The word “Surreal” comes to mind. It is an absolutely gorgeous day. A man is taking a selfie while standing in front of the rough stone obelisk that marks the spot…the very spot…where the first atomic bomb exploded. This is “ground zero” at the Trinity Site. There are thirty or forty other people waiting patiently for their turn to take a selfie at the same spot or to take pictures of their loved ones standing at the ground zero marker. This is only the beginning of what is to come. While you are there experiencing it, it seems nearly normal but on reflection on what this place is and what it represents it descends into almost a dreamlike experience.
The Trinity Site is open for public visitors for one day only, twice a year (April and October) because it is located on restricted military real estate: that being the White Sands Missile Range. They still blow things up here or shoot things out of the sky. You can’t just drop in and take a gander at where it all began. This is a secure place and you go through a security gate, show identification and follow a precise route and park in a designated spot and walk several hundred yards across the desert to a fenced circular space maybe 100 yards across. You can stop along your walk to purchase a T-shirt.
There isn’t much to see. Ground Zero is just a monument and a piece of desert but if you look closely you see that you are standing in a shallow depression. It is gradual but the ground you are walking on is a round saucer with a relative depth of about eight feet caused by the tremendous compression from the blast. The surface was once covered, almost paved, with Trinitite, a greenish glass-like stone created from the quartz and feldspar sand exposed to the pressure and extreme heat from the plutonium bomb. Most of the Trinitite is gone but people are walking stooped over like beach comers looking for shells on a beach. There are examples on display. It isn’t a pretty stone…just a novelty. It is illegal to remove any from the site but they look anyway.
Positioned along the eight-foot perimeter fence are a series of official black and white photographs with captions explaining various aspects of the test site, the engineering and construction work, the bunkers used for observation and photos of the actual blast. Visitors walk along the fence and pause at each photograph like the Stations of the Cross. Looking beyond the fence you see only desert and mountains and a slight rise…almost a lip…designating the edge of the depression.
Across the enclosure, parked on its own flat-bed truck, is a full size replica of “Fat Man”, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Fat Man was over ten feet long and 60 inches in diameter…hence the name. It weighed over 10,000 pounds.
Nagasaki wasn’t the primary target on that mission. The flight crew made three bombing run passes over the main target, the city of Kokura, but clouds and smoke from earlier bombings obscured the city so they went to Nagasaki instead.
At Trinity “The Gadget”, as the first bomb was called, was assembled largely on site and then hoisted 100 feet up on a steel tower and housed in a small hut-like enclosure. The tower was vaporized and all that remains is part of a concrete footing for one of the tower’s legs. I’m surprised that that managed to survive as everything else was vaporized or blown far beyond recognition. The temperature of the blast was measured at 14,710 degrees Fahrenheit. The sound of the explosion was heard in Gallup, New Mexico, 150 miles away. None of the observation bunkers remain. They survived the blast but have been demolished in more recent years. The main viewing bunker was at 10,000 yards – over five and a half miles away. Robert Oppenheimer watched from there but many others, including General Groves, watched from a point ten miles away. Edward Teller watched from a hilltop point twenty miles away. There were a few project scientists at the time that theorized that the blast might be sufficient to ignite the oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere…no distance would have been safe in that case.
Once you have made a walking tour of the fenced enclosure and taken your photos while dodging young parents with baby carriages and folks enjoying the bomb site with the family dog, you head back to the parking area. There you board a waiting shuttle bus to carry you over to the George McDonald Ranch, located about two miles from ground zero.
The George McDonald Ranch and the residence (the 1913 Schmidt House) was the site of the actual assembly of the plutonium device. The residence is a 1700 square foot adobe and stone structure that, as fate and geology and location would have it, survived the blast with only the windows blown out. The building was at the very core of activity as the scientists and engineers assembled the bomb…in what was the master bedroom.
Over the decades the building was left to deteriorate until it was “rescued” and stabilized in 1982. The National Park Service restored the residence in 1984 to what it looked like in 1945 but it is now in need of further rehabilitation. A crew of volunteers will work on several restoration projects in the fall of 2016.
This had been a working ranch up until 1942 when the entire area was purchased as a bombing and gunnery range. There was a large livestock tank — sometimes used as a swiming pool by the bomb assembly crew — and a bunkhouse. The windmill tower survives but the stone bunkhouse is in ruins.
There is a small amount of residual radiation at the Trinity Site after seventy years. The reported radiation (for a short visit) is less than one would get from a cross-country airplane flight or an X-ray…they say. I hope my rash clears up soon…just kidding.
Actually there were a few informational picketers outside the main security gate because of some reported health issues found among local people. Whether those are related to the atomic test or other missle range activity or something totally unrelated is a good question. Across the road from the picketers were people selling (radioactive?) Trinitite samples.
* * *