Benton fireworks disaster
Debris scattered near the site and damage to nearby cars
|Date||May 27, 1983|
|Time||9:15 AM (EST)|
|Location||1278 Welcome Valley Road, Webb's Bait Farm, Benton, Tennessee 37307|
|Also known as||Polk County fireworks disaster|
|Accused||Dan Lee Webb, owner|
|Convicted||Dan Lee Webb|
The Benton fireworks disaster was an industrial disaster that occurred on May 27, 1983 on a farm near Benton, Tennessee. A massive explosion at an unlicensed fireworks factory producing illegal fireworks killed eleven, injured one, and revealed the existence of the factory for the first time to law enforcement and the public. The initial explosion was heard more than 20 miles away.
The event gained national attention, covered by multiple media outlets, and eventually led to the conviction of a number of people including the owner, a man who was considered to be the mastermind, and several others who conspired to manufacture, transport, or allow the fireworks manufactured at the operation to be transported.
Webb's Bait Farm, located along Welcome Valley Road near an intersection with Reynolds Bridge Road and Pankey Lane in rural Polk County about two miles south of Benton, grew and manufactured worms and other fishing bait and sold fishing equipment. It had been in operation since 1978 and was owned by Dan Lee Webb, aged 30 at the time of the disaster.
In December 1982, Webb, Howard Emmett Bramblett of nearby Ocoee, and David Parks decided to start manufacturing illegal M-80 and M-100 fireworks in an old metal dairy barn on the farm. Bramblett, who owned a fireworks store in Benton and had a history of involvement with illegal fireworks, had reportedly taught Webb and Parks how to manufacture these fireworks and where to get the materials. He was considered by authorities to be the mastermind of the operation. They employed several family members of Webb and Parks who were reportedly out of work at the time.
A former employee, whose mother and daughter were killed in the blast, stated that they were paid five dollars an hour in cash. Most employees were not aware of the dangers involved, and were not educated in safe working conditions. Between December 1982 and the date of the explosion, at least 1,542,000 M-series fireworks were reported to have been manufactured at the factory and distributed to at least twelve states. Months before the explosion, the Polk County Sheriff's Office, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) had received word of an illegal fireworks manufacturing operation in the area, but were uncertain of the location.
Explosion and response
On May 27, 1983 at approximately 9:15 AM, eleven workers were on duty when a cache of M-80 and M-100 explosives, flash powder, and other chemicals in the 40-by-70-foot (12 m × 21 m) barn detonated, producing a massive explosion and instantly killing all eleven workers and leveling the barn. The initial blast was followed over the next several minutes by several smaller blasts which witnesses described as sounding like shotguns, believed to have been from individual firework cases which were not detonated initially. Dan Lee Webb's cousin Tommy Lee Webb, who was mowing the grass near the site, was reported to have been thrown more than 70 yards. The blast also threw debris as far as 200 yards (180 m) from the site, and produced a shock wave that leveled trees as far as 100 yards (91 m) away. Bodies were hurled through the roofs of the nearby house and carport and as far away as 500 feet from the site. Nothing in the barn was left intact; all of the bodies had lost limbs and six were decapitated. Some were stripped by the force of the blast.
Several witnesses claimed to have seen a white mushroom cloud which was estimated to be 600 to 800 feet tall, and the blast was heard and felt in Cleveland over 20 miles away. Several 911 calls were received moments after the initial blast, and within minutes, several police units arrived at the scene. Webb's wife Linda Sue, who was in the house at the time, fled before deputies arrived. Tommy Lee Webb, who was critically injured, was taken to Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga with burns to about 35 percent of his body. Crews from the ATF and TBI arrived later to investigate the cause of the explosion. A Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) crew, which included forensic anthropologist William M. Bass of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, later arrived on the scene to identify the victims.
Authorities were unable to determine the cause of the explosion, but concluded that it probably occurred while explosives were being mixed. The charred remains of an electric drill with a paint-stirring attachment were found, and it was suggested that a spark from the drill's motor reached the mixture. Other possible theories include the scraping of boots on the floor causing ignition of highly explosive vapors, a cigarette being lit, and sparking from an electrical wire. TEMA later identified the dead as Faye Trentham (38), daughter Tanya Trentham (19), Doris Burns Longmire (38), David Nelce Webb (21, brother of Dan Lee Webb), Sybil Duggan (34), William Lee Burns (38), Beatrice Webb (51, mother of Dan Lee Webb), Dixie Freeman (21), David Parks (38) and his wife Judy (45), and Albert Kenneth Johnson (52).
Authorities found a cache of about 30 to 40 boxes of unexploded fireworks and six 55-gallon steel drums full of chemical explosives in a nearby trailer. Federal firearms agents also found firework casings eight to ten inches in length and three to four inches in diameter which, due to the large size, prompted Polk County deputies to speculate that some of the explosives were being purchased by people with criminal intents, such as terrorists. They were buried in the ground on the farm and later detonated in an open pit in nearby Copperhill having been used as evidence in Webb's trial. A total of 172 cases of fireworks were found. The farm was also found to be guarded by an elaborate security system which consisted of surveillance cameras, electric fences, alarms, guard dogs, and warning signs. Polk County Sheriff Frank Payne told reporters that he thought that they were gearing up for the Fourth of July.
Polk County police interviewed several people living near the farm. Paul Wilson, a neighbor, said that the blast shattered his windows and blew sheetrock off his ceiling. He had been told three months before by the Webbs that they did not want his children to go near the barn. Another neighbor, Howard Haulk, said that he had heard one large blast followed by several smaller blasts over the course of about 20 minutes. The initial blast shattered glass in the Haulks' living room. Sheriff Payne, a Vietnam War veteran, said that he "hadn't seen anything like this since Vietnam," and equated the explosion to a direct hit from a powerful bomb.
Dan Lee Webb, who had been in Lansing, Michigan delivering 86,400 M-80s during the event, surrendered at the Polk County Jail two days later. He was charged with eleven counts of involuntary manslaughter and illegally manufacturing and possessing explosives and jailed with a $300,000 bond. Linda Sue Webb was held on $50,000 bail as a material witness. She told her defense attorney that she believed that her husband was in the New York-New Jersey area at the time of the blast. On April 19, 1984 Dan Lee Webb received a ten-year federal prison sentence for manufacturing explosives without a license. On May 1, 1984 he pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charges and received a ten-year prison sentence. He served it concurrently with the federal sentence and in addition was fined $10,000.
Bramblett was arrested two days later in nearby Chatsworth, Georgia after cases of M-80 fireworks were found in two locations in Murray County. He was extradited to the Polk County Jail. A federal court jury convicted him and another man on May 3, 1984, of one count of manufacturing illegal fireworks, one of conspiracy, and one of storing the homemade explosives. He was sentenced to ten years in prison in July 1984 for his role in a similar incident that occurred on May 29, 1983 in Rowesville, South Carolina, in which an explosion at an illegal fireworks operation killed two and injured five.
In August 1985, twenty men, including Bramblett, were indicted on federal charges for conspiring to manufacture and distribute the illegal fireworks made at the farm to as many as twelve states including Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Fifteen others were charged with transporting the fireworks or causing them to be transported.
On June 25, 1986, four men, including Bramblett, an Ohio fireworks manufacturer who supplied materials, and two others involved were found guilty by a jury of conspiracy in the operation. A few weeks later on July 7, a U.S. District Court Judge handed Bramblett a ten-year sentence for participating in the illegal manufacture of explosives, concurrent ten-year terms for fifteen counts of causing illegal fireworks to be transported across state lines, and one count of illegally dealing in explosives. He served them concurrently with his 1984 sentence.
A chapter of American author Jon Jefferson's 2007 novel Beyond the Body Farm, coauthored with Dr. Bass, is about Bass' investigation of the event. The land is now occupied by a rafting company by the name of Big Frog Expeditions.
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