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Query into tragic test begins

But finding the cause of the deadly blast may take up to six months, officials say

| Friday, Jul 27 2007 10:15 PM

Last Updated: Friday, Jul 27 2007 10:20 PM


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Strong winds rustled flags at half-staff in front of the quiet Mojave Air & Space Port on Friday.

The lobby of the Scaled Composites building remained dark as a sympathy card and flowers sat atop the front desk.

As several aircraft resumed flying in and out of the airport, Cal OSHA officials investigated the explosion that left three people dead and three seriously injured on Thursday.

Eric Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg, Charles May, 45, of Mojave and Todd Ivens, 33, of Tehachapi, died from the blast. Three others are at Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield with serious injuries.

The victims, employees of Scaled Composites, were venting 10,000 pounds of nitrous oxide at 70 degrees in a 15-second test for a new rocket motor, said Kate McGuire, spokeswoman for Cal OSHA. The test was conducted in the northeastern section of the airport.

The test was part of Scaled Composites' construction of SpaceShipTwo, an eight-seat spacecraft. The company built SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded craft to carry humans to space.

A team of five to six OSHA staffers will investigate the incident, McGuire said. The probe may take up to six months.

Investigators will "factually determine what happened" and issue citations if any safety rules were violated, she said.

The location of the explosion remained closed Friday to preserve evidence, McGuire said. The airport has reopened.

"I just don't know what to say," company director Burt Rutan said at a news conference Thursday. "It's way too early to understand why." He could not be reached for comment Friday.

The company, which was closed Friday, posted this message on its Web site: "We are doing our best to take care of the families of the deceased as well as the injured and their families, and we hope you will join us in keeping them in your thoughts and prayers."

Rutan said he will do a lot of hugging with employees and family members of the victims.

"That's the most important thing for us to do," he said.

The impact of the explosion rattled the industry and nearby residents alike.

"It shook the concrete in our building," said Larry Whitfield, an employee at Fiberset Inc., a composites and fiberglass manufacturer located at the airport.

The blast was so much louder than the plant's machinery, Whitfield said Thursday, that he and his colleagues assumed it was a sonic boom from an unusually low-flying craft.

The explosion left no smoke plume, Whitfield said, but emergency vehicles soon showed up, making it clear something had gone wrong.

"It was one heck of an explosion," Whitfield said.

Ebony Walton, meanwhile, was at her house near the airport before starting her cashier shift at the Shell station.

"I thought it was an earthquake," Walton said.

The back-to-back cracks were reminiscent of a sonic boom, she said, but the "shake of it" was like no sonic boom she'd ever experienced.

"I knew it was different," Walton said. "I felt it."

-- Californian staff writer Gretchen Wenner contributed to this report.