In 1974 A Whistleblower Was On Her Way To Meet A Reporter When She Was Killed In A Mysterious Crash

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It’s November 1974, and laboratory technician Karen Silkwood is driving to Oklahoma City. For months, she has been a thorn in her employer’s side, flagging up serious safety violations at a local nuclear plant. And now she is on her way to hand journalists a smoking gun. But before she can complete her mission, she is caught up in a mysterious car crash – and she takes her secrets to the grave.

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Having entered the world in February of 1946 in Texas, Silkwood grew up with her parents and two sisters in the city of Nederland. And it was there, while attending high school, that she first became interested in science – chemistry, to be precise. In fact, she was so talented that she earned a scholarship to Lamar College in nearby Beaumont, where she studied medical technology.

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However, Silkwood’s promising academic career was incredibly short-lived. After just a year of studying, in fact, she dropped out of college to marry an oil worker named William Meadows in 1965. Together, the pair had three kids: Dawn, Michael and Kristi. But before long, the cracks in their relationship began to show.

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Meadows was, apparently, bad with money, and his overspending resulted in the couple having to declare bankruptcy. Moreover, he allegedly committed infidelity and then refused to end the affair in order to save his marriage. Silkwood, perhaps unsurprisingly, eventually ran out of patience, and she and her husband separated in 1972.

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Unusually for the time, however, the children – then aged 18 months, three and five – did not stay with Silkwood. Instead, Meadows gained custody of all three kids, while their mom relocated to Oklahoma City alone. She reportedly didn’t even say goodbye when she left, simply telling her daughter that she was heading out to purchase cigarettes.

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Silkwood then found a job as a clerk at a local hospital, although that career path did not last. In fact, she soon took a $4-an-hour metallography technician position at a plutonium plant some 40 miles away. Located near the city of Crescent, O.K., the energy company Kerr-McGee owned and operated the facility.

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Founded back in 1929, Kerr-McGee initially dealt in the extraction and production of oil in locations such as the Gulf of Mexico. However, from 1952 onwards, the company became increasingly involved in the nuclear sector. And by the time that Silkwood joined the team, they were one of the industry’s leading lights.

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At the Kerr-McGee plant, Silkwood was responsible for assisting in the production of fuel rods. These are the volatile items loaded with plutonium that go on to be used in nuclear reactors. Like many workplaces, however, the facility had its challenges. And later that year, the OCAW, or Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, led the plant employees in a strike.

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Established back in 1955, the OCAW was committed to securing a better standard of living for employees across each of the three industries it represented. However, the strike at Kerr-McGee ultimately proved unsuccessful. And after nine weeks of action, many at the plant had distanced themselves from the worker’s group.

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For Silkwood, however, the outcome was different. Despite being a relatively new employee and union member, she was voted onto the organization’s bargaining committee – the first time that a woman had ever held such a position. And in that role, she was responsible for looking into potentially dangerous working practices at the Kerr-McGee plant.

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Soon, Silkwood had identified a number of potential issues at Kerr-McGee. According to her, workers were not properly trained and were at risk of contamination – particularly given the lack of showering facilities available. Moreover, she claimed to have identified faulty equipment and falsified records among other violations at the plant.

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In 1974 Silkwood and two other members of the OCAW traveled to Washington D.C. There, they testified against the plant in front of the U.S. government’s Atomic Energy Commission. In her statement, the technician highlighted the many issues at Kerr-McGee – including the fact that large amounts of plutonium had gone missing.

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Despite Silkwood’s testimony, however, the technician continued to work at the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant. And on November 5, 1974, she was working in her laboratory, using a glove box to polish pellets of plutonium. At around 6:30 p.m., the technician decided to use a nearby detector to monitor her radiation levels.

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Shockingly, the equipment registered some 20,000 disintegrations every 60 seconds – an alarmingly high level of radiation. And in response, Silkwood immediately went to the Health Physics Office at the plant, to undergo further tests. The gloves that the technician had been using, meanwhile, were removed from the laboratory.

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Those further tests established that Silkwood had not been exposed to abnormally high levels of airborne radiation. Bizarrely, though, they also revealed that her gloves had traces of plutonium on the side that had made contact with her skin. No leaks, however, appeared to be present in the protective hand-gear. Furthermore, investigators could find no traces of the material within the technician’s laboratory.

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Eventually, Silkwood went back to her lab, where she continued to work until around 1:10 a.m. – although she did not touch the glove box during that time. And at first, the danger seemed to be over. When she again tested her radiation levels on leaving the plant, in fact, nothing out of the ordinary was recorded.

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The next morning, Silkwood returned to the plant and spent about an hour completing some paperwork. However, when she checked her radiation levels en route to a meeting, she once again found them dangerously high. Concerned with these events, the health workers at the plant began a decontamination procedure on the technician.

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But how had Silkwood been contaminated without knowingly coming into contact with any plutonium? Apparently, staff checked both her car and her locker for radiation, but were not able to find any trace. Eventually, the technician went home with instructions to take urine and stool samples for further contamination tests.

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On November 7, Silkwood returned to the Health Physics Office, where tests revealed high levels of radiation on parts of her upper body. But that wasn’t all. Her urine and stool samples astonishingly showed an even higher level of activity. Intrigued, the examiners accompany the technician to her home in an attempt to find the source of the contamination.

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There, investigators discovered dangerously high levels of radiation throughout the technician’s apartment. Apparently, there was significant activity in both the kitchen and the bathroom, as well as trace amounts around the rest of her home. And bizarrely, the most contaminated item appeared to be a packet of bologna and cheese located in Silkwood’s refrigerator.

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By way of explanation, Silkwood claimed that she had accidentally spilled one of her urine samples at home. And after using some tissues to clean up the mess, she disposed of them in the toilet. Later, she absent-mindedly put the bologna down in the bathroom before returning it to the refrigerator. Had the radiation from her own bodily fluids contaminated the foodstuff?

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When studying Silkwood’s samples, examiners found that those she had collected at home all showed high levels of radiation. Those taken at the plant itself, however, were far less contaminated. Nonetheless, the technician believed that she had been exposed to radioactive material at work – perhaps in an attempt to discourage her from revealing suspect conditions at Kerr-McGee.

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By November 13, Silkwood had come to a decision – she would go the press with her suspicions about Kerr-McGee. Claiming to have evidence that proved the plant was operating unsafely, she reached out to David Burnham, a journalist with The New York Times. And after a union meeting in Crescent, she set out to meet him in Oklahoma City.

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According to a witness who had also attended the meeting, Silkwood was carrying a number of documents when she left for Oklahoma City. However, they would never make it into Burnham’s hands. Because, on the evening of November 13, the technician was discovered dead behind the wheel of her car.

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It seems that, somehow, Silkwood’s vehicle had left the highway and crashed into a culvert, resulting in a fatal collision. But what could have caused the technician to drift off the road in the middle of such a tense situation? According to police reports, a trooper discovered both sedative tablets and cannabis at the scene.

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Tests later revealed that Silkwood had a high level of the sedative methaqualone, also known as Quaalude, in her blood. In fact, it was almost twice that of the recommended dose. With this evidence in mind, investigators ruled that the technician had fallen asleep while driving. Not everyone, however, agreed with this conclusion. And that comes down to a few suspect factors in her passing.

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There were, in fact, a number of suspicious circumstances surrounding Silkwood’s death. For example, there were no documents recovered from the vehicle – despite the fact that the technician had been spotted with them shortly before the crash. Moreover, mysterious skid marks were found on the highway, indicating that the vehicle’s brakes had been applied.

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For Silkwood’s family and friends, this evidence was indeed suspicious. After all, if the technician had been asleep, who attempted to apply the brakes? And furthermore, what of the dents and traces of paint reportedly found on the rear bumper of her car? Might another vehicle have been involved in the collision?

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According to investigators, the fatal collision had only involved the front end of Silkwood’s car – leaving the damage to the back of the vehicle unexplained. Interestingly, her family could not recall any other incidents that might account for the dents and scrapes. And as if that wasn’t suspicious enough, they also alleged that the technician received a number of intimidating phone calls in the days before the crash.

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So what really happened to Silkwood on November 13, 1974? In the months that followed, some came to believe that the car crash hadn’t been an accident at all. Indeed, theories began to emerge that another vehicle had intentionally forced the technician off the highway. Suspicion, then, soon fell on Kerr-McGee – the very organization that she was about turn whistleblower against.

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However, officials at Kerr-McGee had their own version of events. According to them, Silkwood had deliberately exposed herself to radiation in order to paint her employers in a bad light. But while it might technically have been possible for her to smuggle plutonium out of the plant, would the technician really have gone that far?

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After Silkwood’s death, tissue analysis experts in Los Alamos, New Mexico examined her body. Interestingly, they found high traces of contamination in her lungs, implying that the technician had somehow inhaled plutonium. However, they also found evidence of radioactive material in the gastrointestinal tract, meaning she had also ingested it.

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Eventually, suspicions surrounding Kerr-McGee grew to the point where a federal investigation began. Shockingly, the inquiry revealed that as much as 66 pounds of plutonium was unaccounted for – more than enough to construct a nuclear weapon. And although it was too late for Silkwood to be vindicated, the plant finally closed in 1975.

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Four years later, Silkwood’s family attempted to sue Kerr-McGee. And while they did not directly accuse the company of having had a hand in the technician’s death, they did claim that its wilful negligence resulted in her contamination. Reportedly, however, sinister events plagued the case from the start.

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According to the American journalist Richard Raske, who wrote The Killing of Karen Silkwood in 2000, those looking into the incident were subject to intense harassment. Allegedly, investigators received threats and one even mysteriously disappeared. Meanwhile, a witness set to testify against Kerr-McGee committed suicide before they had a chance to stand up in court.

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In Raske’s book, he also claimed that the legal team representing the family experienced threats, with one being the victim of a physical assault. Moreover, he went on to suggest that a smuggling ring could be responsible for the plant’s missing plutonium. He then shockingly accused the U.S. government of having ordered Silkwood’s assassination in order to cover up this plot.

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After a ten-month trial, the jury ruled in favor of Silkwood’s family, awarding them $10.5 million in damages. However, this amount was later reduced to just $5,000 – the value of the technician’s possessions destroyed during decontamination procedures. And while the Supreme Court ultimately reversed this decision, Kerr-McGee eventually settled the matter out of court.

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In return for not admitting liability, the company granted Silkwood’s family $1.38 million. However, the matter was far from over. And even today, many believe that the technician was murdered for attempting to bring Kerr-McGee’s dubious practices to light. “It’s not been put to rest,” the new owner of the Crescent plant told a journalist from Tulsa’s KTUL News in October 2018. “If it were, you wouldn’t be here today.”

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According to some, though, whoever allegedly rammed Silkwood’s car that night only meant to scare her. Meanwhile, others have suggested that Kerr-McGee was a vital employer in 1970s Oklahoma and that somebody might have taken matters into their own hands. But for the technician’s youngest daughter, Dawn, the fault lay elsewhere. “My belief is that she did what she did because she was a troublemaker,” she told People magazine in 1999. “I don’t believe her intentions were as good as everybody said.”

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In 1983 director Mike Nichols released a movie based on Silkwood’s life, starring Meryl Streep as the doomed technician. In it, she is depicted as a woman desperate to tell the truth about her employer’s misconduct. And today, this is the narrative most people remember, of a heroic whistleblower. But what really happened in Oklahoma in 1974? Sadly, the whole truth may never come to light.

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