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 4 of 5)
As they approached their hotel, the scale of devastation became fully apparent. In the nearby residential complex, hardly a single structure had escaped damage. At the impact site, several craters punctured the granite mountainside, and the resulting dirt and rocks had buried the railway line below. Just 200 feet to the east of the epicenter, the American hotel and a larger dormitory for Chinese specialists bore the brunt of the blast, though both buildings still stood. But a barbershop and a small market in front of them were flattened.
Campbell and his friend entered their hotel. Practically every door, window, and piece of furniture was destroyed. Air conditioners were hanging by their wires, toilets were thrown into the hallways, and covers of an underground sewage system pierced the floor. Peculiarly, a clock in the lobby was still hanging, stopped at around 3 a.m.
“There were holes in the walls,” Campbell recalls. “In my room, fragments from the rocket were embedded into the backboard of my bed. Anybody who had left their belongings in the hotel would later discover that pieces of cloth had been thrown out the window, only to be sucked into different rooms by the backward-rushing wind that followed immediately after the explosion. Those careless enough to leave their possessions behind found them littering the corridors, the roof, and the courtyard.
Outside, trees were snapped in half or completely uprooted. In a little park in front of the hotel, a monument to ancient Chinese rocketry had been blown off its pedestal.
What Campbell and his friend did not see were human casualties. At the time they reached the residential area, hundreds of Chinese soldiers and military vehicles were flooding the area, and the Americans suspected that one of the their main tasks was to remove bodies. Eyewitnesses in Xichang would later describe many flatbed trucks carrying what appeared to be covered human remains to the military base and hospitals in the town, along with dozens of ambulances.
The bus for the Western engineers finally arrived, and they headed back to Xichang. The route took them through a village just outside the main gate of the launch center, where the road was jammed with vehicles and animals. The passengers were horrified by what they saw. “Every house for several hundred meters was leveled,” observed the diary-keeping engineer.
The majority of the American team traveled home within two days of the accident, but Campbell and several colleagues had to stay a few more weeks for the grim task of recovering satellite debris. Their primary goal was to prevent the Chinese from acquiring sensitive technology from the Intelsat satellite.