On November 9, 1970, George Thornton, an engineer at the Oregon Department of Transportation, had a mission: remove a 45-foot sperm whale washed ashore the Oregon coast just south of the Siuslow River. But how?
As The Oregonian‘s Stuart Tomlinson puts it in Thornton’s obituary in 2013:
ODOT officials struggled with what to do with the whale. Rendering plants said no thanks. Burying was iffy because the waves would likely have just uncovered the carcass. It was too big to burn.
So the plan was hatched: Let’s blow it up, scatter it to the wind and let the crabs and seagulls clean up the mess. So Thornton and his crew packed 20 cases of dynamite around the leeward side of the whale, thinking most of it would blow into the water. At 3:45 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, the plunger was pushed.
The whale blew up, all right, but the 1/4 mile safety zone wasn’t quite large enough. Whale blubber and whale parts fell from the sky, smashing into cars and people. No one was hurt, but pretty much everyone was wearing whale bits and pieces.
At that moment on November 12, 1970—45 years ago today—the decaying whale erupted into the public consciousness and eventually became a viral sensation. It was keyboard cat before cats had keyboards. “[It] went viral before the internet had the infrastructure to support viral videos,” Andrew David Thaler wrote in Vice‘s definitive history, “when mailing a six minute clip via USPS was faster than downloading.”