In A Nutshell
During the 1960s, Army scientists were experimenting with a deadly nerve agent known as VX. They ran a series of tests in the Utah desert, but on March 13, 1968, something went horribly wrong. Thanks to a defective nozzle, an airplane accidentally spilled the toxin on the way to its destination. The wind carried the VX into Skull Valley, a popular farming community, and killed thousands of sheep. But that was better than the alternative: If the wind had been blowing the other way, Salt Lake City was well within range.
The Whole Bushel
In 1978, Stephen King published what many consider his best work: The Stand. King’s magnum opus takes place in post-apocalyptic America after a superflu virus has wiped out most of the population. But despite its fictional elements, the story was actually inspired by a real event, a disaster more terrifying than anything King ever wrote.
The nightmare started in 1952 when a chemist named Ranajit Ghosh created a deadly pesticide that was perfect for killing lice. Sold under the name “Amiton,” Ghosh’s compound was extremely effective. In fact, it was too effective. The stuff was so poisonous that it was removed from stores, but Ghosh’s deadly chemical caught the eye of the American military. It was just the kind of thing they were looking for.
The chemical made its way into the hands of Army scientists working at the Dugway Proving Grounds, a site just 135 kilometers (85 mi) southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. The Dugway Proving Ground is a massive complex with 800,000 acres of labs and testing sites. Its purpose was to test chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Naturally, they were intrigued by Ghosh’s toxin, and they immediately set about turning the chemical into a weapon. The result was VX, one of the most dangerous substances on the planet. You can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, it’s about three times more powerful than Sarin, and it causes you to die in a very painful way. VX shuts down the part of the body that produces the enzymes that let our muscles relax. If you came into contact with just 10 milligrams of the stuff, all your muscles would start contracting—about 10 minutes later, you’d be dead from asphyxiation. Scientists were thrilled.
The Army was eager to test their new wonder weapon, and on March 13, 1968, they began a series of experiments. They fired it from a massive gun, and then they set the stuff on fire. Everything went off without a hitch. It was the third test where they hit a slight snag. A plane was loaded with a ton of VX, and the pilot was ordered to dump the stuff in the desert. However, everybody was so busy with the tests that they didn’t notice the spray nozzle was defective. As the plane flew toward its target, the nerve agent leaked steadily out of the plane and rode the wind in the direction of a farming community called Skull Valley.
Over the next few days, farmers were horrified to discover their sheep shuddering, convulsing, and dying in the most gruesome ways possible. As the days went by, more and more sheep keeled over, and the fatalities rose into the thousands. There’s some debate as to how many sheep actually died, and while the military maintains the total is 3,483, farmers claim the experiment killed over 6,000 of their livestock. Things got even creepier for the Peck family when they woke up to find their property covered with dead birds. Then, like a scene out of, well, a Stephen King novel, scientists showed up to dispose of the animals and take blood samples from the family members. None of the Pecks died, but to this day, they claim their severe headaches, mysterious numbness, and abnormally high number of miscarriages were due to the Dugway experiments.
Coupled with several other military blunders, the Dugway Sheep Incident stirred up a lot of public anger and resentment toward biological and chemical weapons. Getting the hint, Richard Nixon worked to ratify the Geneva Protocol against chemical agents, and he even shut down the Army group in charge of developing them. However, the Army itself has never admitted fault for the incident. Even when the government released a document in 1998 asserting there was enough VX to kill all those sheep, the Army refused to acknowledge it was in any way responsible for the incident, an incident that could have been much worse. If the wind had been blowing in the opposite direction, the VX could have floated over to Salt Lake City, and Utah’s capital might have turned into the wasteland described in Stephen King’s chilling novel.