Disaster at Xichang

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

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)
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The night of the launch, Campbell and his colleagues at the hotel boarded vans and headed to the satellite processing building. As they passed the center’s main gate, they saw a crowd gathering outside to watch the liftoff. “Everybody was dressed in his or her best clothes,” he recalls. “It was a party atmosphere. There were many dozens, if not hundreds, of people there.” Despite the previous accidents, it seemed to Campbell that these people must have been accustomed to gathering at this spot to watch launches.

During this time, another U.S. engineer in China kept a diary. In it, he describes going for a bike ride with two other Westerners through a picturesque valley flanked by rice paddies and pastures grazed by water buffaloes. (Because he does not have permission from his company to speak on the record, he asked that neither he nor the company be named.) Just a few yards outside the space center, they had seen locals of the Yi culture going about their daily routines, seemingly unaware of the launch to come. “There was a guy sitting in front of his house weaving a basket,” the engineer wrote in his diary. “Scores of villagers walked home on the dirt road as we were riding back.”

After arriving at the satellite processing building, Campbell and the members of the team not directly involved in launch operations went up to the roof to watch the liftoff. The pad, behind a mountain, was out of view, but the rocket was expected to appear above the ridge moments after it cleared the launch gantry. Meanwhile, the engineer who kept a diary was inside, seated in a satellite test room, where he peered at TV screens showing pictures transmitted live from the pad. He planned to rush outside moments after liftoff to see the real rocket. “I figured I could do it in less than 10 seconds,” he wrote. “I had on my bright pink ski hat. I figured it would add festivity to the launch team. Another American specialist wore his lucky shirt and put 2-yuan coins in his penny loafers for more luck.

“The satellite parameters were all good, right down to liftoff. Though the launch window opened at 2:51 [a.m.], the Chinese inserted a nine-minute hold for no reason, so as to lift off at 3:00, a luckier number. At about T-one minute, they decided they needed an extra 45 seconds. Countdown proceeded, though the clocks were all out of sync.”

The rocket began to rise, and the American engineers in the satellite test room ran out the door. “I got out, turned and ran around the building to my best viewing spot, in time to see the mountain lit from behind, hear the startling rumble and see the rocket emerge,” the diary reads. “But instead of rising vertically for nine seconds and several thousand feet [before starting to arc toward the east] I saw it traveling horizontally, accelerating as it progressed down the valley, only a few hundred feet off the ground. ‘Wrong way!’ I yelled, and for the next few seconds I was frozen in my tracks.”

On the roof, Campbell and others were just as perplexed. “All of a sudden, we looked down the valley and saw this huge cruise missile flying by. Our first reaction was This is really interesting. And our next reaction was Holy shit, we need to get off the roof.

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.”


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