There are a lot of things you can watch on the web nowadays that are cringeworthy, horrifying and oddly fascinating — and that sometimes each can be contained in one single upload. I honestly have a difficult time believing anything on the web matches that dazzling combination in this video highlighting the disposal of a beached whale carcass from 1970.
The video was shared by KATU News, based in Portland, Oregon, for the 50th anniversary of the extraordinary event where the people of nearby Florence, Oregon blew up a whale carcass on their beach. It’s an outright atrocity on so many levels. And then, there’s the poor 1970 Oldsmobile 98 — its final moments at least beachside as it was crushed by 300 pounds of debris.
The story goes, this 45-foot, eight-ton whale carcass washed up on the shore, and the town had no real idea on what to do with it. Reporter Paul Linnman, at the scene, explains Oregon’s Highway Division had come to the conclusion they couldn’t very well bury or keep the whale buried, nor could they cut it up, because who wants to tackle cutting up eight tons of rotting whale?
So, the decision was to blow it up, with 20 cases of dynamite. The action would divide the whale into pieces that would be easier to clean up than the whale in its entirety.
It’s then that Linnman asks George Thornton, an engineer with the Highway Division, for his final observation... i.e. famous last words:
“Well, I’m confident that it’ll work. The only thing is we don’t know how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing so the scavengers, seagulls, crabs and what not can clean it up.”
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No one wanted to deal with this poor dead whale. Clearly. Leave it to the sea life to clean it up.
Anyway, as someone who loves animals, the actual explosion is well beyond horrifying. But I would be remiss to say I also didn’t laugh at the insanity playing out on camera. You can hear the whale raining down around the camera.
The reporter nails the description in the most alliterative sentence I’ve encountered on television: “The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”
Those bounds, again — 300 pounds of it — land on the roof of a brand new Oldsmobile 98, completely collapsing the roof in on itself… rotting carcass sitting where it impacted. Luckily, no one was hurt. But that Olds… if it was repairable, how would you ever get the smell out?
A site completely dedicated to the exploding whale, theexplodingwhale.com, shares a 2008 interview in The Register-Guard with the owner of that new Oldsmobile, a Walter Umenhofer. I’m putting in the entire story, because it’s just that entertaining:
Umenhofer, 75, lives in Eugene; owns the Baron’s Den, an indoor shooting range; and still gets recognized by individuals and the media as the “blubber victim.”
“It’s funny,” he says. “That was one big piece of blubber. It hit so hard that it bent my roof down and pushed the back of the seats to the floor.”
At the time, Umenhofer was vice president of the Springfield Kingsford plant. He was in Florence on business. He was supposed to meet with the port commissioner, but someone said the man was out looking at the whale.
Umenhofer headed for the beach, leaving his car in a parking lot. “Here comes this tractor with 20 cases of dynamite on it. I said: ‘That’s gonna kill someone.’ They had a case per ton of whale.”
When the dynamite went off, everybody knew, instinctively, this had been a bad idea. Really bad.
“Little pieces of the whale were falling everywhere. There was this bloody mist. We stunk. We had to rent a car to get home and this friend with me — his wife made him strip naked and she hosed him down before she’d let him in.”
Within two days, Umenhofer had a check from the state for the full value of his car — $7,000 — and was known worldwide. “It was my one day of fame.”
He still get calls from the media. “It’s all over the Internet (www.theexplodingwhale.com). I have relatives in Germany who say: ‘I read about you’ or ‘I saw you on TV!’
The best footnote: “I’d just bought the car from Dunham Olds. Their motto was ‘Come to us for a whale of a deal.’”
I thought about contacting Umenhofer to talk about the story, but from what I found, the “blubber victim” had passed in 2016. Even more disappointing, there is no mention of his ‘whale of a tale’ fame in his obituary.