Disaster at Xichang
An eyewitness speaks publicly for the first time about history’s worst launch accident.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, February 2013
Courtesy of Bruce Campbell
(Page 3 of 5)
After flying for 22 seconds in the direction of the hotel and residential complex, the 426-ton vehicle crashed into a hillside, most of its propellant still on board. The overstressed payload section with the satellite inside had broken off and plunged to the ground moments earlier.
The diary continues: “It arced toward the earth and I thought I knew what was coming, but the instant of horror that is burned into memory was not anticipated. A tremendous light turned 3 a.m. into noon. Every tree on the hillside was clear as a knife edge, and the sky reflected a weird glow, a color I can not describe…. Many things happened at once. I heard the biggest explosion of my life, I turned and started to run. I saw a friend’s face contorted in Oh shit! I heard a smaller and then a larger boom, I left the ground, I was on the ground, scrambling, wondering why I was down there…. I heard glass breaking and shit was flying everywhere.”
Those on top of the building descended a ladder to the lower roof, and from there scrambled into the building, as the violent shock wave rioted over the facility. A large glass-enclosed entrance shattered into thousands of fragments.
After the blast wave passed, the survivors’ next fear was poisonous fumes produced by the rocket’s toxic fuel and oxidizer. According to Campbell, “We all went into the fueling facility [as the most secure part of the building], had the Chinese shut down all the air conditioning in case the fumes came our way, and set up detectors [for toxic substances], gas masks, and protective equipment for all our [American] people.”
Fortunately, the detectors showed no signs of poison; the wind was blowing the gases away from the building. Phone lines in the battered facility remained operational, and the engineers quickly established contact with their colleagues at the mission control center, perched on the mountain slope some three miles downrange from the site, and with the United States. Back home, stunned engineers, and soon TV viewers around the world, watched footage of the rocket starting to veer off course even before it cleared the tower. To a trained eye, the images also revealed that the rocket’s nozzles were swiveling wildly in an effort to correct the trajectory.
One of the people standing on the roof of the satellite processing building captured the accident on video, even though he was thrown off his feet by the blast wave (the video can still be seen on YouTube). The footage confirms that the rocket crashed just across the road from the hotel for the foreigners. The impact site was right next to the gate of the center, where the large crowd had gathered to watch. Chinese officials claimed that all villagers had been evacuated before the launch, but those claims have been disputed.
The shaken Americans were told that a bus would soon arrive to transport them back to Xichang, but it was repeatedly delayed, and didn’t arrive until well into the afternoon. In the first few hours after the explosion, the stranded engineers were not anxious to leave their relatively secure quarters and go down the valley past the impact epicenter. But suspecting that Chinese authorities were delaying the bus departure to clean up the crash site, Campbell and one of his colleagues could not resist the urge to investigate.
They took vapor detectors, got on their bicycles, and, taking advantage of the road going down into the valley, raced past the armed Chinese guard, who they’d been told had only one bullet in his rifle.