VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE — Local public safety officials on Monday accused the Air Force of failing to promptly inform fire and law enforcement agencies of the danger from the explosion of a Titan 34-D rocket above a launch pad here on April 18.
The explosion and the huge toxic cloud that resulted posed no danger to area residents, because the wind blew the fumes out to sea. However, police and fire officials said they did not know the extent of the problem until about an hour after the accident. As a result, officials said, they did not know how to respond or what to tell panicked residents who flooded Lompoc city offices with phone calls.
Police and fire officials who tried to telephone the base found the lines continuously busy, and when some Vandenberg officials could be reached, they were not adequately informed about the situation, law enforcement officials said.
"The phone lines were jammed, and we couldn't get the base on our radio," said Battalion Chief Marshall Goddard of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. "We finally drove over to the base and got a briefing.
"We just didn't get the information soon enough. If we had known what was going on right away, it would have saved us all a lot of anxiety. And if it had turned out that we were needed to go into action, we wouldn't have lost precious time."
Goddard was contacted by the base shortly after the 10:45 a.m. explosion on April 18, he said, but was given no information about the possible dangers. He arrived at the base and was briefed an hour after the incident. An hour, however, "is a long time with something like this," he said. Goddard then contacted county emergency services personnel to disseminate the information.
However, the Santa Barbara County sheriff's substation at Lompoc, the community nearest the base, did not receive definitive information until the late afternoon, Sgt. Dale Schade said. The base contacted the substation after the explosion and requested assistance in setting up roadblocks, Schade said, but no other information was available.
In the early afternoon the base called and recommended that Jalama Beach County Park be evacuated, but Schade said he had already evacuated the beach five minutes before the phone call.
"I didn't know what to tell people," Schade said. "I was calling the base about every half hour and when I could get through, all I was told was that they were assessing the situation. They just didn't have the information, so we had to make our own decisions about the dangers."
Vandenberg's commander, Maj. Gen. Jack L. Watkins, angrily discounted such criticism. The base contacted city and county agencies promptly, he said, and notified the news media "within minutes."
"This was the best damn catastrophe response I've ever been involved in," Watkins said. "Until we tell them there is danger, they should assume it's OK.
"Until people are told there is a problem, there is no reason for people to assume there is a problem. If we had needed other agencies to assist us, we would have contacted them."
Shortly after the accident, Watkins said, numerous agencies were notified of the explosion. If there had been any danger to residents of Lompoc, the Air Force would have contacted the agencies again, he said.
Two changes, however, were implemented by the Air Force shortly after the explosion. There now is a telephone hot line into the base for the exclusive use of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services. In addition, a representative from Santa Barbara County will view all future launches, which normally are classified, from the launch pad command post.
After the explosion, an immense cloud--saturated with highly corrosive unburned liquid rocket fuel--spread along the ground and rose to an altitude of about 10,000 feet, before drifting across the southeast section of the base and then out to sea.
Watkins said that before any launch, wind conditions are carefully monitored and the go-ahead to launch is only given if the wind is blowing away from populated areas. Nonetheless, local officials said they were prepared to evacuate civilians had it become necessary.
An evacuation plan for Lompoc was prepared last year in the event of an accident at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo, said Charlie Johnson, Lompoc Fire Department battalion chief. The plan also could be used for an evacuation following a disaster at Vandenberg, Johnson said.