do with the whale. Rendering plants said no thanks. Burying was iffy because the waves would likely have just uncovered the carcass. It was too big to burn.
So the plan was hatched: Let’s blow it up, scatter it to the wind and let the crabs and seagulls clean up the mess. So Thornton and his crew packed 20 cases of dynamite around the leeward side of the whale, thinking most of it would blow into the water. At 3:45 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, the plunger was pushed.
The whale blew up, all right, but the 1/4 mile safety zone wasn’t quite large enough. Whale blubber and whale parts fell from the sky, smashing into cars and people. No one was hurt, but pretty much everyone was wearing whale bits and pieces.
Thornton’s legacy was sealed on film by a KATU crew that included reporter Paul Linnman.
“That doggone thing, the BBC said it is the sixth most-watched TV news report ever,” Linnman said Wednesday. It’s also one of the most-watched videos on YouTube, with at last 6 million views in its various incarnations.
During his interview with Linnman, Thornton said he was confident it would work, “but we’re not sure just how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing so the scavengers — seagulls and crabs and whatnot — can clean it up.”
Linnman said TV news was so serious at the time that he decided to have some fun with the story. After it blew, Linnman said the explosion “blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”
Thornton always thought the media and Linnman in particular were unfair in their treatment of him. He worked for ODOT for nearly 40 years, from 1947 until his retirement in 1984, said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton.
ODOT, safe to say, never blew up another whale. The current protocol is to bury the whale or have it removed. In 1979, when 41 whales beached themselves near Florence, chain saws were used to cut them up and they were then buried.
Linnman attempted to contact Thornton in 1995 for a 25th anniversary story through an ODOT spokesman, but Thornton declined. He told the ODOT spokesman to tell Linnman that “Every time I talk with the media it tends to blow up in my face.”
Linnman said his news report made the national rounds and then the story took off as a pop culture phenomenon when humorist Dave Barry wrote a column in May 1990 about that day.
Linnman, now a radio host at KEX, said he tired of the notoriety the video brought him, but he has since come to celebrate its quirky popularity.
He lectures American students studying problem solving in Italy each year, and said that when he arrives, most of them inevitably have seen the YouTube video of the exploding whale. Linnman wrote a book on the subject, “The Exploding Whale and Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News,” in 2003. There’s even an exploding whale website.
Oregon’s governor also likes to needle Linnman.
“Every time a whale washes ashore I get a call from Governor Kitzhaber telling me to get down there,’’ Linnman said. “He likes to watch the video when he needs cheering up.”
© 2013 OregonLive
Date: October 31, 2013
URL: original article