44 years later, the death of Karen Silkwood is still a mystery
CRESCENT, Okla. (KTUL) —
The lonely stretch of Highway 74 outside of Crescent, Oklahoma isn’t anything remarkable.
But 44 years ago, what happened here would ignite a national debate, inspire an Oscar nominated movie and become a constant source of unanswered questions.
“Your mother should be half your life, your father and your mother,” said Michael Meadows.
To Michael, Karen Silkwood was ‘Mom.’ She was born in Texas and grew up to be strong willed and intelligent. Her qualities perfectly suited her for her job at the Kerr-McGee nuclear production plant outside of Crescent.
“Think of the things she missed in her life. It’s just, it’s tough to think about it,” said Michael.
In the fall of 1974, 28-year-old Karen was in the middle of a union battle with Kerr-McGee over worker safety violations. When she found out she was contaminated with a lethal dose of plutonium, it was time to talk.
She and the union reached out to New York Times reporter, David Burnham.
They scheduled to meet in Oklahoma City on November 13, 1974. Karen had just left town and was driving on Highway 74. About five minutes into her drive, her car ran off the road and hit a culvert. She died instantly.
David Burnham had waited a couple hours for Karen, but she never showed. He said they called the local police there and found out she’d been in a car wreck.
“It was an eerie night, you know,” said David. “Driving through the straight Oklahoma highway to get there.”
Before he wrote his first article, suspicions were already running high. Was it a tragic car accident? Or something sinister?
When the first story came out, he wrote that union investigators had concluded she’d been run off the road because there was damage and different colored paint chips in her rear bumper.
“Would Kerr-McGee, this massive corporation, murder one of its employees? That’s a very big deal, very big step for them to take,” said David.
He said when he got to the scene of the accident, he spotted a bloody notebook. What he didn’t see- a folder, that Karen supposedly carried with her that contained all the evidence against Kerr-McGee.
“Proving the existence of a folder that wasn’t in the car is hard,” said David.
He said it’s possible she was murdered, but it seems unlikely that someone could have planned for her car to hit the culvert the way it did.
“There just isn’t evidence, it’s an irritating thing when you write a newspaper story, you want it to be definite and positive,” said David.
“To me, I don’t think somebody set out to kill her. I think they set out to scare her and she died. Then it became an, ‘oh my gosh’ what do we do?” said Michael.
In the official report, investigators wrote Karen fell asleep at the wheel. It’s a theory that Michael isn’t buying.
“If you’re going to go the whole ‘sleep’ theory, she fell asleep within five minutes on one of the most stressful nights of her life,” said Michael.
Karen’s father, Bill Silkwood, sued Kerr-McGee for negligence. The lawsuit was based on the fact that plutonium was found in her system, not the car accident. After years of back and forth, the lawsuit was eventually settled but Kerr-McGee never admitted any wrongdoing.
“This was the vault where they kept the plutonium,” said Tom Stewart, opening a large concrete door.
The old Kerr-McGee building was shuttered in 1975, after the government found violations. It’s now owned by Tom, owner of Stewart Industries International LLC. They manufacture air plane parts here.
All over the building, there are remnants of the building’s history.
“That’s about 30 feet deep,” said Tom. “They would put the rods down there and store them,” said Tom, while pointing out the deep holes that stored the plutonium rods.
Walking around the building, it’s clear to see Karen was right. There are places on the walls where a foot of concrete has been shaved off and holes where remediation crews tested for contamination.
“Obviously, there were problems here. I think that was what Karen was going to report on when she met her demise,” said Tom.
Tom said people in town still speculate about what may have happened to Karen. Some folks say, they remember seeing papers everywhere at the crash scene. Others theorize, she may have been causing trouble in a town where good jobs are hard to come by.
“It’s not been put to rest,” said Tom. “If it were, you wouldn’t be here today.”
Michael was five when Karen died and around 30 when he heard her voice for the first time on a documentary.
“It was just one of the weirdest things,” said Michael. “Not having that memory to draw on, it was...tough.”
He said he knows there isn’t much time left to find out what happened to his mom, because those who know what took place have been quiet for so long.