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Former Henderson fire captain recalls day of PEPCON explosions

It’s been 30 years, but every now and then, former Henderson fire Capt. Don Griffie finds himself jolted awake at night from the bad dreams.

They feel so real: The ground shaking beneath him. The ringing in his ears. The stinging in his eyes.

Griffie was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the PEPCON fire and subsequent explosions. At the time, he’d been fire captain for five years.

In his recurring nightmare, he’s forced to relive every detail of the May 4, 1988, events. How he was thrown several feet into the air during the second explosion. How his family thought for more than six hours that he was dead. How he worked through the day with pieces of glass in his eyes.

“The whole day I was thinking how lucky I was to be alive,” Griffie recalled in an April interview.

He was eating lunch when an alarm went off, signaling that a fire had broken out at the PEPCON plant. Griffie and his partner threw on their gear and drove their fire truck down a dirt road. Today that patch of dirt is Warm Springs Road.

Over the radio, a voice warned, “You guys don’t want to go in.”

After the first explosion at around noon, Griffie got out of the truck to figure out how to make a three-point turn. But before they could get out of there, Griffie said, he was in the air. The second explosion sent him flying, and he landed on his back on top of the truck.

To this day, Griffie said, he’s surprised he wasn’t injured. Often he even wonders how there weren’t more casualties.

After the second explosion, Griffie said, he and his partner turned their truck around. When everything went quiet after the third blast, Griffie and his team spent the rest of the day responding to calls related to the explosions.

It wasn’t until about 6 p.m., when he was forced to go to the hospital to get a cut on his head and his eyes checked out, that he got hold of his family.

“I never even felt a sliver of glass in my eyes all day long because I just kept working,” he recalled.

Griffie gave 35 years of his life to the Henderson Fire Department, retiring in 2005.

“I’ve seen so much death in my time that I’m almost callous to it,” the 74-year-old told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “But I always think about PEPCON. It doesn’t feel like 30 years ago.”

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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