So it turns out killing Karen Silkwood wasn’t as straightforward as the culprits thought it was going to be. The circumstances surrounding her death remain a mystery even to this day – what really happened to her?
Mother of The Year?
I’ve always had mixed emotions about this particular story due to the character of Karen Silkwood. I’m not one to judge but she wasn’t exactly mother of the year!
She was born in Texas in 1946 and had a pretty ordinary childhood. She attended college for only a year before she was introduced to an oil worker who would become her husband – they married and had three kids.
When her eldest child was just five years old she abandoned her family and moved to Oklahoma City. She told the children she was just popping out to grab some cigarettes and never returned…
Out On Her Own
She was out on her own and she needed money quick so she took on a reasonably low paying job as a metallography technician at the Cimarron plutonium plant operated by Kerr-McGee.
There were numerous mundane duties involved with her job including polishing fuel rods packed with radioactive plutonium pellets – not the safest job one would of thought!
Not long into the job she was introduced to a few members of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union. She was interested in what they had to say so she agreed to join up with them.
Shortly after her inclusion the union decided to stage a strike at the Cimarron plutonium plant. It’s safe to say the strike was not a well thought out process and it failed miserably.
Most of the workers decided that the union was run by idiots and pulled out after this spectacular failure but not Karen. She stayed on as a member of the bargaining committee and was then asked to investigate deeper into the health and safety issues at the plant.
The summer of 1974 proved to be a very important one in the life of Karen Silkwood – she found discrepancies in the health and safety of the plant and she was asked to testify to the Atomic Energy Commission.
She uncovered proof of spills, leaks and faulty fuel rods. Most alarming of all was her report on the amount of plutonium that had gone missing – enough to build numerous nuclear weapons.
This was all aimed at the company and she claimed they had tried their best to cover up the shady dealings and falsify the records.
After her testimony against the company strange things began to happen in her life. On November the 5th of that year she discovered almost by accident that she had somehow been exposed to massive amounts of plutonium.
She was sent home on the sick and told to self test herself the following morning – surely there had been some kind of mistake?
There was no mistake – the next morning she was again a positive reading on the testing kit. She had not handled any dangerous materials for quite some time so how had this happened?
On the 7th of November she went through further tests to find out the extent of the poisoning. She was found to have plutonium contamination inside her lungs and was sent for yet more tests at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The Whistle Blower
Something was very wrong here – Karen was convinced this was the work of Kerr-McGee in an effort to shut her up.
There were high radiation levels found at her home but the readings in her car and locker at work were suspiciously low.
On November the 13th she decided that enough was enough so she contacted a New York reporter and a national representative of her union and set up a secret meeting with them. She claimed to have evidence that would blow the story wide open!
She never made the meeting – her car mysteriously crashed half way there and she was killed instantly. She was only 28 years old when she died.
They found Quaaludes in her bloodstream and came to the conclusion she must of fallen asleep at the wheel. Her family did not take to this explanation one bit!
They stressed that there were deep skid marks at the scene of the accident – how could she of pressed the brakes so fiercely if she was asleep?
On closer inspection of the car wreck they also noticed that the rear bumper had numerous dents and paint scrapings along it – was this proof of being forced off the road?
And where was this important evidence that she was going to share with the reporter from the New York Times? Nothing was ever found in her car!
If Kerr-McGee were responsible for killing Karen Silkwood then her family were going to prove it! Her biological father was joined by the Karen Silkwood children and they filed a suit against the company.
This proved to be a harrowing experience for all concerned as the family’s lawyers were harassed, intimidated and even physically assaulted. They also had a star witness who mysteriously decided to commit suicide half way through the trial…
After many twists and turns in the court case Kerr-McGee finally decided to settle outside of court for a fee of just over $1.3 million. There was one slight catch to the money though – Kerr-McGee admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
Killing Karen Silkwood
So was Karen Silkwood murdered or did she deliberately contaminate herself to help blow the whistle on Kerr-McGee?
Was this a legitimate way for a rich company to shut up one of it’s employees or were the poor health standards she reported to blame?
It’s quite disturbing to think that someone had the power to either poison her with plutonium and then drive her off the road but it is a viable reality…
What do you think?