Man behind the exploding whale debacle dies at 84

PORTLAND, Ore. - The man who made the decision to blow up a dead whale on the Oregon coast - in a blunder that will forever be a legendary footnote in the state's history - has passed away.

His name was George Thornton and he was a highway engineer for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) at the time. He died Sunday at age 84 in Medford.

After a dead whale washed up in Florence in November of 1970, ODOT, with Thornton at the lead, came up with a plan to get rid of it. The idea was to blow it up into tiny pieces and let the seagulls take it from there.

But it didn't work out as planned. Instead, giant pieces of blubber were sent flying into the air. The blubber rained down on the immediate area and a large piece even landed on a car.

And for those who were there, including a young Paul Linnman (who was reporting for KATU News at the time) the stench was incredible. Linnman has even said that he can still smell it to this day.

Thornton shied away from the media afterwards and Linnman said he never talked to him again following his one and only interview with the engineer on the day of the explosion.

"I think he thought that he was made to look a little foolish in our story," Linnman said. "And that was definitely never my intent."

"We had some fun with the story," Linnman added, "But we didn't want to point a finger at somebody who'd made a mistake. And I think that Mr. Thornton thought that he was kind of the butt of the joke, if you will."

Thornton had actually been handed the task of dealing with the whale while his bosses were out.

"The thing that has never really been told is the fact that he was kind of left hanging, holding the bag that day," Linnman said. "It was the start of hunting season that weekend and his superiors - the district manager for ODOT and the second man - went on a hunting trip."

Of course, there was a lesson learned in all of this - you can't simply blow up a dead whale and hope the problem will go away. Or if you are going to blow it up, perhaps you should use more dynamite.

"They used a half-ton of dynamite," Linnman said. "But the Navy says they didn't use enough. If you really wanted to vaporize that thing, you needed to use more."

There's a famous line from Linnman's report in 1970 where he says "it might be concluded that should a whale ever wash ashore in Lane County again, those in charge will not only remember what to do, they'll certainly remember what not to do."

KATU Reporter Hillary Lake contributed to this report.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off