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Thiokol anniversary marks opening of museum

If the legacy of the Thiokol disaster belongs to anyone, it is the surviving spouses, children and parents who had loved ones ripped from their lives on that day in 1971.

During a memorial ceremony on Friday, about 100 citizens gathered in Kingsland to remember the 29 souls who were killed and honor those who rushed to help the dozens of others who were badly injured and burned. 

The workers employed at the Harrietts Bluff Thiokol plant, most of them women, were assembling flares to be used by the U.S. military. The highly combustible materials on site became unstable, caught fire and set off a huge blast that could be heard as far as Jacksonville, Fla.

Feb. 3, 1971

Thirteen-year-old Betty Williams Miller was sitting in her classroom at school when they heard “the big boom” at 10:52 a.m. Feb. 3, 1971.  

The students knew something serious had happened when all the teachers were summoned to the office. Miller said she was a rambunctious child and could not contain her curiosity, so she snuck down the hallway after them. 

“I wanted to be the first to know what happened,” she said. 

Miller listened in as the faculty learned that the Thiokol munitions factory at Harrietts Bluff had just exploded. It must have felt like her world exploded at that moment because her thoughts immediately went to her mother, who worked at that plant. 

“I ran down the hall and saw my brother, Troy, and I told him what I heard,” she said. 

They were devastated, she said. Not long after that, they closed the school for the day and sent the children home to their families.

Her father worked at Gilman Paper Co. and supplemented his income with farming. With the extra money their mother made at Thiokol, they could afford a TV and other things that made life better for her and her six brothers and sisters. 

They huddled in front of that TV that afternoon, watching news broadcasts about the catastrophe, waiting for some positive news.

Miller remembers saying goodbye to her mom that last morning before school.

“She prayed with us that morning and told us that she loved us and waved goodbye,” Miller said through tears. “The last time we saw her she was on TV on a gurney being loaded up in an ambulance to take to Jacksonville.” 

Her mom had been covered up with a sheet, but Miller knew it was her mom because the name, Annie Lois Williams, was emblazoned at the bottom of the screen. 

Miller’s father raised seven children after his wife perished that day. There were many like him, due to the large number of victims who were working mothers. The community rallied around those families and established a daycare, which became Camden County’s first Head Start program. 

Miller said her dad did a great job, but they also had a lot of support from their extended family and friends. She also remembers that a few teachers paid special attention to her and the others, mindful of their loss.  

Feb. 3, 2017

On Friday, Feb. 3, Miller was among the citizens who gathered at the historic train depot in Kingsland for the annual memorial ceremony. Each year, the group observes a moment of silence and the tolling of a bell to remember each victim. 

Vocalists Fred and Starlett Myers sang about how the community “rose above the ashes” to rebuild and overcome this catastrophe. 

Speakers included Kingsland Mayor Kenneth Smith and St. Marys Mayor John Morrissey as well as well as keynote speaker Dr. Erta Clay Livingston Jr.

“Many times people want to forget things, but this is a situation that should not be forgotten. I hope that we never allow it to be forgotten, that those individuals who gave their lives so that others might live and have the freedom that we enjoy today,” said Smith. 

After the explosion, Camden County had help from public safety departments that traveled from across the region to assist with the aftermath. A few of those communities sent representatives to Friday’s ceremony.  

Thiokol Memorial Project president Jannie Everette has worked for the past few years to rally support for a proper memorial for the Thiokol disaster. She warned that the project’s work does not end with annual ceremonies and the opening of the museum. 

Anyone who would like to join their efforts can learn more at thiokolmemorial.org.

Museum opening

Miller now lives in Baxley, but she has still remained involved in the Thiokol memorial effort, which includes a museum in downtown Kingsland that will open Saturday, Feb. 4. A ribbon-cutting is planned at 10 a.m. on Lee Street, just a few doors down from city hall. The public is invited to attend.

Miller said the annual memorial ceremony and opening of the museum and to preserve things that are important to her and other surviving family members — “knowledge, just for people to really know and acknowledge what happened. They don’t know what the children went through.”  

Through her story and those of other survivors, the project hopes to continue to “remember, honor and educate.”

During the memorial ceremony, speaker Hattie Dawson said they want people to come to the museum, learn about the history of that day and become a partner in their efforts.  

“We will never ever let Feb. 3, 1971, leave our community,” she said. “We need our children to know we were strong back then and we going to be even stronger now. Because with the help of our almighty God, we will rise above the ashes.”

Tribune & Georgian

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