Many years ago when I was a boy on my parents small farm we inadvertently turned a cow into a bomb. This is the story.
When I was about 10 or 12 years old our trusty milk cow named Bessie that had provided us with fresh milk my entire life died after a short illness. She had served us for many years and I suspect that she was just getting too old to continue. It was common in those days that dead farm animals in my area were often just disposed of in one of the many sinkholes that dot the Tennessee landscape. We did no different. Bessie the cow was unceremoniously dragged to, and dumped in a very large sinkhole on the backside of our property. The incident was forgotten and we moved on, until about a week later.
The phone rang early one morning, it was the neighboring farm owner. His comment was short and to the point. “That dead cow smells really good at breakfast time.” We got the message loud and clear. Although the sinkhole was at the back of our farm, the front of his farm as well as his house was just about 200 yards up the hill from the sinkhole we had decided to dispose of Bessie in. We went down to the sinkhole, and sure enough the smell was beyond description. We approached from the upwind side of the sinkhole and were almost overcome with disgust long before we reached the location. Leaning over the edge we peered into the depths. There was Bessie the cow. She had turned purple and swelled up like a child’s party balloon. Her legs were extended skyward by the buildup of decomposing gases inside her. It was a bizarre sight to behold.
There was no option to move her to a different location, as any attempt to move her would have ruptured her hide and spewed her rotting entrails all over the place. The other choice was to bury her. But the hole was big, nearly thirty feet in diameter and twenty to twenty five feet deep. That would have necessitated the rental of a bulldozer and the moving of a lot of soil. So a third option was decided on, we would cremate her.
The nearby woods had been recently logged and were full of discarded brush and logging scraps. This would be a great source of fuel for the cremation. We spent the day cutting, hauling, and dragging brush and wood and tossing it on top of Bessie until we completely filled the sinkhole. While my parents and I worked at gathering the wood for the pyre, my grandfather went to town to get some diesel to start the fire with.
Now you must know that my grandfather had the ability to make a quick trip to the store into a career. We spent all day filling the hole and were completely done and were sitting upwind sometime before he returned with the two five gallons cans of diesel fuel, shortly before sundown. We went down to the sinkhole and unscrewed the lid of the diesel can to pour over the gathered brush in the sinkhole, but it wasn’t diesel.
Instead of purchasing diesel my grandfather had purchased gasoline. We were sitting there with two five gallons cans of gasoline. And it was too late in the day to go back to town and buy diesel, besides we did not have any more cans. We looked up the hill and saw our neighbor’s house sitting there and decided we could not make him sufferer another breakfast over rotting cow. So my father proceeded to walk around the edge of the sinkhole scattering the gasoline into the brush filled hole. We never considered that the brush was breaking up the gasoline into smaller and smaller droplets. Unbeknownst to us as my dad was making sure all the brush was wet a large about of gas vapor was gathering in the bottom of the sinkhole.
We were constructing a Fuel-Air bomb without realizing it.
My dad saved the last gallon or so of gasoline and carefully poured a fuse trail leading about 10 yards or so from the sinkhole.
My grandfather, grandmother, mother, and myself stood at the top of a hill about 75 yards away as my dad lit a piece of paper on fire and slowly bent down to light the gasoline fuse. He never got all the way there. When he was about a foot or so from the gasoline trail on the ground the vapors ignited. Instead of a nice slow burn along the a diesel trail to the sinkhole there was a blinding flash of gasoline fueled fire that would have made any Hollywood pyrotechnic expert proud. Almost faster than the eye could see the fire flashed to the sinkhole. The resulting explosion was almost beyond belief. The nine gallons or so of vaporized gasoline in the sinkhole ignited with a horrendous concussion. My father found himself lifted from his feet and thrown about ten yards backwards. Even though we were some distance away from the explosion we were nearly knocked from our feet. It felt as though the ground had heaved under our feet. A rolling ball of black smoke and fire mushroomed two to three hundred feet into the sky. It strongly resembled the mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb. Our neighbor who had complained of the smell was standing on his porch watching the whole thing. According to him, his first thought was that we had blown ourselves up and broken every window in his house. As the mushroom shaped fire and smoke rolled into the sky pieces of burning wood, burning rotten cow flesh , and various other materials rained down from the sky. Apparently the gasoline explosion had also ignited the built up methane that had been bloating the dead cow. By the time we regained our senses the ground was littered with burning debris in a two hundred foot circle around the sinkhole. As we raced down the hill my father stumbled to his feet suffering no ill effects other than some singed hair. We approached the rim of the sinkhole, it was clean as if someone has just dug it. At the bottom was the smoldering spine and skull of Bessie the cow. We found one leg bone and hoof almost a hundred feet from the sinkhole. Although the rotting smell was completely abated, the air was now filled with the smell of burnt flesh comingled with wood smoke. Looking around the sun was setting and we decided to return the next day to clean up.
The next day we found the area around the sinkhole covered with vultures and other scavengers. Our attempt at bovine cremation had instead resulted in a veritable buffet for every scavenger in the area. Within a couple of days there was nothing left except scattered bones and charred wood. We had succeeded, but not in the way we had intended. Our neighbor on the hill later discovered two cracked windows facing the direction of the explosion, and local gossip was that the explosion was heard or felt as far as six miles away.