1971 Ruffner Mountain explosion

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The 1971 Ruffner Mountain explosion was an accident that occurred on Sunday evening, July 25, 1971 when 20 tons of ammonium nitrate, stored by Southern Packaging at the inactive Ruffner No. 2 mine, exploded, injuring 13 people and causing as much as $500,000 in damage to structures through the Roebuck-South East Lake area.

The explosion occurred down-slope from the mine portal, crusher and conveyor, near the heavy media plant and former office building. The explosives, used in strip mining, were stored in green plastic tubes in a brick and tin building formerly used as a wash house, and in trucks parked nearby. Employee Nickey Blankenship was at the site to check on the stored materials when he noticed flames. He drove away and reported the fire to Irondale Fire Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. Officers met with him about a mile away from the plant and were discussing how to proceed when the initial blast was heard. The first explosion was followed by a second, more powerful one which generated a massive shock wave felt for miles.

The blast made an oblong 35 foot by 65 foot crater, about 30 feet deep, where the shed and trailers had stood. Other structures at the No. 2 mine, including a boiler house and a heavy media concentration facility, were heavily damaged. The blasts were heard and felt throughout Eastern Birmingham. Houses and other structures on the mountain slope were shaken and damaged and windows were blown out at Roebuck Shopping Center. The heaviest damage to homes was on Observatory Drive near Banks High School.

Several other agencies responded in the aftermath of the event, including the Birmingham Police Department, Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service, Jefferson County Sheriff's Reserve, Birmingham Police Auxiliary, Civil Defense workers, Alabama State Troopers, the Red Cross and federal officials. Rumors spread of "seas of bodies" and of people trapped in wrecked houses. The desire to help, coupled with basic curiosity, brought many people toward the area even as emergency workers were attempting to clear the streets.

The Birmingham Amateur Radio Club's Emergency Service, led by Lee Hagen, assisted in coordinating emergency response activities, checking on residents door to door, spreading evacuation notices, and relaying information to a command center at the Roebuck Shopping Center, where they also kept watch for looters. Only one theft was reported, as someone stole some amount of merchandise from Pizitz.

The presence of other explosives storage facilities and a major natural gas pipeline nearby led officials to order an evacuation of 20-25 homes nearest the site. That order spread to about 1,000 residents of South East Lake and Roebuck. Evacuation centers were set up at the Roebuck Recreation Center and the Birmingham Municipal Airport National Guard Armory. Residents were permitted to return home after 12:30 AM on Monday.

The obling 35-foot by 65-foot crater left by the explosion was one of the highlights of Marty Schulman's mine hikes at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve.

Victims

Thirteen people were treated at Montclair Hospital and East End Memorial Hospital for non-life threatening injuries. Those included Hilda Sheffield, Jeffrey Sandridge, Susan Hollingsworth, Mary Ann Sampson, Brent Haskins, Ernie Lea, William Hershberger, Gretna Wallace, Robert B. Shaw, Terry Friday, Gladys Rogers, Dessie Rhodes and Frances Libry.

References