shift of July 31 and she reported this to
union officials in Washington, along with
her charges of defective fuel pins. It was at
this point that Karen was informed of the
link between plutonium and cancer and
the terrible dangers of contamination.
Steve Wodka, | young union official reacted strongly to her charges. "If they
were true," he said, "the consequences
were very deep and very grave, not only
for the people in the plant, but for the entire atomic industry and the welfare of
"If badly made pins were placed into a
reactor without deficiencies being caught,
there could be an incident exposing thousands of people to radiation," he warned.
Karen was asked by union officials to
document health and safety violations,
which she did constantly. Her mother recalls Karen's boyfriend telling her that
Karen dropped from 112 pounds to 94
during that time.
But on November 5, things took a turn
for the worse. After a day of working in
the Metallography Lab, Silkwood was
found to have contamination on her overalls of up to 20,000 disintegrations per
minute (Kerr-McGee's limit is set at 500
d/m). She was taken to a shower for decontamination, a procedure that calls for
scrubbing three times with a mixture of
Tide and Clorox.
"By Thursday," she told her friends, "it
hurt to cry because the salt in my tears
burned my skin."
Fecal and urine samples taken Tuesday
and Wednesday showed the presence of
new levels of plutonium in her body. On
Thursday, November 7, she brought in
more samples that reached very high levels.
It was decided to check her apartment for
A team from Kerr-McGee took preliminary readings and found that the apartment was "hot." The highest levels of contamination appeared to be in the bathroom and the kitchen. And the hottest
items of all were the bologna and cheese
sandwiches in the refrigerator.
After her death, the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission decided that someone had
contaminated both the urine samples and
the items in the refrigerator.
Kerr-McGee has used this point to try
to prove that Silkwood contaminated the
samples herself. They have accused her of
being an unbalanced, hysterical young
woman obsessed with her union work and
willing to do anything to prove a point.
But, Niami Hanson, a local anti-nuclear
activist and member of the Mockingbird
Alliance says, "The charges that Kerr-
McGee made are ridiculous. Exposure to
plutonium gives cancer and that is a painful way to die—no one would do that just
to embarrass a company."
The decontamination squad from the
plant removed everything from Silkwood's
apartment that showed signs of radiation
—including clothes and personal effects—
and stowed them in huge drums for burial.
After the traumatic experience of seeing
her house stripped bare of its possessions,
Silkwood called her parents.
"The child told me that she had been
Karen's parents MERLE and BILL SILKWOOD of Nederland, Texas
contaminated by plutonium and she was
crying her heart out," her mother remembers. "I asked her what I could do and if
she wanted to come home and I remember her saying, 'there's nothing you can
do for me, it's a long, slow death.' There's
no telling just what that girl had on her
Karen lived for six more days, but most
of that time was taken up with officials
of the NRC and Oklahoma State Health
Department, who were trying to figure out
the extent of her contamination.
From November 10 through November 12 Silkwood, her boyfriend Drew
Stephens and her roommate Sherri Ellis
were flown to Los Alamos, New Mexico,
where experiments were made to see how
badly they had been contaminated.
The doctors were able to put Karen's
mind at ease, at least about the short-term
effect, not about the long-term dangers,
On November 13, the final day of
Silkwood's life, she met with union officials at a local cafe to discuss contract
negotiations. She told them she was on
the way to meet union official Steve
Wodka and New York Times reporter
In a sworn affadavit, one of the union
officials stated, "Karen appeared to be
somewhat weary on that day, but she was
alert, speaking clearly and acting normally
and it would never have crossed my mind
that she could not drive the car safely."
Yet in less than an hour, Karen was
dead. In discussing whether Kerr-McGee
officials actually intended to have Karen
murdered, Diana Kohn, wife of Rolling
Stone writer Howard Kohn, the first reporter on the story says, "People feel that
she was definitely pushed off the road.
"But, the culvert could not be seen from
the road, so it was possible that the intent
to murder was not there. However, there
was enough circumstantial evidence to show
that they knew she was going to a meet
ing with those documents and it was probably a last ditch effort to stop her. The
question is, at what point does the intent
to harass become murder?"
Remembering the terror and grief of
that night, Merle Silkwood says, "We
were all beside ourselves, if we'd really
been on our toes we would all have flown
immediately up there. But, we just did
not know what she had been involved in."
What the Silkwoods decided to do was
send a telegram requesting an autopsy.
But, Merle remembers that at 3 a.m. they
were called by the mortician who, she
says, "begged" them to fly up because
the government was taking her body to a
military hospital for an autopsy. "We had
asked for an autopsy," she said, "but they
just decided to go over our heads."
In retrospect, Merle Silkwood also regrets that they did not take pictures of
the place where Karen's car went off the
highway. "There were skid marks where
Karen's car left the road. It wasn't two
weeks after she died that we passed the
spot and saw the county paving over that
tiny section of road. The county officials
said they had the repairs on the books for
two years, but I find it hard to believe
they just wanted to fix that little spot."
National attention was focused on
Silkwood's mysterious death almost immediately and supporters gathered around
the Silkwood family. In November 1976,
after Justice Department and Congressional inquiries foundered, Silkwood's
father filed an $11.5 million lawsuit which
he hoped would resolve many of the unanswered questions around his daughter's
The suit charged that Kerr-McGee's
negligence resulted in Silkwood's contamination which would have eventually led
to her death. Further, it accused Kerr-
McGee of conspiring against the Civil
Rights Act by violating both her personal
rights and her rights as a union member.
The last two counts have been sent to
the 10th Circuit Court on appeal and the
decision on that will be handed down in a
year. But, it will definitively answer
whether a union member can be protected under the Civil Rights Act. To
date, Kohn says, it has been used to protect minorities and women, but not
Before the Silkwood-Kerr-McGee trial
even came to court, two judges had been
disqualified. Luther Eubank was disqualified because, Kohn said, he made "outrageous statements" and Luther Bohan-
non was once Senator Robert Kerr's (of
the Kerr-McGee Corrj.) campaign manager.
However, the Silkwood camp seems to
be pleased with Wichita judge Frank Theis,
whom they say is "good on the law."
The trial opened last March 6, in Oklahoma City.
"The Scopes trial (on the theory of
evolution) looks like a game of scrabble
compared to this. Clarence Darrow was
talking about freedom of thought to explore ideas. This trial is for the survival of
the species," said Garry Spence, one of
the Silkwood lawyers.
The trial is currently in its 10th week
and in mid-May the opposing lawyers will
present their cases to the jury before it
goes into deliberation. No one knows
how long that will take because the Silkwood and Kerr-McGee lawyers have been
"so far apart on so many issues," say
those close to the case.
The difference between the two teams
of lawyers is another interesting aspect of
the trial. On the Silkwood side are four
lawyers, Danny Sheehan, Jim Ikard, Art
Angel and Gerry Spence. Sheehan has .
been on the case from the beginning and
has mapped out the basic strategy and
been responsible for recruiting the other
members of the team.
A one-time protege of F. Lee Bailey,
the 33-year old Sheehan is a veteran of
the Pentagon Papers trial. "I love this
case," he says, "I know it's a landmark
trial, but it is just one in a series of cases
that have to be tried for the public's good
Art Angel was the Federal Trade Commission prosecutor in a 1977 funeral
home scandal and local counselor Jim
Ikard has been able to thwart Kerr-McGee's numerous attempts to get the case
These three young lawyers were responsible for recruiting Gerry Spence, a
Wyoming trial lawyer well-known for his
success in personal injury cases. He is also
famous for his flamboyant courtroom
techniques, including his flaunting of a
At first a skeptic, Spence was dubious
about getting involved in a "nuke trial"
but as his comment on the Scopes trial
indicates, he is now totally involved with
Kerr-McGee's chief counselor Bill Paul,
is the past president of the Oklahoma Bar
Association. He and the six other lawyers
on the case have been termed the "men in
gray" by Gerry Spence. And according to
Merle Silkwood, her husband Bill says,
"There is nothing more boring than