November 3, 2013

George Thornton, gained fame for exploding whale, dies at 84

The Oregon highway engineer’s effort to dispose of a dead whale was an unintended mess – and a sensation on YouTube.

The Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – An Oregon highway engineer who blew up a dead beached whale with a half-ton of dynamite in 1970 has died at the age of 84.

George Thomas Thornton gained national attention over the exploding whale, and the act endured for decades thanks to a video that shows giant pieces of whale carcass splattering across the beach and spectators.

Thornton got the call Nov. 12, 1970, to remove a 45-foot-long sperm whale estimated to weigh 8 tons that had washed up near Florence, and had started to stink. At the time, the state Highway Division had jurisdiction over beaches, said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Don Hamilton. Thornton was a highly respected engineer who worked 37 years at the agency, he said.

Thornton had refused to talk about the exploding whale for many years, once remarking that every time he did, “it blew up in my face.”

“I don’t think he was trying to be funny,” said Paul Linnman, who hosts a news show on Portland radio KEX and did the 1970 report for KATU television news that became a staple on YouTube. “It’s just the way he felt.”

Thornton told Ed Shoaps, then a public information officer for ODOT, that the district engineer was going elk hunting and left the job to him.

Shoaps said Thornton felt they couldn’t haul the whale out to sea because it would wash back up. They couldn’t bury it on the beach, because the waves would uncover it. And they couldn’t burn it. So Thornton consulted the Navy and other munitions experts, and was advised to blow it up. His crew set the dynamite on the landward side of the whale, hoping to blow it into the water.

“We all know what happened after that,” said Shoaps.

In Linnman’s report, Thornton wears a hardhat and explains in a straightforward manner that the plan is to blow the whale into little pieces that can be consumed by gulls and crabs. About 75 spectators and news reporters draw back to a sand dune a quarter mile away. When the blast erupts, it is greeted with cries of wonder that are soon replaced by sounds of revulsion as bits of whale covered people in goo.

“The humor of the situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere,” Linn man says in the video. One big chunk flattened the roof of a car.

Some 20 years later, humor writer Dave Berry wrote about the exploding whale as one of his, “I’m not making this up” stories, said Shoaps. Someone posted it on a bulletin board in the early days of the Internet

“I consider it the first story to go viral on the Internet,” said Shoaps.

A Google search turns up the YouTube video and a website, www.theexplodingwhale.com.

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)