Arts & Ideas: An eyewitness to the birth of the atomic age
George Dean was asleep when the brilliant light from the first atomic explosion burst through his bedroom window. Minutes later, he stood in his front yard with his father, watching a tremendous mushroom-shaped cloud billowing high into the predawn sky.
Then came a thunderous roar.
"Some people say it sounded like a train, but it was louder than that," he says. "It blew out one of the windows in the adobe part of our house, and we were 14 miles away."
Dean had unwittingly witnessed the birth of the atomic age, the culmination of a secret government project to build a superweapon and help end World War II. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan project, had selected an area of the White Sands bombing range in New Mexcio because it was uninhabited and miles from civilization, or at least from populated areas, in a swath of desert known as Jornada del Muerto, the journey of death. He called the site Trinity.
While the bomb was built in total secrecy, there was no concealing the test. It detonated with a force of 20,000 tons of TNT, creating a fireball that incinerated everything within a half-mile radius. The sound of the July 16 explosion was heard in Texas and Arizona. The following day, the Army glibly reported that an ammunition depot at White Sands "containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded."
The residents who witnessed the explosion knew something was amiss with the statement, but it was only after atomic bombs were unleashed on Japan on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, that the truth of what happened on that July morning was made public. A few weeks after the blast, Dean says, some military men came to speak to his father about their cows. Many of the animals had developed blotchy white patches where their skin had faced the blast. The Army bought the Deans' cows and others from nearby ranches, and hauled them away for study.
Sixty years later, walking along the edge of the shallow crater at the Trinity site, George Dean, 75, gazes in the direction of his old house from under a worn blue baseball cap.
"Radiation meant nothing to us back then. We didn't even know what a Geiger counter was," he laughs. "We only knew that it sure wasn't an ammo dump exploding."
Watch a short video of the Trinity test at http://www.nv.doe.gov