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The main gate of the Xichang launch center, after the accident. American visitors saw hundreds of people gathered here before the launch. Chinese officials claimed they were evacuated in time. (Courtesy of Bruce Campbell)

Disaster at Xichang

An eyewitness speaks publicly for the first time about history’s worst launch accident

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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.

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.

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